Victor Smith, Port Townsend
and the Customs House
Presidential election of 1856 had brought J. Ross Browne as a
federal inspector to Port Townsend. The canvass of 1860 brought
Victor Smith, another Treasury special agent.
President Lincoln appointed, as Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon
Portland Chase, a man described by his biographer as looking "as
you would wish a statesman to look . . . a picture of
intelligence, strength, courage and dignity."
Around this paragon crowded the usual throng of office-seekers;
these were described by a contemporary observer as "unpractical
pulpitless clergymen, briefless lawyers, authors, sorethroated,
broken down merchants, poor widows, orphaned daughters, all
claiming to have helped elect Lincoln." Among them was Victor
Smith, a debt-ridden newspaperman from Cincinnati.
Smith had special claims on Secretary Chase. He had not merely
supported Lincoln for the presidency; before the Chicago
convention he had backed Chase, his fellow townsman, for the
nomination - backed him not from propinquity but from principle,
believing that Chase was a stronger anti-slavery man than Lincoln.
Smith was an abolitionist red-hot, a quick man with the epithet, a
doubter of others' motives, a crusader, earnest and impatient and
Chase's secretary said of him, "He believed in spirit
rapping; he whined a great deal about progress; was somewhat
arrogant in manner and intolerant in speech; and speedily made
himself unpopular. He was not an easy man to have around. Chase
may well have been thinking of the merits of absence when he
proposed that Lincoln send the gaunt, sandy-haired reformer to the
most distant customs house in the United States territories.
Smith was not enchanted with Port Townsend. He quickly decided the
community was "a collection of huts," its water supply
inadequate, its harbor a mere road-stead, its citizens certainly
oafs and probably copperheads. After a few days in town he wrote
to the Treasury Department, outlining the need for reform and
recommend that the Port of Entry be transferred from Port Townsend
to Port Angeles, which may be done by the Secretary of the
Treasury, as Congress has never legislated on the subject.
While waiting for word from the east authorizing this economic
castration of Port Townsend, Smith went about town building up
goodwill. He hired the editor of a local weekly as assistant
collector, then fired him for incompetence. He deplored the local
practice of importing Hudson's Bay whiskey without bothering to
pay duty. He even criticized the view.
Sometimes he tried to be nice: at a party honoring his arrival he
expressed his pleasure at finding his hosts as intelligent as the
country folk back where he came from.
Port Townsend did not cotton to Victor Smith.
time word leaked out that Smith had recommended removal of the
port of entry. He denied it, explaining with something less than
candor that he had done nothing more than outline the situation to
Then someone learned that Smith and four other men had acquired
title to a town site at Port Angeles. Smith could explain that:
the Port Angeles Townsite Company had been organized as a
patriotic endeavor to promote the national welfare by developing
land across the Strait from the British naval station at
Didn't the people of Port Townsend realize that Britain was likely
at any moment to come into the war on the side of the Confederacy?
It was imperative that the harbor of Port Angeles be developed in
the interests of national safety. Port Townsend remained
unconvinced as to the purity of his motives.
When his letters recommending the creation of a military district
at Port Angeles failed to get results, Smith decided to go east
and by personal interview convince the nation's leaders of the
British menace and the steps needed to combat it. He was fresh out
of assistant collectors, and he felt it unwise to deputize any of
the Port Townsend citizens, whom he suspected of having subversive
tendencies. He asked the captain of the local revenue cutter Joe
Lane to lend him an officer for six weeks. Second Lieutenant
J. H. Merryman got the job.
Smith left quietly for Washington - so quietly, in fact, that Port
Townsend got the impression he had fled the field. The Weekly
Republican saluted his departure: "Poor Victor has gone,
unwept, un-honored, and unhung."
Lieutenant Merryman brevetted Founding Father Hastings as deputy
collector, and together they went over the records of the custom
house. First, shades of Judas Iscariot! oh, whelp of Benedict
Arnold! - they found a copy of Smith's recommendation to shift the
port of entry. (The absent collector was hanged in effigy when
that word got out.)
Then they began to go over the accounts. To their delight, Smith
came out fifteen thousand dollars short.
Merryman wrote a report to Secretary Chase, picturing Smith as an
embezzler - and an inept one at that. Port Townsend settled back
happily to await the arrival of Smith's replacement. Two months
passed, two sweet months of clear skies, fresh breezes, good
deer-hunting, happy clam digging.
chinooks were biting off the point. Never bad Port Townsend
whiskey given off a better glow. The Bank Exchange, the
Whalesmen's Arms, the Banner Saloon, and lesser dives, all
radiated relaxation and joy. Victor Smith was gone.
Then in July the mail from San Francisco brought a copy of the
Bulletin with a story that Victor Smith, Customs Collector for the
Puget Sound District, was in town, arranging the transfer of the
revenue cutter Shubrick to Port Angeles, the new port of
you couldn't believe everything you read in the papers. On a warm,
overcast evening early in August a small paddle-wheel steamer
rounded Point Wilson and approached the town. Her running lights
glinted off the bronze of her swivel guns as she jockeyed up to
Fowler's Wharf. Word spread that she was the Shubrick. A crowd
gathered as she tied up. Down the gangplank came Victor Smith.
one stepped forward to welcome him. In silence the people of Port
Townsend let him pass. In silence he walked toward the custom
Lieutenant Merryman was told that Smith was coming. He put the
records in the safe, locked the safe, and pocketed the key. Then
he locked the custom house door and waited.
collector approached the deputy collector and announced himself
ready to resume his duties.
Merryman said he could not permit Smith to do so. Smith asked why.
Merryman said Smith was a felon and an embezzler, that it had been
his painful duty to write the report revealing that sad fact to
that, Smith said he had explained everything to Chase. Just a
matter of bookkeeping. Merryman hadn't understood his accounting
system, that was all. Now the keys, please.
Merryman said he would await official confirmation of Smith's
clearance before letting him back into the office. Smith turned
and walked back to the Shubrick. From the saloons came the echo of
hour later Lieutenant Wilson, the skipper of the Shubrick, came to
the custom house. He was a pleasant young man with a soft voice
and a courteous manner. He said it was his unpleasant duty to tell
Merryman that on instructions from Collector Smith he had ordered
his men to load the cutter's twelve-pounders with double shot.
They were at this moment trained on the custom house. If the
records were not surrendered within fifteen minutes, the
bombardment would begin. It would be prudent of persons residing
nearby to leave their houses.
Merryman, after a quick consultation with the city council, gave
up the keys. A party from the Shubrick loaded up the records and
carried them to the cutter, which at once cast off and moved out
into the bay. The next morning a delegation of citizens rushed off
to Olympia to see the territorial governor. He rounded up a
delegation of officials to find out what the hell was going on at
Port Townsend - or, as Governor Pickering phrased it, to study "the
complicated and delicate questions of law and conventional usage,
or professional etiquette, always to be rightfully observed
between officers representing coordinate branches of the same
After talking to the outraged citizens, United States Commissioner
Henry McGill issued warrants charging Smith and Wilson with "assault
with intent to kill." The United States marshal deputized a
posse to row him out to the Shubrick, which had reappeared off the
marshal boarded the cutter, but be couldn't find Smith. He did
locate Lieutenant Wilson and read the warrant to him. Wilson
refused to accept it, arguing that he couldn't be served with a
warrant on the deck of a government vessel. The marshal rowed
ashore to ask what to do next.
commissioner told the marshal he could too serve the warrant. The
commissioner said he had better get right back out there and do
it. Back they rowed. But as the rowboat approached the cutter