The Golden Era of Smuggling
When flour and blankets were more precious than gold, the
Maine-Canada border was the place to be, and smuggling was a way of
Officer Stephen Humbert had the law on
his side when he was sent to put a stop to the smuggling of gypsum, a
mineral, across the border between Maine and New Brunswick at
What he didn't have was the support of Canadians and Americans in the
border communities for whom smuggling had been a way of life for years.
Humbert, himself a former smuggler, quickly became the most hated man in
the borderland region. He pursued Canadian smugglers to Lubec, Maine,
only to have townspeople flock to the shore with rocks in hand to drive
him away. Riots broke out in protest of the Canadian government's
crackdown. Gangs of American smugglers combed the bay looking for
As a last resort, Humbert called in the British Royal Navy. But even
large warships in the bay were no match against the long-standing
protectionism and community support for smuggling in the region.
Smuggling of gypsum, which was used as a fertilizer for wheat and in
making plaster of paris, continued.
"The Plaster War reached its height in 1820," says maritime historian
Joshua Smith. "The governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick wanted
control over the smuggling of gypsum into the U.S. because taxes weren't
being paid. They cracked down by sending Stephen Humbert to the border,
but he met with massive resistance from Canadians and Americans. The
crossborder level of violence makes the Plaster War important, yet its
story has not found its way into history books."
Joshua Smith's research promises to improve our understanding of the
subtle intersection of political, economic and social issues that
shaped illegal and international trade, says Scott See, UMaine Libra
Professor of History. "His work will give us a deeper appreciation
of transborder events in North American history."
Photo by Monty Rand
Such omissions prompted Smith to focus
his Ph.D. research at The University of Maine on the history of
smuggling in the state. In particular, Smith is studying "the golden era
of smuggling" the years before, during and after the War of 1812. It
was a time of rising nationalism and border control, of economic
instability and patriotism versus the need to feed one's family and the
specter of treason.
"In some ways, there's nothing more American than making a buck by
trading," says Smith, who recently received a Fulbright Scholarship to
continue his research in Canada. "However, selling goods to the enemy in
time of war is clearly treason. It is an awkward dilemma. People living
on the border resented war because it intruded on their lives, but they
were not necessarily unpatriotic."
While smuggling was an important problem in American-Canadian relations,
it also was a social force within border communities. For the poorest
fisherman to the wealthiest community leader, smuggling provided the
low-priced, everyday goods such as flour and blankets needed to eke out
an existence. Profits from smuggling often went back into communities to
build churches and goodwill.
No place in North America did it better than the Maine communities on
the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay.
"There was smuggling all along the Maine coast," Smith says, "but, the
activity was most concentrated in Eastport. Merchants moved from New
York City to Eastport. If they wanted manufactured goods, this was where
they needed to be. Eastport had national and continental importance, to
the point that the rest of the country began to regard Maine
suspiciously. While the rest of the country was suffering economically,
Maine was prospering.
"Smuggling was a way of life in Maine through the Civil War."
Smith's research promises to improve our understanding of the subtle
intersection of political, economic and social issues that shaped
illegal and international trade, says Scott See, UMaine Libra Professor
of History. "His work will give us a deeper appreciation of transborder
events in North American history."
Smith can identify with 19th-century mariners. The Cape Cod native has a
long family history on the high seas. Like their father, Smith and his
brothers worked on the water. Smith's grandfather was a merchant mariner
and in the Coast Guard during World War II. Men before him were sea
After receiving a degree in history from Scotland's University of St.
Andrews, Smith went to Maine Maritime Academy for an associate degree
and a professional mariner's yacht operations license. As a licensed
mariner, he sailed ferryboats off Massachusetts and cruise ships in the
Smith received a master's degree in maritime history and underwater
archaeology from East Carolina University before joining the UMaine
community in 1997. In his Ph.D. work, Smith has tapped University
resources in maritime history and Canadian studies to get a clearer
picture of the turn-of-the-19th-century history of Maine's coast.
"When I was going to Maine Maritime Academy, local history books talked
about smuggling during the War of 1812, when the British occupied
Castine, but the details were vague," he says. "The fact that smuggling
was so prevalent in reality yet disguised in the histories hooked right
In his dissertation, "The Rogues of 'Quoddy: Smuggling in the Maine-New
Brunswick Borderlands, 1783-1820," Smith chronicles the booming business
that made the Eastport area one of the most notorious smuggling regions
in North America at that time. It was to the point, Smith says, that "if
you were headed to 'Quoddy, it was assumed you were involved in illicit
In addition, he also is exploring the subtext of this period in history
why people concealed the truth about smuggling in subsequent years.
"Right after the American Revolution, Maine was full of people who
fought in the war and ideally shouldn't have been getting along with
those in New Brunswick, a loyalist province harboring exiles like
Benedict Arnold," Smith says. "Yet after the war they were trading, even
when it was illegal. There's the paradox."
Canada and the British colonies had access to manufactured goods such as
silk and tinware that Mainers didn't have after the war, Smith says.
Maritime provinces needed flour. Nova Scotia also had gypsum, considered
a valuable fertilizer for wheat.
"In addition to the goods, there were many family bonds between the
Maritimes and New England. For so many people in the region, a border
did not distinguish Maine and the provinces. People want to trade, and
trying to restrain that proves to be expensive, embarrassing and
"If you don't let people trade, they will be smugglers. From there, it's
a short step to more heinous crimes like piracy."
Despite the regional ties, America as a young nation was trying to take
control of its borders. President Thomas Jefferson requested all
international commerce stop between America and foreign countries;
Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807. But Jefferson failed to
understand the nature of maritime communities. The embargo lasted a
The federal government repeatedly tried to stem the smuggling tide,
Smith says. "If there was a local official of the government in the
area, he was quickly overwhelmed by the resistance of united
communities. Even deputizing others didn't help. The result was the
federal government sent in the U.S. Army and Navy to stop the smuggling,
but the locals continued to be good at subverting this force."
Tactics to undermine authority ranged from threats to burn down the
homes of federal customhouse officers to supplying alcohol to officials
with a weakness for drink. "The methods to get around the officials were
largely nonviolent and as unsophisticated as the smuggling," says Smith.
"Often it was a matter of waiting until darkness fell or the fog rolled
in, then running like hell."
The typical smuggler was a fisherman, Smith says. Then there were the
merchants from New York, adventurers seen as troublesome by communities.
They were more violent, bringing heat from the government with them.
Using informants who were lured by financial incentives, the government
did succeed in seizing some merchandise. However, the climate such
informants created took its toll on communities.
"Huge amounts of goods were seized and auctioned by the federal
government," Smith says. "As part of the transaction, seizing officers
and informants received some of the proceeds. The idea that some local
people could benefit from the embargo by being informants ripped
At the same time, major smuggling venues like Eastport benefited from
the illegal imports and exports. From 1808-20, despite widespread
economic hardship throughout the country, Eastport grew from a little
fishing village to "a respectable town with a newspaper, banks and other
institutions," says Smith.
Many of the large historical sea captains' mansions still standing in
Maine communities speak of prosperity, respectability and order. The
homeowners were often cultured, educated people, pillars of their
communities, town fathers. More than likely, they also had smuggling
profits to pay for their lifestyles, Smith says.
Maine's first governor, William King, was a wealthy merchant from Bath
who was in charge of the state militia. "During the War of 1812, King
found he could make a good profit selling provisions to the British
military. In return, he got blankets from the British to sell to the
American military and make a profit.
"He was elected governor in 1820. In 1824, in an attempt to discredit
him, a pamphlet was published detailing his illegal activities. The plan
backfired because the attitude of Maine people toward smuggling in those
early days was, So what?'"
Today when Smith shares his history research with people in Maine
coastal communities, they are intrigued. It is a give-and-take between
people and their history that Smith believes is important, "because it
then becomes a local resource."
by Margaret Nagle
December, 2001/January, 2002
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.