Tales of the Revenue Cutter Service and True Crime from The Collector of Customs at Boston

Today’s post is by George Fuller, Archival Reference Technician at the National Archives at St. Louis.

A year ago, as National Archives staff were sent home at the beginning of the pandemic we were all in need of remote work and when transcription possibilities arose for alternative work my first thought was, “busy work.” At the time no one knew how long we would be working from home – days, weeks, months – who could have foreseen a year and beyond?

I begrudgingly started transcribing. I say begrudgingly because if you know me, you know I like to be the workhorse and just shoulder into the harness to get the work done. The fact that we were at home, the requests I had been working on idle, was eating at me. I pride myself on my work, the expediency I provide, the accuracy I strive to give paired with completeness. Transcription work just wasn’t palatable to me.

If you have read my previous submission to this blog you know I now love the work of transcription! I have learned so very much about our nation and about so many historical subjects through the work I have done on over a dozen different record series of various National Archives holdings.

I began on NARA’s public web page for Citizen Archivist Missions, which presented me with eight possible records series and I first chose the “Letters Received by the Collector of the Customs at Boston” from the U.S. Customs Service (National Archives ID 6087721). Most of these records are handwritten, except for circulars that were printed and distributed. The handwriting of that time period reminds you of the Constitution, flowing artistic script, with flourishes that seem “over the top.” It took me a good deal of time, zooming my screen in, clipping images and rotating them around, and just thinking of what the logical word would be in that sentence to be able to read them. In my earlier blog post I offered up one of my early attempts at transcribing, in regards to lighthouse innovation and the “Bulls’ Eye Glass” lens. When I was new to the transcription work, I would often simply insert [illegible] if I lacked the confidence to enter the word I thought it was. It took me hundreds of pages to become confident in my ability to read and decipher. Thanks to those of you who sent me the correct wording suggestions; the novice transcriber I was at the time would have loved your input then. I hope you also contribute to our transcription challenges which are open to the public!

Today I wish to tell you about the “Letters received by the Collector of the Customs at Boston,” between 1789 – 1882 (National Archives Identifier: 6046816). The letters were sent to the Collector from both the Department of State and Department of Treasury. Many Secretaries of State and Treasury presided throughout this time period, notably, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as the Secretary of State. I cannot tell you how thrilling it was to read and transcribe these letters knowing I was helping to provide search-ability to materials written by these men during that formative time. I admit I did act like a giddy child and played show and tell with my colleagues on multiple occasions.

To the topic at hand, the Collector of the Customs at Boston was an office with many responsibilities beyond collecting the duties on imports and exports. One of the more exciting discoveries I made was that the Collector was authorized to commission ships to be used for the Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor of today’s Coast Guard, [see: Volume 8: 1790-1817 (National Archives Identifier: 124218516)]. Having worked reference cases related to Coast Guard personnel records, reading and transcribing letters related to the creation of this branch of today’s military was quite exciting. In a circular from the Treasury Department dated August 1, 1799, the Collectors of the United States were instructed that all Revenue Cutters would fly a flag that signified them as official collectors of the customs, distinguishing them from all other vessels.

Circular from Oliver Wolcott to the Collector of the Customs, August 1, 1779, (image 85), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516).

An added thrill was finding/seeing the enclosed pattern for the flag/pennant:

The Cutter Service needed good men -these positions were only open to men at this time- to not only man the ships, but to command them. The Collector often suggested specific men for the roles and forwarded letters received from men requesting positions. The Collector was also the final link in the chain of command to officially commission officers for the Cutter Service.

Letter to the Treasury Department, Comptroller’s office, March 13th, 1801 (image 90), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516).

It might seem odd that sea going vessels should be under the command of the Department of the Treasury, however, the entire organization’s purpose was to enforce customs collections. On October 11th 1798, the Secretary of the Treasury stated in a letter that the Revenue Cutter Service would be placed under the control of the Secretary of the Navy.

From Oliver Wolcott to the Treasury Department, Trenton, October, 11th, 1798, (Image 81), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516).

Though the Revenue Cutter Service would still do the job it had always done and be budgeted through the Treasury, the day-to-day operations, organization, training, and outfitting of the ships and men would fall to the Secretary of the Navy. This makes a bit more sense and would become of critical importance in the War of 1812.

During the War of 1812, the Collector was also the official who issued commissions to privateers who would fight for the United States on the high seas. Because the original 13 states were sparsely populated and the government sponsored naval forces small, commissions were given to merchant vessels and their crews to act on behalf of the US in order to expand the forces. They were outfitted with guns and given general directives as to proper behavior and Rules of Engagement. Though many vessels were commanded by respectable men, privateers were very closely related to pirates with the caveat that they worked officially for a national government, in this case, ours, [see: (Image 419), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516)]. Though I did not read and transcribe much about Pirates of the Caribbean, pirates and unruly privateers in the Atlantic do receive a good number of mentions.

I mentioned in my previous submission that the Collector of the Customs at Boston was also the Superintendent of the Lighthouses of the United States. In this role he was responsible for collecting bids for the construction and or renovation of lighthouses, [see (Image 352) Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401)]. What surprised me was that the Collector, or in this case his title was Superintendent of Lighthouses, was collecting bids to construct lighthouses all around the shores of the U.S., not just in the Northeast. I transcribed records of the construction of lighthouses in Florida, along the Mississippi River, on the Great Lakes near Erie, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York. As I am originally from Western New York along the Pennsylvania border, I am familiar with these locations. The mention of the construction of the lighthouse at Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania was a very “small world” moment for me.

The Collector at Boston in his role as Superintendent of Lighthouses also acted as the quartermaster so to speak for any other lighthouse keeper, sending them the supplies they had requested. Everything from scientific equipment, such as thermometers, barometers, compasses, and the like, to oil for the lighthouse lamps, [see: (Image 237) Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401) and (Image 239) Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401)].

The Revenue Cutter Service enforced the customs and laws of the U.S. on the open waters, but on land there was a need to coordinate with the U.S. Marshals for whatever needs arose. Yes indeed, the U.S. Marshals were formed in 1789 and the Collector at Boston had need of their assistance regularly. Things reported could range from unwelcome vessels at port, criminal activity, suspected saboteurs, murderers, or even jewel thieves.

I am a true crime fan, as are a few of my colleagues, so tales of murder and thievery were something I was eager to share with all. The murder, by pirates no less, was done aboard a vessel passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, [see: (Image 575) Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401)]. The jewel theft was reported in Britain and the authorities in the U.S. were alerted to it, lest the thieves make their way to America and try to escape justice and or sell the stolen jewels, [see: (Image 560), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516) and (Image 561), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516)].

Working with the Marshal at Boston, the Collector was also responsible for the exchange of prisoners in the War of 1812.

Exchanging prisoners involved sending the British sailors to Canada and paying the ransom to get American sailors back. It was all quite civil and businesslike. There are even letters from prisoners asking for food and supplies, followed by arrangements to send those supplies, as was permissible by the British government in Canada.

(Image 343), Volume 8: 1790-1817, (National Archives ID 124218516).

In all I transcribed approximately 51 pages concerning prisoners of war.

I feel as though I could go on for an entire day telling you about the Collector of the Customs at Boston. The office and the men who served there all have interesting tales to tell.

One final mention I would like to make is that we have access to these records because of the forward thinking of then Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, who had great concern about fires happening in coastal towns. He feared all the records at Boston would be lost in such a fire and as such he instructed a vault be built to keep all of the records. Had he not had the forethought, it is quite likely that the records would not have survived and I would not have had the opportunity to transcribe and share these tales with you.

From Oliver Wolcott to the Treasury Department, December 23, 1796, (image 267) Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401).

The documents featured above are from the following volumes:

Volume 5: 1789 – 1807. (National Archives Identifier: 118747401).

Volume 8: 1790-1817 (National Archives Identifier: 124218516).

which are from the following series:

Letters Received from the Departments of State and Treasury, 1789 – 1882 (National Archives Identifier 6046816). Department of the Treasury. Customs Service. Collection District of Boston and Charlestown, Massachusetts. Office of the Collector of Customs. Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service. National Archives at Boston.

3 thoughts on “Tales of the Revenue Cutter Service and True Crime from The Collector of Customs at Boston

  1. Very interesting article.

    Most government functions relating to commerce were entrusted with the Treasury Department in the 18th-19th centuries. Many of these functions were transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor after it was created in 1903.

  2. Thank you for your interest and work. I have been transcribing letters and records of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service for over 39 years for my research – long before it was popular and digital. My transcriptions were done largely in the Central reading room at Archives I. The procedure then was to transcribe from the original and then type them out on a manual typewriter. Some items in the letters could not be deciphered and when photocopying became less expensive – I used a large magnifying glass and even a jeweler’s lope to figure out words and letters. Of course, digital records may be enlarged but it does depend on the file type and resolution of scan. I have scanned photocopies to 1200 dpi to make out words, letters, and phrases.

    I would like to see more of the microfilmed series of Collector letters put on line. This would make if far easier for researchers. Even when open, the closest microfilm is over two-hours drive and all the film is not in place.

    Put me on your list of people to ask for help when needed to look at some word or phrase. I know the records. One of the digitized items shown in the catalog samples is a drawing of a proposed 1830 cutter. I came upon this at Archives I, flagged it for printing – never got around to ask for it. These records section was then transferred to Boston Regional Archives. A few years ago for an article about the 1830 Revenue Cutter Hamilton I asked for a copy of the drawing. The volume had been wrapped for preservation with the flag I put on the page in 1983 still in place.

    One note: The clerks working in government had to audition for jobs with handwriting samples. These too are in the National Archives and show the best works of penmanship. Unfortunately, others in the branches were not so skilled. I recall reading letters written by Benjamin Rush that looked like cuneiform. The nib appeared to be cut square.

    Good luck and if you have access to RG 56 M735, I am in need of a Treasury Circular for uniforms of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service dated July 21, 1824. Get me a copy and I’ll happily transcribe it. It is one of missing links of service uniforms.

  3. George,
    Thanks for posting your findings. Coast Guard and Customs records are among the most fascinating I have encountered in my career. They touch on such a wide variety of topics.

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