Newburyport was a Smuggler’s Den

According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘den’ was a hideout, and a center for secret activity.      If ever a community could be labelled as such, it would have been Newburyport.      There are still secrets hidden away in our ancient place and when it came to smuggling, well-hidden still today.

Smuggling has occurred almost continuously since the beginning of the Newbury’s; but it had peaks where it was at a heightened level either due to tough economic conditions or when the laws were so onerous that it was the only way to survive.

Most historians base their studies on official records and eye witness accounts well written down and recorded somewhere.       The problem with smuggling, the whole point is NOT to record anything down.     There are three types of commerce: Regular Markets which are well-documented and taxed; Gray Markets which are economic transactions done with no paper trail, and no traceable proof of occurring and often deal with bartering or ‘cash-only’ based on trust; and finally, Black Markets which are not-taxed, and often deal with illegal products.

According to Dr. Evan Jones (University of Bristol), the trouble with the latter two is that when coming to historical records,

‘they only detail the activities of those dumb enough to get caught’

In Newbury and Newburyport, smuggling was rampant but not mentioned in official histories or recorded in any sizeable way.     And yet, America and Newburyport for that matter, was built on some form of smuggling.

In Newburyport, four time periods existed where smuggling was prominent:

1740 to 1776 (End of the French & Indian War, Molasses Act of 1733, the Enforcement of the Navigation Acts)

1807 to 1835 (Embargo of 1807, Great Fire of 1811, War of 1812 (which continued to 1816), and financial and political setbacks from 1816 to 1825)

1851 to 1860 (Human smuggling of slaves from the south, either by land or by sea

1919 to 1931 (Prohibition Era)(Smuggling of liquor from Canada, by the Black Duck)

Most of the major smuggling of any real significance occurred in the first two periods.

Newburyport was fabulously wealthy from 1740 to 1807 and most of the huge Georgian and Federal mansions built in the city come from that time.       Huge reserves of wealth were present just before the setbacks started in 1807.

As Newburyport is very proud of being the Birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard; the main reason it became that was the rampant acts of smuggling that were occurring out of Newburyport.     Therefore, it was imperative as the fifth most important port in the new United States; to have a revenue cutter up and active first thing in 1791 to put a stop to it or at least slow it down.

The Custom House was originally on Sommersby’s Landing (Bottom of Green Street).     There was a whole string of wharves in Newburyport between it and the mouth of the Merrimack.     In addition, there were also landing places in the shallower Joppa Flats which were accessible during high tide.  Much smuggling occurred at Great Neck behind Plum Island’s southern tip – which allowed a safe mooring without the watchful eyes of revenuers.      The new Custom House was installed in 1835 when most of the smuggling that was occurring in the city had largely ceased as the city focused more and more on the benefits of the Industrial Revolution.

Most smuggling occurred as ‘slight of hand’.     A ship’s cargo coming into port for the 19th century and earlier was largely unknown.  ( It wasn’t until the late 1858 that telegraph lines were laid under the ocean to connect at least Europe with America.)  A ship would be partially unloaded off-port or would slip quietly into an obscure wharf for partial unloading.   The ship’s manifest altered accordingly and then the vessel would proceed to the customs house for reporting.     Most customs agents were short-staffed, often bribed and there were corrupt “pilots” who would be complicit in guiding the ship into an obscure wharf.     As much as a third of the cargo would then be smuggled duty free and transported to waiting eager markets.

Most smuggling amongst merchants was done on a gentleman’s unwritten agreement.   It was a regular practice to distance themselves from the actual ‘smuggler’ by using a third-party go between.     A strictly understood Code of Silence was maintained with no paper trail and no testimony.

According to court records at the Sham-Robbery Trial, the defendant (from Maine) picked Newburyport as his place of committing a crime (Dec, 1814) and then blaming it on the city’s residents; because it was well known that Newburyport was a major center for smuggling.

Later Victorian historians avoided any significant coverage of the rampant smuggling that so started our nation toward the American Revolution; and modern historians have an undue reliance on the scientific method of Anthropology/Archeology which depends on ‘hard, documented records as a foundation for interpreting history.

Smuggling could be said, is one practice that wiggles itself through the cracks of such methodology and is very elusive indeed to be codified and documented.

Next week, I will post the links to all my smuggler research as it relates to the proposed (and still not concretely established as fully existing) tunnels under Newburyport.

I invite any readers of this post to check out the list below via Amazon, Google Books and through the Internet generally:


Correspondence of William Pitt when Secretary of State [later became Prime Minister of England during the American Revolution] with Colonial Governors and Military and Naval Commissioners in America, edited under the Auspices of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, Macmillan, New York, 1906.

Jones, Evan T., ‘Illicit business: accounting for smuggling in mid-sixteenth century Bristol’, Economic History Review, 54 (2001). Winner of the Economic History Society‘s “T.S. Ashton Prize” in 2001, freely available online.

Jones, Evan T, Inside the Illicit Economy: Reconstructing the Smugglers’ Trade of Sixteenth Century Bristol (Ashgate, June 2012)

“Inter-Imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600-1800”, by Wim Klooster, as posted in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009.

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013.

Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History, by Alan L. Karras, Rowman & littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2010.

Smuggling in the American Colonies, by William Smith McClellan, Moffat, Yard, New York, 1912. (With special reference to the West Indies Trade)

“The Colonial Molasses Trade”, by Gilman M. Ostrander, Agricultural History 30, No. 2, April 1956.

Trade and Empire: The British Customs Service in Colonial America, 1660-1775, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1967.

Yankees and Creoles: The Trade Between North America and the West Indies Before the American Revolution, by Richard Pares, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1956.

-P. Preservationist





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