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It's Not Easy Being William Jenkins

In previous postings, we’ve alluded to how Newburyport on the eve of the American Revolution was a hotbed for smuggling activities.

Traditionally, Newburyport has always been an ideal location for smugglers to operate from. The Merrimack River, as well as the Plum Island and Salisbury coastlines provided ideal havens for criminals to unload their goods underneath the nose of royal custom officers stationed in Newburyport. Of course, the illicit operations were so successful that in 1766 it caught the attention of Governor Francis Bernard. The leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony was horrified by the reports coming out of Newburyport and ordered Surveyor General John Temple to crack down on the illegal activity. After careful consideration, he turned operational oversight of the mission over to William Jenkins.

Jenkins was a “tidewaiter” assigned to the royal custom office in Newburyport. As a tidewaiter, he was responsible for boarding ships that had arrived in port and ensuring custom regulations and procedures were strictly followed during cargo inspections. The custom officer readily accepted his assignment and went to work gathering intelligence from the few willing informants he had. He quickly discovered Newburyport smugglers were bringing in goods from two separate locations: the French colonies in the West Indies and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Jenkins wasted no time and moved against a Newburyport schooner that was smuggling goods to and from Saint Petersburg. “I have learned from private intelligence that the Schooner which brought in these goods is a common trader to St. Petersburg … She was seized upon an information that She had tobacco on board.” Surprisingly, royal custom officers did not keep a close watch on the vessel and left it unguarded. A group of Newburyport men quickly boarded the vessel and removed the illicit tobacco before custom officers could locate it. Without any evidence, Jenkins was forced to release the vessel.

The custom officer did not give up and made a second attempt to seize the same ship. On March 9, 1766, the vessel returned from a subsequent voyage to Russia, Jenkins moved singlehandedly to seize the schooner and its cargo. In response, a large group of Newburyport dockworkers and laborers rushed the custom officer, overpowered him, boarded the ship and carried off the illicit goods . As Jenkin’s superior later noted, “After She was discharged She went immediately to St. Peters & returned with a cargo ... Upon this occasion People do not wonder at the goods being rescued, but at an Officer’s being so hardy & foolish (as they say) as to seize them & think he would be able to retain them. Under the present Dominion of the people I have never expected that Any goods, tho’ ever so notoriously forfeited, would be seized, or secured, or prosecuted.”

To his credit, the events of March 9th did not deter Jenkins from trying to stop Newburyport smuggling operations. The next day, the custom officer watched as the same schooner engaged in unusual activity between Rings Island and the mouth of the Merrimack River. According to official reports, Jenkins believed there had been “goods landed from said schooner contrary to Acts of Trade.” He gathered several of his men, boarded a batteau and went to investigate.

Late in the afternoon, Jenkins and his men stumbled across four barrels of sugar and twelve hogsheads and four tierces of molasses hidden on a narrow strip of beach located on the Salisbury side of the mouth of the Merrimack River. The custom officer quickly declared the items to be smuggled goods and ordered his men to load them onto the batteau. Little did Jenkins know that he was being watched by the owners of the hidden stash the entire time.

As the custom officials were loading the batteau, six boatloads of “armed Men in Disguise” arrived to rescue the goods. They quickly drove Jenkins and his men back, seized the barrels and hogshead and quickly escaped. To add insult to injury, the raiders stole the custom officers’ boat, leaving them stranded on the beachhead.

As the sun set, it started to snow heavily. Stranded and facing no hope of rescue until the next morning, Jenkins and his men were forced to huddle together for warmth, “sheltering from a snow storm as best they could.”

Governor Bernard was quickly informed of the incident by John Temple. Enraged, the governor and his council issued a proclamation seeking the apprehension of Jenkins’s attackers and the recovery the smuggled goods. Bernard even offered a handsome reward of £50 for any information about “these riotous and unlawful proceedings” and a pardon to anyone who might turn king’s evidence. No one in Newburyport came forward.

On March 17, 1766, John Temple upped the ante and added “a reward of 100 dollars” for any information leading to the arrest of Jenkins’ assailants. Although “private intelligence” provided by an informer revealed the comings and goings of a Newburyport vessel trading illegally with the French island of St. Pierre in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the residents of Newburyport remained tight lipped about who was behind the March 10th attack on the custom officers.

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