Smugglers & Spies

The War of 1812 was especially cruel to the state of Maine, but some found opportunity and wealth amid the chaos.

The clamor of a sleigh and the clomping of footsteps broke the silence of a brilliant moonlit night on the banks of the Penobscot River in Hampden in late December of 1814. Awakened by the noise, federal customs agent Charles Tebbets peered through his front window to see seven or eight men gathering outside his locked front door. One had a sword by his side and a pistol in his hand. There was a loud knock. “What’s wanted?” Tebbets asked through the closed door.

The man with the pistol replied he’d been robbed of some goods and he’d come to get them back. Tebbets insisted the goods were not in his house.

“You’re a lying rascal!” the stranger shouted, and he fired his gun into the air to underscore his point. Then he ordered his men to stave the door in.

Alarmed and badly outnumbered, Tebbets began to negotiate. He allowed two of the men inside. The strangers ransacked the house from cellar to attic, with Tebbets lighting the way and soothing the scared women and children of his family. The armed men did not find what they sought — a trunk of smuggled British goods seized by federal officials — and they left the badly shaken Tebbets family to return to their beds.

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Joshua M. Smith heads the Department of Humanities at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

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