Cutting Through Crime

The United States Revenue Cutter Service in the San Juan Islands

In 1903 The San Juan Islander declared, “It is not the custom of the collector’s office to get a brass band and make a great hullabaloo”

The San Juans, with its many islands and hidden, sheltered bays, located between Canada and the United States, have long attracted smugglers. And for almost as long, federal authorities have sought to enforce the law on these waters.

Congress created the United States Revenue Cutter Service in 1790. “Cutter vessels” were common sailing ships of the time, usually small and built for speed. These Cutters were armed customs vessels that enforced taxation on imports.

The cutters came to Washington in the 1850s to help collect customs fees and crack down on smuggling. Smuggling was common around the San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound as the region contained many coves, inlets, rivers, and in close proximity to British territory and international waters. Besides rum runners (during prohibition) and opium smugglers, the cutters worked to combat the often complex system of human-smuggling.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it illegal for new Chinese workers to enter the US legally, complex smuggling routes developed. In 1903, authorities busted an elaborate smuggling ring which was lead by Coastal Salish Indians on both sides of the border. Chinese immigrants would secure legal passage to British Columbia, then they would join Native smugglers for a three-day canoe journey to enter the US. The trip could cost anywhere from $50-150 per person.

To avoid detection, the Chinese immigrants dressed like Native American women. After passing through the San Juans, the smugglers would bring their Chinese passengers to traditional gathering points like Ballard, in North Seattle. The Chinese would then change their disguises to look like American men. American gangs provided the new arrivals with forged documents, allowing them to move about freely in the US.

President Woodrow Wilson transformed the Cutter Service into the Coast Guard and Life-Saving Service in 1915. To this day the Coast Guard remains active in the islands, policing the border and offering rescue services in the event of disaster. Always vigilant, the legacy of the Cutter Service lives on through the Coast Guard.