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"We Could Not Have Engaged in a More Lucrative Business" - The Smuggling Exploits of Sarah

Whelp….we put this off long enough. Shame on us. It’s long overdue that we discuss the early 19th century smuggling exploits of Sarah Smith Emery of Newburyport.

Sarah was born in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1787. During the War of 1812 Emery and her husband dominated the Newburyport smuggling trade. In 1879 her daughter published Sarah’s memoirs, entitled Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian. A large segment of the writings describe her exploits of smuggling imported goods literally under the noses of local custom officers. However, Sarah’s writings also recount her daily experiences as a child in Federalist Massachusetts.

So how did Sarah get her start in the smuggling trade?

In 1807, war raged between England and France. Unfortunately, the United States was caught in the middle of the conflict and saw its merchant fleet repeatedly harassed by both the French and British Navies. In response, President Jefferson and the American Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited the United States from engaging in trade with all foreign ports.

The embargo crippled the American economy and coastal ports like Newburyport struggled to survive. As Emery noted in her biography, “The Embargo Act wholly disarranged the business of Newburyport; for a time it brought much suffering. It was but natural that opposition to the policy of the administration should he nearly universal. On the first anniversary of the passage of the act, the flags were hung at half mast, the bells were tolled, and minute guns were fired; while a procession of sailors bearing erape on their arms marched through the streets, headed- by a dismantled vessel drawn by horses on a cart. This craft bore a flag inscribed 'Death to Commeree.' On the quarter-deck stood a sailor with a glass in his hand, and a painted motto bore the words 'Which way shall I steer?' Occasionally the sailor threw the lead.”

The Embargo Act was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which enabled the President, once the wars of Europe ended, to declare the country sufficiently safe to allow foreign trade with certain nations. With the passage of this law, Emery noted that “Business revived, and shipbuilding again became active.”

Unfortunately, when war was declared in 1812, an embargo against British goods and trade was once again imposed. “In every seaport there was much distress. Labor was impeded; the most industrious were enforced to idleness; poverty took the place of plenty; this was too often followed by despondency . . . and misery. Many a noble man became a mere wreck of humanity, and many a delicately bred lady descended into an unthrifty, slatternly household drudge, while their offspring, half-clad and half-fed, mixed unrestrained amongst the very dregs of the population.”

Sarah’s husband David, a Newburyport tavern keeper, feared financial ruin. If merchants and sailors could not trade with England, they could not spend their coins in his tavern. Shortly after the declaration of war, he finally confessed his fears. “At night, after the house was still he came into my private parlor, and sinking into the large rocking-chair exclaimed, 'Wife, I fear I am ruined.' ”

However, Sarah rejected her husband’s grim outlook. “I did not share in this despondency, and soon succeeded in chasing the gloom from his brow.” Sarah quickly realized British merchants wanted to trade with New England and would undertake extraordinary measures to get their products to commercial centers like Newburyport. Shortly thereafter, Sarah Smith Emery presented a plan to her husband that would eventually lead the Emerys to become one of the most successful importers of British goods in New England.

Simply put, Sarahtold her husband they were entering the world of smuggling.

One way illegal British goods made their way into Massachusetts was to sail up the Merrimack River and take advantage of the many islands and inlets that could hide merchant vessels from American revenue cutters. The other was to bring the goods overland from Canada. According to Emery, “British manufacturers having quantities of goods upon their hands, ran cargo after cargo into their eastern provinces [in Canada], thence they were passed across the border and taken South [to Newburyport, Salem and Boston] by ox teams; as our accommodations were excellent, the teamsters made 'Emery's tavern' their headquarters.”

The couple became successful overnight. “We could not have engaged in a more lucrative business . . . At sunset I have often counted a dozen or fifteen [carts] drawn up by the sidewalk, opposite the long barn, their motley coverings of patchwork quilts, coverlets etc., presenting a gypsy-like, semi-barbarous appearance.”

On another occasion, Emery recalled “I was awakened one night by a tap upon the window of my bedroom. Somewhat startled, 1 still forebode to awaken my husband, who had retired much fatigued. Slipping on a wrapper, 1 raised the curtain and asked 'Who is there?' . . . I recognized the voice as that of Capt. Josiah Bartlett . . . at that time an active ship-master. Mr. Emery hastily dressed, when it was found that Capt. Bartlett had a stagecoach at the door, filled with merchandise, gloves, muslins, laces, vestings, ribbons, and other articles of a like description. These were hastily placed in my best bedroom, from whence they were gradually taken to the stores in town. Capt. Bartlett continued to bring goods for some time. We often had bales of valuable cloth hidden in the hay mow; some were taken to Crane Neck and stored away in the large back chamber.”

On one occasion, the Emerys received word of a lot of linen awaited pickup at the “Kennebunk wharves.” Wearing a disguise and carrying false customs papers, David retrieved the linen and returned to Newburyport with it hidden inside rum casks.

To avoid detection she routinely entertained and plied custom officers and marines with alcohol in the same tavern her illicit activities operated out of. “The collector of the customs, Mr. Ralph Cross, and Master Whitmore, another custom house official, were in the habit of walking up to the tavern of a pleasant afternoon; on one occasion I entertained the two old gentlemen in my parlor while Mr. Emery loaded a team at the barn with smuggled goods and drove away to West Newbury without exciting the slightest suspicion in the government officers, though the whole household were on the brood grin, and I was obliged to control my risibles and give a variety of private signals to the others to prevent an unseemly outburst of merriment.”

The Emerys made a fortune smuggling goods into Newburyport and naturally, Sarah enjoyed the additional benefit of picking out goods for herself. “The shawls were quite pretty, having white or buff centres and high-colored borders; they sold for four dollars apiece. I took calico for a dress and a shawl; two other shawls were sold in the house; the remainder of the goods were slyly conveyed in the evening to the store of Miss Dolly Carnes. This new stock brought a rush of custom to that spinster's establishment… Shawls were in great demand.”

The Emery’s smuggling business continued for some time after the War of 1812. Fortunately, David’s fear of financial ruin never came to fruition and he and his wife were able to ensure their family remained comfortable. With the funds they acquired from smuggling they were able to invest in legal business ventures.

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