The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 8: February 2008


Smuggling and Contraband in the War of 1812

By Jon Latimer

‘Free trade’ has been the watchword of smugglers throughout history, and smuggling was an important feature of the period leading up to the War of 1812, and of the war itself. Indeed, American smuggling, particularly of foodstuffs into Upper and Lower Canada, was a major material support to the British Army’s position in North America. Similarly the Royal Navy was in large part sustained in its operations along the US coastline, and in the enforcement of its blockade of that coast, by the supply of provisions from onshore.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century the two main areas of contention between Britain and the United States were the impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy, and the rights of neutrals to trade with Napoleonic controlled Europe. Both Britain and France sought to restrict and even attack the other’s trade in what was an early example of economic warfare, something always vulnerable to smuggling. In response President Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy was built upon trade restrictions that culminating in the Embargo Act of spring 1808. But these measures proved worse than useless, particularly along the Canadian frontier where smuggling and violence to customs officers was common. This in turn led to the Enforcement Act of 1809 that gave the army and navy extensive powers to act against smuggling.1

Yet during the Embargo the quantity of goods reaching Canada may actually have doubled, according to contemporary observers, and smuggling became such good business that special ‘embargo roads’ were hacked through northern forests to facilitate it, while shots were exchanged with troops in the so-called ‘Potash Rebellion.’2 Potash was a by-product of burning waste timber when farmers cleared their land and was used by the British to make lye, glass, soap, fertilizer and the gunpowder needed to fight the French, and it was worth $250-350 a ton in Montreal.

Among the most prominent smugglers of this period was Jacob Jennings Brown, known as ‘Potash’ Brown, or ‘Smuggler’ Brown, and who gave the name ‘Brown’s Smugglers Road’ to one trace through the woods. Born in 1775 of Quaker parents, he had been successively a schoolteacher and land speculator before becoming the founder of Brownville near Sackets Harbor, and would later rise to the rank of major-general in the US Army and America’s most successful and effective commander of the war. But he would never shed his nicknames or his reputation.3

The real sufferers from these policies were American seamen, and to avoid the Embargo shipowners, who for the most part supported the opposition Federalist Party, sent their vessels to Canada or Spanish Florida and continued trading illegally.4 In March 1809 the newly elected President James Madison replaced Embargo with another weak economic measure, the Non-Intercourse Act, and other, equally ineffective measures followed.  The question of overseas markets was of paramount importance to the agricultural producers of the western and southern United States who felt the pinch of depression between 1808 and 1812 when prices collapsed. They blamed foreign trade restrictions especially British Orders in Council, and this steadily drove the country along the road to war. But ironically New England shipping continued to make a tidy profit in spite of them, and New England and the shipping interest would oppose the war throughout the period.5

When news of war reached Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 29 June 1812, it came with the heartening news that New England wished to continue normal trading. Major-General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, commanding the Atlantic provinces, issued a proclamation on 3 July officially sanctioning the arrangement and permitting unarmed American ships to sail. Sherbrooke believed the American need for manufactures would ensure the continued supply of provisions and specie into Nova Scotia, and that the Royal Navy should not interfere with trade.6 At the same time the Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety for Eastport, Maine, wrote to the Mayor of St John that his fellow citizens had unanimously agreed ‘to preserve a good understanding with the Inhabitants of New Brunswick, and to discountenance all depredations on the Property of each other’, and the city of St John reciprocated. Throughout the war American supplies greatly benefited New Brunswick, which depended for its very sustenance on New England, and was very short of food, especially salt pork.7

Vice-Admiral Sir Herbert Sawyer, commanding the Royal Navy’s North American station, was happy to grant licenses enabling American, Swedish, Portuguese and Spanish vessels to carry American provisions to Wellington’s army in Spain.8 Nothing was to be allowed to interfere with Britain ’s wider strategic objectives, and by the third week in August 180 licenses had been issued. Meanwhile Congress thwarted Madison’s attempts to end or restrict this vital trade on which not only Wellington’s army, but American farmers relied.9 Admiralty instructions subsequently were that the southern states that supported war should feel its harsh effects while the north-eastern states should be encouraged to continue trading as before; the British government was also anxious not to ruin manufacturing exports to the United States worth £5 million annually. British licenses were known after the authorities granting them as ‘Sidmouths’ (one of the principle secretaries at the Board of Trade), or ‘Prince Regents’. They soon became extremely valuable and were regularly forged, and hawked openly around American cities for up to $5,000.10

The early course of the war took both sides by surprise. The conquest of Canada - ‘a mere matter of marching’ according to Jefferson - clearly involved much, much more than that, and the US government was under immense pressure to gain control as winter 1812 approached. However, as in all wars, money was a major problem. Although Congress had doubled import tariffs, both to raise revenue and encourage American manufacturing, most merchants preferred to trade even if that meant smuggling or trading with the enemy11 Similarly the enemy trade act adopted shortly after the declaration of war should have ended all trade with Canada and the West Indies. But there was never any shortage of Americans prepared to earn good money supplying the British, wherever they were, and Federalist ports provided Halifax and the Royal Navy offshore with everything they needed12

From the outset smugglers proved a bountiful, if not always reliable, source of intelligence for both sides. In late 1812 news reached Montreal from the busy smugglers along the St Lawrence frontier that Major-General Henry Dearborn was collecting sleds for a winter campaign, but this proved to be false and once snow fell and the St. Lawrence froze, American farmers were only too happy to cross it and take advantage of the higher prices paid for their produce by the British13 In early 1813 Congress approved a $16 million war loan with the assistance of three wealthy merchants, Stephen Girard, John Jacob Astor, and the German-born financier and land speculator David Parish. Parish was a German-born financier who had made a fortune smuggling gold from Mexico to Paris before investing it in a scheme to develop 200,000 acres of northern New York State14

With spring approaching and offensive operations once more in the offing, the Americans collected around 4,000 meant Sackets Harbor during March and April, organised in two brigades under Brigadier Generals Zebulon Pike and John Chandler for an assault on York ( Toronto). Pike had spent the winter with his brigade based at Plattsburgh struggling to stem the smuggling that thrived along the New York and Vermont borders. But it was an up hill struggle as the local population had far more sympathy with the smugglers than it did with the war effort. On 2 April Lieutenant Lorinn Austin and 50 dragoons surrounded the New York village of Americus, and arrested 13 men on suspicion of smuggling, eight of whom were then marched to jail in Sackets Harbor. But Pike then learned that the smugglers had been freed, and he had to send bail money to secure Austin’s release from jail instead, such was the hostility of the border regions to interference with free trade15

The Champlain valley in particular was orientated to Canadian markets, and free trade in that region was made easier after 3 June 1813 when the balance of power on Lake Champlain changed hands. Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough USN, commanding the American flotilla on the lake, ordered Lieutenant Sidney Smith USN to patrol the northern reaches with the schooners Eagle and Growler. But the over-eager Smith sailed into the shallow waters of Isle-aux-Noix where he found he could not manoeuvre to withdraw, and whose British garrison attacked in shallow boats that the Americans could not engage effectively, forcing them to surrender. Without an effective US presence on the lake smuggling was boosted throughout the area16 

On the Atlantic coast on 7 November Fort Sullivan at Eastport, Maine, fired its guns in anger for the first and only time during the war to force a large sloop, the Venture of Saint John, to heave to. It seemed as though the previously peaceful accommodation along the northeast border was about to end until a worried correspondence with Nova Scotia confirmed that Captain Sherman Leland of the 34th US Infantry had not, in fact, zealously chosen to open hostilities in the region, but was merely acting as ‘an auxiliary to the Revenue department’ and intercepting a suspected smuggling vessel. Leland was awarded thousands of dollars for the prize, despite using Federal arms and soldiers to accomplish his feat, then promptly resigned his commission, thus avoiding service on the active northern frontier. He later appeared at Dorchester, Massachusetts, to make a patriotic Independence Day speech in which he insisted that only ‘a servile wretch would sell his country for gold’17

Officials in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia remained quite unconcerned by the origin of New England lumber and provisions, and wartime smuggling stimulated economic development to such an extent that Fredericton became, ‘shockingly dull.’ 18 Yet if trade is considered as another front in the war its continuance through smuggling might be considered as serious a setback for the United States as was the capture of either of Detroit or USS Chesapeake. For smuggling in the Passamaquoddy region, through deception, twisting the law, and even outright violence, resulted in no less than the effective loss of an entire regiment sent to stamp it out.19

Conversely, as the British blockade of the American coast bit deeper, so it distorted the US economy by forcing traders to rely on the hopelessly inadequate road system, creating gluts and shortages in equal measure. By the end of 1813 the shortage of imported manufactures was also leading to panic buying and coffee, sugar, salt, molasses, cotton and spices trebled or even quadrupled in price20 Until 1813 American grain remained important to feeding Wellington’s army, but only once the markets of Europe were open to Britain did Madison choose to impose restrictions on American shipping that could harm nobody save Americans. On 17 December he finally persuaded Congress to impose an embargo so that food and contraband would not even be able to put to sea - a measure aimed primarily at New England, which only intensified the bitterness felt there towards the administration and the war in general21

Nor was the policy effective in any way: on station off America , just like the army along the Canadian border, the Royal Navy always found it possible to receive fresh vegetables and cattle for good, hard cash. ‘The fact is notorious’, complained the Lexington Reporter, that the Royal Navy ‘derive their supplies from the very country which is the theatre of their atrocities.’22But they rarely had to resort to threats, finding no shortage of takers for their gold and silver; British ships were freely supplied by the locals and Chesapeake Bay, Vineyard Sound and Long Island Sound fairly teemed with little coastal vessels offering supplies, some 60 operating in the latter alone23

As the numbers of British troops deployed in Canada grew, so did the problem of feeding them, and it is doubtful that the army could have operated were it not for the provisions smuggled in from the US . Between June 1812 and September 1813 the monthly food demand at Kingston - the main military base in Upper Canada - rose from 15 barrels of flour and 9 barrels of pork to 765 and 445 barrels respectively; and although the allowance of meat for troops in garrison was smaller than those in the field, it also included generous amounts of peas, butter and rice24 But the Canadian population was unwilling to sell what little they had, and despite forced purchase, supplies would have to be brought from Britain and Ireland at enormous cost. Fortunately trade with northern New York, Vermont and Maine continued to the great benefit of the British, most flagrantly along the Champlain valley where cattle were driven under the pretence that they were for the US Army to the south of the St Lawrence, then taking them over the river at night, because as one man put it: ‘Men will always run great risks - when great personal profits are expected to be realised.’25

In 1814 the US commander in the region, Major General George Izard, complained that the road ‘to St Regis is covered with Droves of Cattle and the River with Rafts destined for the enemy’ and similarly providing flour. Indeed, ‘the high roads are found insufficient for the supplies of cattle which are pouring into Canada; like herds of buffalo that press through the forests making paths for themselves ... Were it not for these supplies the British forces in Canada would soon be suffering from famine, or their government subjected to enormous expense for their maintenance.’26 The trade was eased by corrupt officialdom; in June British commissary officer Thomas Ridout contracted with a ‘Yankee magistrate’ to furnish Cornwall with fresh beef. ‘A major came with him to make the agreement but as he was [foreman] to the Grand jury at the court in which the Government prosecutes the magistrate for high treason & smuggling he turned his back and would not see the paper signed.’27 Surgeon William Dunlop of the 2nd/89th Regiment reported dickering with an American militia officer in full uniform who closed the deal with the remark, ‘they do say it is wrong to supply an innimy [sic] and I think so too; but I don’t call that man my innimy who buys what I have to sell, and gives such a genteel price for it. We have worse innimies than you Britishers.’28

According to the Salem Gazette, smuggling became ‘the most lucrative business which is now carried on’. Profits were so great that the smugglers ‘could afford to lose one half by custom house spies, and yet make money faster than those who follow the “dull pursuits” of regular business’29 Attempts to restrain it were regularly met with force; two revenue officers were killed and two other wounded in a clash with smugglers at Belfast, Maine, and Izard declared that nothing ‘but a Cordon of Troops’ along the New York and Vermont borders with Canada could ‘check the Evil.’30 On 27 August 1814 the Governor-in-Chief of British North America, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, assured Henry, third earl Bathurst, and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, that ‘two-thirds of the British Army in Canada are, at this Moment, eating Beef provided by American Contractors drawn principally from the States of Vermont and New York’, while a brigade of artillery recently arrived at Cornwall from southern France was feeding its horses on American supplied hay. 31

One product that was always in short supply in Canada was salt - essential for preserving meat - which before the war had been shipped from Oswego in New York. Despite small amounts that were smuggled into the province and imports from outside, Upper Canada was in salt deficit throughout the war.32 But trade was not confined to victuals; the inhabitants of Vermont were not above trading with Lower Canada in naval stores which the British were having trouble sourcing. American naval personnel intercepted and destroyed two spars intended for the British frigate under construction at Isle-aux-Noix on 28 June 1814, although the ‘persons who were towing them made their escape on shore.’33 They set a watch for the possible passage of the mainmast down Lake Champlain but only another four spars were intercepted on the night of 7 July, and so the Royal Navy on the lakes was able to acquire essential components that would otherwise have had to come all the way across the Atlantic, which was doubly beneficial since it freed the transport services for other more immediate and important tasks.

Following the extension of the naval blockade to New England in April 1814, trade in the area declined but in two weeks during September the whole of eastern Maine - some 100 miles of seaboard and the country behind it - fell into British hands. Subsequently the male population quietly swore allegiance to the Crown, happy to resume their interrupted trade with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick which was opened by proclamations from Rear-Admiral Edward Griffith and Sherbrooke, who appointed a military governor for the territory and a customs official for Castine.34 Thereafter Swedish vessels ran huge quantities of British goods up to Hampden for distribution throughout New England while neutral Swedish and Spanish ships operated on Lake Champlain, and continued trade with Canada drained the United States of specie as smuggling along the border continued to thrive.35

Following the destruction of Washington DC by a British raiding force in August the United States faced financial and political crisis; no longer able to rely on loans to pay for the war as banks in Philadelphia and Baltimore suspended specie payments, with all banks outside New England soon forced to followed suit, New Englanders were buying British government bills at a discount and sending what specie they had to Canada to pay for smuggled goods. Worse news came in October when Monroe announced that conscription would be necessary, a measure that prompted fierce resistance especially from New England, and created a political crisis that threatened to develop into actual disunion via the Hartford Convention. But by this stage the failure of British forces to secure a crushing victory in 1814 had become a sufficient inducement to settle for peace. Britain had been at war for 22 years and was desperately weary of it, for her merchants and shipowners the prospect of it dragging into another year was one to be avoided at almost any cost. Peace came on Christmas Eve primarily because both sides wanted and desperately needed to return to what they both enjoyed doing best: making money.

About the Author: Jon Latimer is a British author who writes on a variety of military and general historical subjects. His last book was 1812: War with America, published by Belknap-Harvard.


1.   See Jennings, Walter W, The American Embargo, 1807-1809, With Particular Reference to its Effect on Industry, University of Iowa Press, 1921; Burton Spivak, Jefferson’s English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo and the Republican Revolution. University Press of Virginia, 1979; Louis M. Sears, Jefferson and the Embargo, Duke University Press, 1927; ‘British Industry and the Embargo’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 34 (1919-20), pp.88-113; G. W. Daniels, ‘American Cotton Trade with Liverpool under the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts’, American Historical Review, 21 (1915-16), pp.276-87; Jeffrey A. Frankel, ‘The 1807-1809 Embargo Against Great Britain’, Journal of Economic History, 42 (1982), pp.291-308, and Herbert Heaton, ‘Non-Importation, 1806-1812’, Ibid, 1 (1941), pp.178-98.

2.  See Donald G. Alcock, ‘The Best Defence is ... Smuggling? Vermonters during the War of 1812’, Canadian Review of American Studies, 25 (1995), pp. 73-92; Richard F. Casey, ‘North Country Nemesis: The Potash Rebellion and the Embargo of 1807-09’, New York Historical Society Quarterly, 64 (1980), pp.31-49; Harvey Strum, ‘A Gross and Unprovoked Outrage: Niagara Incident’, Inland Seas, 48 (1992), pp.28-90; ‘Smuggling in the War of 1812’, History Today, 29, August 1979, pp.532-7; - ,‘Smuggling In Maine During the Embargo and the War of 1812’, Colby Library Quarterly, 19 (1983), p. 90; John D. Forbes, ‘Boston Smuggling, 1807-1815’, American Neptune, 10 (April 1950), pp.144-54; H. N. Muller III, ‘Smuggling into Canada: How the Champlain Valley Defied Jefferson’s Embargo’, Vermont History, 38 (Winter 1970), pp.5-21, and Reginald C. Stuart, ‘Special Interests and National Authority in Foreign Policy: American-British Provincial Links during the Embargo and the War of 1812’, Diplomatic History, 8 (1984), pp.311-28.

3.   Morris, John D. Sword of the Border: Major General Jacob Jennings Brown, 1775-1828, Kent: Kent State University Press, 2000, pp.14-15.

4.   Horsman, Reginald. Causes of the War of 1812, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.104-9.

5.   Horsman, Causes, pp.175-7; Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States 1805-1812, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, p.287.

6.   Library and Archives Canada (LAC), MG 11 A21 NB Hunter to Liverpool, 27 June 1812.

7.   LAC, CO 42/90 Proclamation, 3 July 1812, contained in Sherbrooke to Bathurst, 2 August. See also Walter R. Copp, ‘Nova Scotian Trade during the War of 1812’, Canadian Historical Review, 18 (1937), pp.141-55.

8.    UK National Archives (TNA) ,WO 744/95 ‘Minutes of the Privy Council Meeting’, 21 August 1812; ADM 1/502, Sawyer to Croker, 7 September 1812, p.280.

9.    See Hickey, Donald R. ‘American Trade Restrictions during the War of 1812’, Journal of American History, 68 (1981), pp.517-38; De Toy, Brian M. ‘Wellington’s Lifeline: Naval Logistics in the Peninsula’, [Papers of the] Consortium of Revolutionary Europe, 7 (1995), pp.363-4; Watson, G. E. ‘The United States and the Peninsular War, 1808-1812’, The History Journal, 19 (1976), pp.865-72.

10.  TNA, ADM 1/502 Sawyer to Croker, 18 July, 6 August 1812 pp.195, 221-3; ADM 2/163 Order in Council,20 August 1812, ‘Instructions to Transport Board’, pp.9, 47; CO 43/49 Goulburn to Harrison, 26 September 1812, pp.239: British Library, Liverpool Papers 38250, Cockburn to Croker, 6 November, and Clancarty to Liverpool, 24 November 1812.

11.   Hickey, Donald R. War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990, pp.50, 96-9, 168-71.

12.   Dudley, Wade G. Piercing the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812-1815, Naval Institute Press, 2003, pp.69-82; Dudley, William S., Ed. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, 2 vols, Naval Historical Center, 1985-92, 1, pp.202-3; Joseph A. Goldenberg, ‘The Royal Navy’s Blockade in New England Waters, 1812-1815’, International History Review, 6 (1984), pp.424-7; Donald R. Hickey, War of 1812, pp.167-71; Faye Kert, ‘Taking Care of Business: Privateering and the Licensed War of 1812’ in, Starkey, David J. et. al., (Eds.), Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Exeter University Press, 1997 , pp.135-43.

13.  See Anon., ‘Smuggling in 1813-1814: A Personal Reminscence’, Vermont History, 38 (Winter 1970), pp.22-6: Neil R. Scott (ed.), ‘Excerpts from John Howe’s “Smuggler’s Journal”’, Ibid., 40 (Autumn 1972), pp.262-70: H. N. Muller III, ‘A “Traitorous and Diabolical Traffic”’, Ibid., 44 (1976), pp.78-96.

14.  See Hitsman, J. Mackay. ‘David Parish and the War of 1812’, Military Affairs, 26  (1962-3), pp.171-7.

15.  Strum, H. ‘Smuggling in the War of 1812’, History Today, 29 (1979), p.537.

16.  Everest, Alan S. The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley, Syracuse University Press, 1981, pp.108-9.

17. Leland, S.  An Oration Pronounced at Dorchester, July 4, 1815, p.10; J. Smith, ‘Rogues of Quoddy: Smuggling in the Maine-New Brunswick Borderlands 1783-1820’, PhD Dissertation, University of Maine, 2003, pp.284-8.

18.  Facey-Crowther, David R.  The New Brunswick Militia 1787-1867, New Brunswick History Society and New Ireland Press, 1990, p.33.

19.  Smith, J. ‘The Rogues of Quoddy’, p.292, 294-302, 305-11.

20.  Hickey, War of 1812, pp.152-3; W. S. Dudley, 2, pp.394-6.

21.  Brant, Irving. James Madison: Commander-in-Chief, 1812-1836, Bobs-Merrill, 1961, p.230.

22.  Reporter, [ Lexington, KY], 7 August 1813.

23.  Hickey, War of 1812, p.171.

24.  George Sheppard, Plunder, Profit and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 p.117.

25.  Smelser, Marshall, Ed. ‘Smuggling in 1813-14: A Personal Reminiscence’, Vermont History, 38 (Winter 1970), p.23. See also Landon, Harry F. ‘British Sympathizers in St. Lawrence County During the War of 1812’, New York History, (April 1954), pp.

26.  US National Archives (USNA), RG107/M221/R62 Izard to Amrstrong, 31 July 1814; Everest, pp.150-2.

27.  Edgar, Matilda, General Brock, Oxford: University of Oxford press, 1926, pp.275, 279.

28.  Dunlop, William. Recollections of the American War, 1812-14: With a Biographical Sketch of the Author by A. H. U. Colquhoun of the Toronto News, Historical Publishing Co, 1905 pp.33-5.

29.  Gazette [ Salem, MA], 2 September 1814.

30.  USNA, RG107/M221/R62 Izard to Armstrong, 31 July 1814.             

31.  TNA CO 42/157 Preovst to Bathurst, 27 August 1814, pp.120-1; Edgar, p.319.

32.  Landon, Harry F. Bugles on the Border: The Story of the War of 1812 in Northern New York, Watertown Daily Times, 1954, p.10;  Western Ontario and the American Frontier, Ryerson Press, 1941, p.40.

33.  Crawford, Michael. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Volume III, 1814-1815, Chesapeake Bay, Northern Lakes, and Pacific Ocean, Naval Historical Center, 2002, pp.537-8; Everest, Champlain, p.152;  Hitsman, J. Mackay, (revised and  Ed. D. E. Graves), The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History, Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1999, pp.22, 239, 250.

34.  TNA ADM 1/506 Griffith to Croker, 25 August 1814, p.59; ADM 1/507 Griffith to Croker, 27 September 1814, p.304; Hitsman, Incredible War, pp.246-8; W. D. Williamson, History of Maine, 2, pp.640-54.

35.  Kirby, William. ‘A New England Town under Foreign Martial Law’, New England Magazine, 14 (1894), pp.685-95; Hickey, War of 1812, pp.225-7.