THE PORT OF DETROIT
A HISTORY OF THE CUSTOM HOUSE
WITH A LIST OF THE COLLECTORS
AT THIS PORT; THE RESULT OF RUMMAGING AMONG MUSTY OLD BOOKS AND PAPERS.
PREPARED BY SAMUEL ZUG
FOR THE DETROIT TRIBUNE AND PUBLISHED IN THAT PAPER IN 1804
AND RECENTLY READ BEFORE THE DETROIT PIONEER SOCIETY,
WITH ADDITIONS TO THIS TIME, APRIL, 1876
Michigan historical collections, Volume 1
The history of the Detroit Custom House, dating back some sixty-fire years,
and reaching a period when all this section of country was nearly an uninhabited wilderness, presents many curious points of interest to these interested in
the "days of old," and progress of the country. The first tariff under the
present constitution was passed, July 4th, 1789, and was mostly a tariff of
specific rates, but comparatively few articles were enumerated, the greater
number being admitted free.
The first act, regulating the collection of duties and tonnage on vessels, was
passed July 31, 1789, covering the coast from New Hampshire to Georgia, excepting the colonies of Rhode Island and North Carolina, they not having at
that time ratified the constitution. There was some special legislation in reference to these two until in February, 1790, the collection laws were extended
over North Carolina, and in June of the same year over Rhode Island.
In August, 1790, the collection laws were made much more effective by the
passage of a new act, and in March, 1791, a collection district was established
in Vermont, and a collector appointed to reside in Allburgh.
By the act of June 7, 1794, an additional duty of five per cont was laid
upon foreign importations, and by the act of March 7, 1799, the several collection districts were fully defined, and in this act notice was first taken of the
northern and western frontier.
It was divided up us follows: The district of Oswego included all the coast
line of the Genesee River, N. Y., with the collector at Oswego; the district of
Niagara included the shore of Lake Ontario, west of the Genesee River, and
all the shore of Lake Eric in New York State, the collector residing at Niagara, Buffalo and Dunkirk not being then ports of entry; the district of
Presque Isle, included all the Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie; the district of Erie
included the shore of Lake Eric from the Pennsylvania line, to the River
Miami, with the collector in Sandusky, Cleveland not being settled then; the
district of Detroit, included the coast from the River Miami to the Island of
Michilimackinac, with the collector in Detroit, which was then the solo port
of entry; the district of Michilimackinac included that island and the shores
of Lake Superior and Michigan. At that time, the salary of the collector
was fixed at $250 per annum and three per cent on the amount collected.
In June, 1790, under the above act, Matthew Ernest was appointed Collector
of Detroit, but he does not appear to have been addressed as Collector until
some time after.
In April, 1800, James Morrison, the Supervisor of Customs for the Northwest, residing at Lexington, Ky., addressed Mr. Ernest simply as "Inspector
of Revenue and in August he is addressed from Washington simply as
"M. Ernest, Esqr." Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, first
addresses him as Collector in August, 1802, and in his letter notifies him
that he has drawn on him for over $7,000.00, showing that the importations at
that early day must have been large, considering the comparatively low rates of
duties. Mail communications were somewhat irregular in that day. On April
13, 1800, Mr. Morrison, the Supervisor of Customs, writes: "I am informed
by McNeil, your express, that the commanding officer at Detroit sends an express monthly to Port Washington; this will greatly facilitate our
communication." On April 30th Mr. Morrison again writes: "I have detained your
express a few days that I may send yon further instructions;" and then excuses
the detention by saying, "the horses stood in need of rest and I am yet in hopes
that they will reach Detroit before vessels arrive."
No definite information can be found as to the length of time required to
transmit letters from Washington to Detroit, but a letter dated Dec. 10th, 1801,
was answered July 7th, 1802.
On October 1st, 1802, a regular mail bedeck Washington and Detroit was
instituted by Secretary Gallatin, but its frequency is not stated. In August,
1802, the balance remaining in the hands of the Collector was reported at
$11,290.00, and in 1803 blank registers were sent to Detroit for the use of
vessels, containing secret mark to distinguish them from counterfeit ones. In
September, 1804, Secretary Gallatin notifies the Collector that he has drawn
on him for $8,000.00, in favor of Caleb Swan, Paymaster U. S. A. For the
next five years there are no records to show who was Collector, nor the extent
of the business of the office.
A letter of March 30th, 1810, states that Reuben Atwater was the Collector at
that time, and from subsequent letters it appears that he was dilatory in rendering his accounts, and thus drew upon himself the displeasure of the Department,
who threatened "that unless a satisfactory apology should be made, he should
be prosecuted by a fine." Mail facilities seem to have improved, as a letter
dated "Washington, March 15th, 1811," was marked as having been received
on the 24th of April.
Mr. Atwater probably made a satisfactory explanation, as he retained his
office, and on the 10th of June, 1812, received a letter from Secretary Gallatin
notifying him that John Jacob Astor was intending to bring into the United
States a quantity of arms, ammunition, and other Indian goods, then at St.
Our relations with Great Britain at that time being far from amicable, the
President deemed it important that these arms, etc., should not fall in the
power of the Indians, nor remain in British territory; the collector was accordingly instructed, if the importation should be made, "to deposit them with
Governor Hull or the commanding officer,—the War Department to be held
responsible for the amount."
On July 13, 1814, William Woodbridge was appointed collector of tge district,—a post which he held until July 14, 1828. There are no records to show
what vessels were on the lakes, or owned at this port at that time, to wit; 1814,
hut in 1816 and 1817 it appears that the schooners Fair American and Friendship wore on the lakes. In 1816, Austin E. Wing was appointed deputy
collector at this port. On May 31st, 1817, W. H. Crawford, Secretary of the
Treasury, notifies the collector that President Monroe will pass through this
district on his tour in the Northwest, and may require water conveyance, and
requests him to afford him every facility which the revenue boat will permit.
From this it would be inferred that there was at that early day a revenue
cutter connected with this port. But Captain I. W. Keith, who was born here
in 1818, says that his father, Capt. Wm. Keith, was master of the first cutter on
the lake. Ho also says that in 1820, his father was in the merchant service,
and thinks it was after this that he sailed the cutter. He remembers hearing
his father speak of two cutters,—the Tiger and the Porcupine,—and that they
were under 100 tons. Mr. Edward Trumbull says he was an inspector of customs in 1826-7-8, when his uncle, Governor Woodbridge, was collector. And
that there was at that time a cutter at this port, and that Captain Keith was
master of her, and that Captain John Fleohorty was also on the cutter, but
does not remember in what capacity, nor in which of these years. Captain I.
W. Keith thinks Fleeharty was an officer under his father. This is all I can
learn about this matter, and will leave it for others to decide as to the time the
first cutter was connected with this port.
On April 25, 1818, the books contain notice of a bond given by Shubael
Conant, for duties on goods imported from New York via Canada.
The mails at this time were far more frequent, only two or three weeks being
consumed between Detroit and Washington.
Commencing with 1818, the custom house books contain complete records of
vessels licensed at this port, and among others the following names appear as
owners: Abraham Edwards, Henry I. Hunt, G. B. & B. F. Larned, Eldred &
Cook, and David 0. McKinstry. For the year 1819 the following additional
names appear: Samuel Ward, Nathaniel Champ, Conrad Ten Eyck, and Edward Brooks. In 1820-21-22 the following additional names appear: Stephen
Mock, Christian Clemens, themas and John Palmer, John S. Roby, Shadrack
and Reynolds Gillot, Benjamin Woodwarth, and DeBarmo Jones. About this
time Angus Macintosh built on the spot where Walker's distillery now stands in
Canada a three-masted, square-rigged, barque shaped vessel called the Duke of
Wellington, of 132 tons, which was at that time the wonder and admiration of
the lakes. In fact, previous to 1830 the sailing vessels belonging to this port
were small sloops and schooners rarely reaching 100 tons and generally under
00. These were mostly built at Huron, Ohio, and in Buffalo, the late Oliver
Newberry especially patronizing the former place. In nothing is the rapid
growth of the commerce and wealth of our city more clearly exhibited than in
the increase in the number and capacity of the vessels owned at this port. The
Salom packet of 1818, 27 tons burthen, the St. Clair of 2S tons, built in
1824, the Albatross, 20 tons, and Marshal Noy, 93 tons, built in 1830, the Elizabeth Ward, 05 tons, and Gen. Harrison, 115 tons, built in 1833, all the property of Samuel Ward of St. Clair, have given place to the splendid line of
steamers that we all remember, owed by Samuel and E. B. Ward of this city
Every one who knows anything of the history of our lake marine, lias heard
of the famous " fleet" of Oliver Newbury, who was known as the "Admiral of
the lakes." For the benefit of the present generation, we append the following
list of vessels composing this fleet, with their tonnage: The Pilot, 54 tons,
built at St. Clair, in 1825; Lagrange, 101 tons, at Mt. demons, in 1820;
Napoleon, 107 tons, at Detroit, in 1828; Savage, 30 tons, at St. Clair, in 1828;
Marengo, 104 tons, built at Huron, Ohio, in 1831; Prince Eugene, 104 tons,
at Huron, Ohio, in 1832; Austorlitz, 134 tons at Huron, Ohio, in 1832; Lodi,
64 tons, at Huron, Ohio, in 1834; Jena, 55 tons, at Detroit, in 1834; all these
were schooners. These were commanded by veteran sailors as Chesley
Blake, Mason Dingley, John Stewart, Harry Whittaker, Gus. McKinstry,
Amos B. Hinckley, Levi Allen, and Ben. Miller.
The first steamer enrolled as belonging to this port was the Argo, and she
was called a steam sloop. She was built in 1830 in Detroit, and was owned and
commanded by John Burtis. She was 42 foot long, 9 broad.
Her capacity was nine tons. She was used as a ferry, and occasionally ran up
the river to Dearborn.
The next steamer was the Gen. Gratiot, built at Black River, Ohio, in 1831.
She was 45 tons burthen and was licensed hero in Juno of that year, owned by
Francis F. Browning, and commanded by Arthur Edwards. Then came the
Gen. Brady, 65 tons, built at Detroit in 1832, owned by a number of the then
principal business men; and the Andrew Jackson, 49 tons, built at Mt.
Clemens in 1832 by Gray and Gallagher. During the years 1833 and 1834 a
number of steamers were built, of which the following are the names and
tonnage: Lady of the Lake, 26 tons, built at Mt. Clemens; Major Jack
Downing, 54 tons, also built at Mt. Clemens, Oliver Newberry, 170 tons, built
at St. Clair; Undo Sam, 220 tons, built at Gross Isle; Michigan, 470 tons,
built at Detroit; Detroit, 137 tons, also built at Detroit; Delaware, 178 tons,
built at Huron, Ohio; Monroe, 349 tons, built at Monroe. these enrolled
after this gradually increased in Bize, and the date of their building becomes so
recent that their history "doth not outstrip the memory" of this generation.
On July 14th, 1828, Truman Beecher was appointed collector of this port,
but held the office only one year, when ho was succeeded by Andrew Mack,
in April, 1838. John McDonald supplanted Mr. Mack, retaining the office
until March, 1841, when Edward Brooks succeeded him. In Juno, 1845,
Charles O. Hammond received the appointment, holding the office until September, 1849, when 0. M. Hydro was appointed. He was succeeded by John
H. Harmon, in April, 1853, and he in April, 1857, by Michael Shoemaker.
In November, 1859, he was supplanted by Robert W. Davis, who in April, 1801,
gave place to Nelson G. Isbell. He held the office till August 1st, 1866, when
Col. Henry A. Morrow received the appointment, but hold it only till about
March, 1867, when he resigned, and Mr. Isbell was reappointed. This is the
only instance wherein any were reappointed, and that, too, by a President differing in politics from his appointee; it being but a proper acknowledgment
of an error in removing Mr. Isbell to make a place for Mr. Morrow, also an
endorsement of the most faithful administration of the affairs of the office,
and of the high regard and estimation entertained for him by the President,
Secretary of the Treasury and customs department. Mr. Isbell was permitted
to hold the office till March, 1809, when George Jerome received the appointment, and he hold it till March 1st, 1875, when the present incumbent, Digby
V. Bell, was appointed.
I append to the above the account rendered by Reuben Atwater, who was
Secretary of the Territory as well as collector. the salary for the first office
was $1,000 per annum, while that of the latter was, as appears by this account,
$250, and 3 per cent on the disbursements. He reports $47.98 duties collected
from 28th May (the time of tiling his bond) to the close of the quarter, June
30th, 1808, and $130.49 expenses paid for salaries of inspectors, rents, revenue
boat, and other contingencies.
I copy "A Statement" of salary, fees, and disbursements,, also of actual expenditures by the same officer, during the year 1810.
He charges himself with
amounts received, to wit: Salary, $250; fees, $356.50; commission, $-46.05
The expenditures for the same time were: stationery, $6; rent, $30. This
account is sworn to before Richard Smyth, Justice of the Peace.
For the sake of a comparison, I add the amount of free goods imported in
the port of Detroit for quarter ending December 31st, 1875, $256,677; and
dutiable goods, $440,863; on which duties were collected, $114,599.58. I
must be remembered that this port reaches only from the State line below
Monroe to the head of Lake St. Clair. Above this is the port of Port Huron
where also a very large amount is collected, that being the headquarters of the
district of Huron for imports by the Grand Trunk Railway.