blog-post blog-post

Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · November 21, 2017

Smuggling, the American Revolution, and the Riverine Highway

Doing History 13 min read

Today’s post accompanies “Smuggling and the American Revolution,” episode 161 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

by Eugene R.H. Tesdahl

Smuggling. We have been conditioned to resent the word and the act. Smuggling brings to mind all sorts of seedy images: Prohibition, drug mules from Mexico, arms traffickers in the Middle East, even cigarette smugglers between the US and Canada. Rarely does smuggling elicit images of the American Revolution, and yet contraband trade routes and the dynamic women and men who navigated them deeply influenced the Revolutionary War and the birth of America.

Smuggling in a way never becomes more than trade until there are entities, nations, and empires to label it as such. British and French Empires began policing contraband trade over a century before colonists fomented rebellion. Indigenous perspectives held that boundaries were artificial and that the routine rhythm of life included trade. Exchange indicated the existence of a relationship rather than illegality. Trade and peace went hand in hand for the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Stockbridge, and other Native nations. Trade renewed friendships; transmitted information; spurred marriages; and united families, clans, and villages. Trade also cemented alliances that could be called upon in war. And unauthorized trade on Native ground could upset intentional diplomacy.

The British Parliament enacted the Acts of Navigation and Trade in 1660, bolstering them in 1673, 1696, and again in the eighteenth century. These regulations aimed to keep raw materials, finished products, and profits in the metropole, not in peripheral colonies. The Navigation Acts were stronger than the series of French edicts tasked with stemming the spread of illicit trade between competing colonies. Nonetheless, ambitious subjects from the Caribbean to the Hudson circumvented them. Smuggling was both possible and profitable among French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, and English possessions in the Caribbean and deep in the North American mainland.

One of the most thriving smuggling routes in North America grew along the riverine highway, the Hudson River-Lake George-Lake Champlain-Richelieu River corridor, between Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) communities Kanatsiohereke and New Caughnawaga with Albany and Montreal at their outskirts. Smuggling Canadian furs south for British woolens thrived along the riverine highway, an inter-imperial borderland, from 1701 to 1763. Trade proved significant along this porous borderland throughout the war of rebellion.

The cast of smugglers between New York and New France included dozens of Mohawk women like Agnesse, Marie-Theresse, Marie-Magdeleine, and the wife of Tegouassin. Marie-Madeleine, Marie-Anne, and Marguerite Desauniers, unwed daughters of Montreal Merchant Pierre Trottier-Desauniers; Catherine Dagneau, talented entrepreneur; the enterprising métis trader Geneviève Massé; and her indefatigable Anglo-Dutch husband John Hendricks Lydius joined the cast of smugglers.[1] During times of war, including King George’s War (1744-1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), dynamic Haudenosaunee gantowisas continued to exchange strouds from Albany and furs from the North, but increasingly they traded wartime stores, namely firearms and ammunition. Strategic information emerged as the most important commodity smugglers carried at wartime. The same held true during the American Revolution.

A topographical map of Hudsons River, with the channels depth of water, rocks, shoals &c. and the country adjacent, from Sandy-Hook, New York and bay to Fort Edward, also the communication with Canada by Lake George and Lake Champlain, as high as Fort Chambly on Sorel River (London: Wm. Faden, 1776), Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Smuggling developed in similar fashion in Caribbean ports and at East Coast entrepôts. Like Haudenosaunee entrepreneurs, British, French, and Anglo-Dutch smugglers capitalized on the inefficiency of trade restrictions by smuggling during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Famously, this smuggling revolved around the economic engine of the Caribbean, sugar. Smugglers stepped in as shipments of British, French, and Dutch treacle and molasses passed New England en route to Europe. Distilling rum offered daring New England families, including the Adams Family and the House of Hancock, wealth and influence decades prior to the Revolution. New England boasted over 100 distilleries by the mid-eighteenth century, in part fueled by growing alcohol consumption in both small farm families and Native communities in the northeast and the Great Lakes. Smuggling thrived at times of peace, but grew as indispensable as it was infuriating during times of war.

Smugglers remained versatile and expendable. A series of actions led the Desauniers sisters to be expelled from New France in 1751. Removed from “the Sault” [Sault-Saint-Louis/ New Caughnawaga], the sisters were put on board the Chariot Royale which, conveniently enough, deposited them near kinship ties on the opposite side of the Atlantic in La Rochelle—deported, yet not defeated. Marie-Anne and Marie-Madeleine remained in La Rochelle guiding their enterprise to further success in Atlantic commerce until their deaths in the 1780s. Marguerite Desauniers, widowed in 1763, remarried the next year. Shortly thereafter, she and her new husband, Charles Josué Eury de La Pérelle set sail for the new colony of La Guyane in South America, where they prospered and established themselves as one of the founding families of French Guiana. In 1775, Pérelle returned to La Rochelle to be inducted into the prestigious military order of St. Louis and a year later was assigned as the commandant of Martinique. The commandant died in 1779 leaving Marguerite Desauniers Pérelle a sizeable pension and links to Guyane, La Rochelle, and Canada. The Desauniers demonstrated their ability to navigate channels of legitimate and contraband trade, not merely along the riverine highway, but at nearly every corner of the French Atlantic World.

Following the Seven Years’ War John Hendricks Lydius faced declining opportunities. Lydius’s new passion for defrauding Indigenous peoples of their land, even when kin, began to fail him. “The Deed taken by Lydius was unduly obtained & that no regard ought to be paid to it,”[2] reported William Samuel Johnson, the agent of Connecticut, to the Susquehannah Company Committee of the Connecticut Assembly in 1769. Iroquois leaders in particular continued to criticize Lydius: “He spoke to them whenever he met them; never with more than ten,” noted Oneida headman Tiahogwando at the Albany Treaty of 1775, “from these he pretended to make a purchase of that tract.”[3]  In 1776, as word of rebellion spread throughout British North America, he and his son Martin traveled to Europe, evidently in search of commercial opportunity. They evidently found it in the Netherlands, and by the 1780s the two were able to settle in the fashionable London quarter of Kensington, where they remained.

The four figures who earned the ire of so many never suffered irreparable harm at the hands of their opponents. Even trans-Atlantic deportation could not stop them. Lydius died in 1791 in a comfortable home; Marguerite (Desauniers) Pérelle died a wealthy widow in Martinique in 1784; Marie-Anne and Marie-Madeleine Desauniers died in 1788 in La Rochelle. Their involvement in illicit trade between New York and New France had honed their skills, added to their capital reserves, and placed them in positions that enabled them to complete rare long lives in distant corners of the Atlantic World. The world of contraband trade their lives disclosed illustrates the significant contributions of Haudenosaunee people along a riverine highway and the enduring importance of smuggling during times of peace and war between empires.

Smuggling routes between Albany and Montreal and between the Caribbean and ports like Boston and Louisbourg thrived during the American Revolution, as they had during previous wars. The goods exchanged differed. Rum and woolens gave rise to muskets and powder. The routes remained and the strategic information smugglers carried mattered even more than the goods they hauled.

Lines between legal and illicit trade blurred even more during the American Revolution. Privateering during the revolution offered seasoned smugglers an avenue towards legitimacy that many maintained following the conflict. Even more notable merchants and businessmen swelled the ranks of smugglers during the rebellion. This included Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Not only did figures like Morris supply Washington’s forces during the war, they enriched themselves in the process.

The Revolutionary War underscored several themes about the problematic necessity of smuggling during wartime. Smuggling routes would continue to grow, develop, and wane, but rarely would they die completely. The goods smuggled need not be dangerous or immoral to be significant. Illicit trade routes inaugurated at peacetime would often serve belligerents at times of war. Smugglers often shifted allegiances as a strategy remaining troublesome yet resilient regardless of the outcome of war. By 1781, the Revolution and smuggling embodied the uncertain future of commerce in America, a world turned upside down.

Eugene R.H. Tesdahl is Assistant Professor of History at University of Wisconsin – Platteville. Smuggling and the superficiality of borders figure centrally into his study of Indigenous, French, British, and métis communities in early North America.


[1] Library and Archives of Canada, 19 November 1729 and 28 November 1729, Catherine Dagneau, veuve la Chauvignerie, Journal, Montreal,  1729-1730. C13A, vol.11; New York Historical Society, Robert Sanders to Monsieur PMP, 19 October 1752 and Robert Sanders to Monsieur DND 17 October 1752, Robert Sanders, Letterbook, Albany, 1752-1758, Sanders Family Papers.

[2] William Samuel Johnson to the Committee of the Susquehannah Company, London, March 10, 1769, The Susquehannah Company Papers, Volume III, 1768-1769, III: 90.

[3] At a Treaty began & held with the Indians of the Six United Nations at the city of Albany, on Friday the 25th of August, 1775, NYCD, VIII: 624.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

April 29, 2024

J.E. Morgan

April 26, 2024

Noel Edward Smyth

April 26, 2024

Catie Peters

Subscribe to the Blog

Related Posts.

Following the Army

Read More

When Did America Really Become Independent?

Read More