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The Golden Era of Smuggling

Alfred Thompson Bricher (American, 1837-1908) Coast Landscape c. 1878, Oil

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 life.

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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 Passamaquoddy Bay.

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 Humbert.

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
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 captains.

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 Caribbean.

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 into me."

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 activity."

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 completely ineffective.

"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 year.

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 communities apart."

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

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