Business and Labor

Sarah Anna Emery Conquers the War of 1812

When the War of 1812 broke out, Sarah Anna Emery had been married to David Emery just over a year. The couple had invested in a property that consisted of a farm, boarding house and tavern in Newburyport, and the war threatened to crush their dreams as it came crashing in on the New England economy.

An Illustration from Sarah Anna Emery's "Three Generations."

An Illustration from Sarah Anna Emery’s “Three Generations.”

The Emerys learned of the war on July Fourth, and she recorded her thoughts in her Reminiscences of a nonagenarian published in 1879, a remarkable collection of tales from her long life.

There had been a celebration, oration, etc. Major Emery had been on duty with Col. Moses Newell, of the upper parish, who dined with us. I was apprised of the news at the table. There was much conversation, but my husband said little, and I knew by his grave taciturnity that he was troubled.

At night, after the house was still he came into my private parlor, and sinking into the large rocking-chair exclaimed, “Wife, I fear I am ruined.”

Whether it was my father’s democratic rearing, or a clearer insight, I cannot tell, but some way I did not share in this despondency, and soon succeeded in chasing the gloom from his brow.

Not that Major David Emery lacked reason for his despair. Sarah Emery recorded how badly the war impacted many New Englanders:

In every seaport there was much distress. Labor was impeded; the most industrious were enforced to idleness; poverty took the place of plenty; this was too often followed by despondency, drunkenness and misery. Many a noble man became a mere wreck of humanity, and many a delicately bred lady descended into an unthrifty, slatternly household drudge, while their offspring, half-clad and half-fed, mixed unrestrained amongst the very dregs of the population.

But, she noted, It is an ill wind that blows no one good.

For the Emerys, the war meant opportunity. The newly independent nation was still hungry for British goods, despite the arrival of war, and as most in New England felt the war was unnecessary, many citizens had little compunction against buying from the English.

The problem, for the British, was that they were shut out of the larger ports to the south: New York, Philadelphia, Boston. But they could land their cargoes farther north and drive them to the wealthy southern cities.

The Emerys tavern, and other taverns like theirs, was packed with teamsters spending the night or seeking meals as they headed south or returned north.

Sarah noted that during the war, it was common for her to look out her window at sundown and find fifteen wagons out front laden with goods. In one instance, a wagon loaded with black powder and arms was stationed overnight in front of the house. When the Emerys learned of the explosive cargo, they became more careful about restricting what was stored near their house.

As the war progressed, money became scarcer. With regular trade at a standstill because of the inability of ships to move up and down the coast unmolested, the black market boomed. Prices on imported goods, like china and linens, soared. Prices on local produce plummeted, but even with the falling prices many were unable to afford enough to eat.

David Emery employed people from the city digging potatoes on his farm and working in his slaughterhouse. They were glad to help out for a share of the food.

All the while, there was still demand for British goods—both those captured by Newburyport privateers and smuggled in via Canada.  The Emery farm became a smuggler’s paradise, with Major Emery gaining a reputation as a man who could make things happen. Sarah expounded on his exploits in her recollections:

I was awakened one night by a tap upon the window of my bedroom. Somewhat startled, I still forebore to awaken my husband, who had retired much fatigued. Slipping on a wrapper, I raised the curtain and asked, “Who is there?”

“A friend;” was the reply, “make no disturbance, but call the Major; I must see him a few moments.”

I recognized the voice as that of Capt. Josiah Bartlett; at that time an active shipmaster. Mr. Emery hastily dressed, when it was found that Capt. Bartlett had a stagecoach at the door, filled with merchandise, gloves, muslins, laces, vestings, ribbons, and other articles of a like description. These were hastily placed in my best bedroom, from whence they were gradually taken to the stores in town.

Capt. Bartlett continued to bring goods for some time. We often had bales of valuable cloth hidden in the hay mow; some were taken to Crane Neck and stored away in the large back chamber.”

Meanwhile, the Emery tavern was also gathering a regular trade that included people from all walks of life. Emery had built a bowling alley that was popular and created a stream of regular visitors, sometimes complicating the behind-the-scenes business:

The collector of the customs, Mr. Ralph Cross, and Master Whitmore, another custom house official, were in the habit of walking up to the tavern of a pleasant afternoon; on one occasion I entertained the two old gentlemen in my parlor while Mr. Emery loaded a team at the barn with smuggled goods and drove away to West Newbury without exciting the slightest suspicion in the government officers, though the whole household were on the broad grin, and I was obliged to control my risibles and give a variety of private signals to the others to prevent an unseemly outburst of merriment.

All the while, David was reluctantly getting even more daring work:

Mr. Luther Waterman and Mr. Joshua Aubin received notice that a lot of linen awaited their order at “Kennebunk wharves.” How were they to get it to Newburyport?

“The Major” was everybody’s resource in a dilemma, and no excuse would be received; “he must get that linen.”

Mr. Emery hesitated; it was a job he did not relish. Besides having inherited his father’s consumptive temperament, his health was such he could ill bear over-fatigue and exposure, but overcome by his friends’ importunity, he at length reluctantly made his preparations for the journey.

Wearing a disguise and carrying false customs papers, David retrieved the linen and returned to Newburyport with it secreted inside a rum cask. His wagon broke an axle passing through Hampton, N.H., but the unsuspecting townspeople helped him get back on his way.

David Emery would make several more clandestine trips in the years ahead, and by the end of the war his business was well established. Far from the ruin he feared, the War of 1812 launched him successfully into the life of a family man.

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