Of paper cuts and ink stains: the paperwork of the Custom House

Today’s post is written by Stephanie Stegman, the special media projects volunteer at the National Archives at Fort Worth. This is the second post in a three-part series. (If you missed it, the first post can be found here.)

Today’s topic is paperwork.  Paperwork was a vital part of daily life at the New Orleans Custom House, charged with documenting all vessels entering the port as well as collecting revenue from duties and warehouse storage.  It offers a glimpse at what work was like at the largest U.S. sea port in the years before the Civil War.  Employees wrote letters, filled out forms, collected cargo and slave manifests, inspected vessels and their cargo, and many more activities that made up their different job descriptions.  This work product is part of Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1745 – 1997, preserved at the National Archives at Fort Worth. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

Inspector of Hulls Certificate for Steam Vessel Barataria, 1857 (ARC 6016141).

In 1860, the Port of New Orleans was the only port of entry for the prosperous Collection District of New Orleans. Formerly known as the District of Mississippi, the New Orleans District included most of the shores, inlets, and waters within the State of Louisiana as well as the waters and shores of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, except for those within the limits of the State of Mississippi.

Presidential Appointment of Horse Browse Trist as Collector for the District of Mississippi 11/18/1803 (ARC 6016136).  With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Horse Browse Trist as the first collector or chief executive and revenue officer for the Collection District of Mississippi.

Business was brisk at New Orleans Custom House, located on Canal Street a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Collector Francis Hanson Hatch was the person in charge of administering and collecting revenue for the district.  In 1860, Hatch reported 2,845 vessels entered from foreign or coastwise ports.  2,242 vessels cleared with imports totaling over $25 million.  Exports totaled over $101 million, including cotton and tobacco, the two largest domestic goods.  With receipts from duties, storage, and the Marine Hospital Fund, the New Orleans Custom House had $2.5 million in total revenue for the year.

List of vessels arrived from foreign ports at the Lighthouse at South West Pass, April 1858 (ARC 6016157). The New Orleans Collection District included a network of lighthouses along the waterways, called the Eighth Light District of the United States. Collector Hatch described these lighthouses as “exceedingly important for the convenience and security of the commerce of the State.”

Work at the New Orleans Custom House continued even as civil war was imminent.  Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861.  Federal employees at the U.S. Custom House, Courts, and Mint all held their posts and sided with the State of Louisiana.  Then, the question became, “Who would pay them?”  After resigning from the U.S. government, one of the Inspectors of Steamers wrote to Collector Hatch and requested his salary be paid.

Inspector John C. March, Inspector of Boilers, wrote to New Orleans Collector F.H. Hatch in Feb 1861 (ARC 6037239).

In March 1861, when Louisiana joined the Confederacy, Custom House employees received their full salaries.  They even used the same payroll form.  On the printed heading, Collector Hatch crossed out “United States” and wrote in “Confederate States.”

Payroll for John C. Marsh, Inspector of Boilers at the Port of New Orleans, March 1861 (ARC 6036300) John C. Marsh received a monthly salary of $166.66 as Inspector of Boilers.

While the paperwork stayed the same, life at the New Orleans Custom House fundamentally changed during the Civil War.  After fourteen months, Union forces captured New Orleans in April 1862, and Collector Hatch and other Confederate employees were out of work.