This Was Then: Border Patrol

The U.S. Customs Service, Vineyard Haven


The Rev. Samuel Gould, an abolitionist activist, visited the Vineyard for a few days in the summer of 1837. “Met with a hearty welcome,” he wrote, and remarked on the proverbial generosity of seafaring families. “No person treated me rudely or unkindly, save one. He was no sailor, and no gentleman, but a collector of customs at Holmes Hole, named Worth.”

Until 1937, Vineyard Haven was an official port of entry into the U.S. Arriving vessels were systematically boarded, inspected, and logged by the U.S. Customs Service. The harbor was technically a subport of the customs district of Edgartown, one of 12 such districts in the state. Deputy Collector Henry P. Worth was responsible for Holmes Hole harbor; his boss, the district’s Customs collector, oversaw the main office in Edgartown. 

Worth’s home on Main Street — about where Nat’s Nook and Soft as a Grape are today — contained the one-room Customs office, his official station for nearly 50 years. A sign — “Custom-House” — hung over his front door, together with his hours of business (9-12 and 2-4). But he was almost always absent; Worth had a small, two-masted revenue boat, with which he tirelessly boarded visiting ships. By mid-century, Worth was singlehandedly boarding and inspecting an estimated 3,000 vessels each year arriving in the harbor, at least 500 of them under foreign registry. 

Henry Worth’s uncle, William Worth, had also been the Holmes Hole Customs officer. His home office stood at the top of Union Street; the 17-room, 13-fireplace home was the largest in town. He was also a partner in the Company Saltworks (one of the largest industrial ventures on the Island at the turn of the 19th century.) The elder Worth was unexpectedly hustled off-Island one day to a landlocked government desk job, when evidence came to light in 1814 that he had been using his position as a Customs officer to market his salt business, in a clearly illegal conflict of interest. His nephew took his position in 1816.

By mid-century, some 40,000 commercial vessels passed annually through Vineyard Sound, carrying more than $200 million worth of cargo. Holmes Hole was a favorite stopover for the coasting trade, and a fairly reliable safe haven during a storm. 

Nineteenth century Customs laws were complex and ever-changing. There were 30 percent tariffs, for instance, on a huge list of imported items, including umbrellas, artificial flowers, bologna, and clocks. Firearms, firewood, and feathers were among imports taxed at 25 percent (except for ostrich feathers, which were taxed at 15 percent), as were bells (unless they were broken or cracked, in which case they were duty-free.) Playing cards had a surcharge of 30 cents per pack. Paintings and books were duty-free, as long as they were for “philosophical purposes.” The only items completely prohibited were “indecent and obscene prints,” which were seized and destroyed. Imported liquor was carefully regulated, with tariffs as high as 100 percent, depending on the kind, origin, and quantity. Resisting or interfering with a Customs officer carried a $500 fine.

In 1843, passenger Alexander Eggler, arriving in Holmes Hole on the schooner Fellowship from Cuba, was arrested for smuggling 52 gold and silver watches in his baggage trunk. (He had established himself as a watch cleaner and repairer in Matanzas, Cuba, but then fled with his customers’ goods. Customs officials had been watching for his arrival. The watches were soon returned to their owners.)

In 1865, the schooner Atlantic was seized by Customs officials in Holmes Hole Harbor, after 50,000 cigars and a small quantity of sugar were found concealed behind a bulkhead. (Officials had been tipped off by an informant, who was then legally entitled to a share of the proceeds from the contraband.)

In 1854, Deputy Collector Worth was hailed by Captain Cooke of the bark Franklin, arriving in Holmes Hole from Jacksonville, Fla., who announced that he had discovered a fugitive, stowaway slave aboard, one Edinbur Randall. Worth slow-walked the captain’s request to facilitate the return of the enslaved man to Florida, and the annoyed Cooke eventually departed, only to discover that Randall had stolen a boat and escaped. (Randall soon found refuge in a Gay Head swamp. A group of sympathetic Wampanoag women disguised him in a woman’s dress and bonnet to fool the sheriff’s posse, and with their help, he escaped to New Bedford and assumed a new — and free — identity.)

Unlike bustling Vineyard Haven, by the 1870s Edgartown had become a very quiet port. And unlike the long-serving career Customs officers serving Vineyard Haven Harbor, their boss, the collector of Customs in Edgartown, was a political appointee. The head position was a revolving door of party loyalists, alternating every four years with the changing administrations in Washington.

Controversy struck in 1872, under Collector of Customs Cornelius Marchant of Edgartown. An exposé in the New York World titled “Radical Thievery” reported, “Few of the 40 millions of people who inhabit the United States have heard or know anything about Edgartown, Mass.; yet it is a port of entry, and no doubt supposed to be of great importance by the authorities. Its commerce is, nevertheless, in a sort of coma. It may as well be called dead. During the year ending 31st of March, 1872, the foreign trade of Edgartown was: Imports – $256. Exports – Nill. But if the commerce of Edgartown is dead, the personnel that superintend it are all alive, as it takes the following retinue to attend:” it then went on to list the payroll for the Island-wide Customs district, including Vineyard Haven, totaling $6,705.02 for nine positions. The story was picked up by newspapers across the country; in a follow-up article, the New York Times include the Vineyard among the top 10 biggest Customs House “swindles” in the country.

But the Fall River Daily Evening News came to their defense. Well, sort of. “Politicians,” they wrote, “have turned their practical eyes toward the little rat holes along the coast where the government for long years has kept up Custom House establishments, and lo! They have discovered a horrible state of things at Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard … Now the truth is, it includes the harbor of Vineyard Haven, where an average from 20 to 40 vessels arrive every day of the year … Now this port of Vineyard Haven has no imports, but one can see that there is a world of business to be done to look after so many vessels, and prevent immense smuggling.”

Between 1890 and 1937, Vineyard Haven’s Customs House was moved to at least four or five different downtown offices, its final destination the Dukes County Garage building, overlooking the harbor. The Edgartown Customs office closed in 1913, but Vineyard Haven continued on as an official port under Deputy Collector Howes Norris for nearly a quarter of a century more. But on March 31, 1937, the Vineyard Haven Customs House was finally closed, and all records transferred to New Bedford. 

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Customs Service was split into two agencies: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), both under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.