The entrepôt

View of Foreign Factories, Canton, 1825-1835

GULLS danced a ballet around the spars of the Mary Lord with a semblance of exultation at her journey’s end. Laborers and clerks, meanwhile, joined in their own peculiar revels, hefting wooden crates from the hold, inspecting and recording the cargo dockside, wheeling it away to a waiting storehouse. Chests of exotic shape and design descended the gangway stamped with markings that lent them an unfamiliar air, but the characters that mattered now were the unambiguous initials of Thomas H. Smith, merchant.

The Mary Lord and others of Smith’s sailing ships plied the world’s oceans to feed the enduring Western appetite for porcelain, silk, spices and tea from Asia. Before the age of fast clippers passage via the foreign enclave of Guangzhou could take a year or more, and Smith by most accounts assumed greater risks and accumulated greater wealth in this trade than any rival. His far-flung commerce was managed from New York, but over a five-year span Smith brought tea and other wares also to the diminutive port of Perth Amboy.1

The value of bypassing one harbor for another lay in the ways of the custom house. Customs collectors had to navigate the gulf between their employers at the Treasury and sometimes redoubtable merchant-clients. In many cases these agents exercised the better part of valor, granting a deferment of duties in the form of a custom house bond. Eighteen-month terms were standard. Overall, what amounted to government loans at little or no interest had the benefit of enlarging the pool of credit available to merchants, encouraging trade and ultimately filling the nation’s coffers.

Certificate for tea imported by Thomas H. Smith through Perth Amboy, 23 April 1824

Thomas H. Smith took advantage of these discretionary policies to import more and more tea. As his burgeoning indebtedness began to worry collectors in New York, he opted to shift business to a port in a neighboring district where bonds would be easier to obtain.2 And so, by May 1827 when the Mary Lord rounded Sandy Hook making for the docks at Amboy, plans were already afoot to erect four massive warehouses on its shore in anticipation of the expanding trade.

The success of the project relied on another merchant with whom Smith had durable business and personal ties: Matthias Bruen, surely Perth Amboy’s most powerful if not most admired citizen, and a precursor to the great American capitalists of a later age. His son George W. Bruen, recently married to the daughter of Smith, was a partner in Smith’s firm. The warehouses, built in the summer of 1827 on Bruen property mere steps from the Sound, became known as the Bruen Stores.3

Shipments by Thomas H. Smith and Son intensified and persisted into 1828, in which year the bubble burst.4 How much of the disaster was due to bad luck and how much to malfeasance could never be determined. Treasury officials awoke to the prospect of some $700,000 in lost duties; hearings and litigation at the highest levels ensued. Three days before his bankruptcy (and, it was implausibly but persistently argued, without foreknowledge of the failure) Smith had signed over all his real estate to Matthias Bruen, who doggedly and in the end successfully repulsed charges that he and Smith had tried to perpetrate “a fraud upon creditors.” Even President Andrew Jackson deplored the circumstances of the “case at Amboy.”5

The rise and spectacular fall of Thomas H. Smith must have rattled Perth Amboy citizens whose livelihoods were joined with Matthias Bruen’s. One of them, the father of William A. Whitehead, was beholden to Bruen for his cashier’s post at the Commercial Bank. His wife and Bruen’s were sisters, and when the government came calling he was made the trustee of Bruen’s property. His son, who at 17 must have watched the construction of the Bruen Stores and the flow of tea consignments into them, was even pressed into service as a temporary inspector, but omitted most of this lived history from his later writings.6 In so doing he may have unwittingly encouraged popular confusion with an earlier tumult over tea that portended the demise of British rule, an erroneous association at times cohering into print.7

The Bruen Stores loom at the center of this view across Arthur Kill to the Perth Amboy waterfront.

With the collapse of Perth Amboy’s commerce in tea less audacious uses were found for the Bruen Stores, which dominated the shoreline for another fifty years.8 Whitehead walked and briefly worked in their hulking shadow where today not a stone or brick remains to tell their story. Soon, and certainly on the strength of other considerations than his slender custom house training, he won appointment as a collector at the nation’s most outlying seaport, gathering on that far margin riches more precious than the proceeds of trade.

Copyright © 2017 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] The first recorded consignment of tea at Perth Amboy arrived on board America in April 1824; the tea ships Citizen and Importer called in June and July of the same year. Perth Amboy (New Jersey) Collection District, Abstract of goods and Impost book, RG 36, National Archives and Records Administration; Wharf Book, Perth Amboy Wharf, MG 455, New Jersey Historical Society. For the Mary Lord‘s visit in May 1827 see Wharf book and Daily work book, Perth Amboy Wharf, MG 455, New Jersey Historical Society.

[2] Portrayals of Smith and his commercial (and other) activities appear in Walter Barrett [Joseph Alfred Scoville], The old merchants of New York City (New York 1863) 30-37; An old resident [William C. Hunter], The ‘fan kwae’ at Canton before treaty days 1825-1844 (London 1882) 17-19; Robert Greenhalgh Albion, The rise of New York Port (1815-1860) (New York 1939) 198; Daniel M. Henderson, Yankee ships in China seas: Adventures of pioneer Americans in the troubled Far East (New York 1946) 64-65.

[3] Benjamin Maurice, whose Daily work book recorded the activity of the wharf and much of what happened in the town, noted that one of his employees was digging the foundation of storehouses for Bruen on 6 July 1827. On 9 July the city council made recommendations for the alignment of the Bruen Stores and an adjacent new street. Daily Work Book, Perth Amboy Wharf, MG 455, New Jersey Historical Society.

[4] Custom house and wharf records show the arrivals in Perth Amboy of three of Smith’s vessels—Citizen, Europa and America—in August and September 1827. Three came in 1828: Beaver in February, Maria in March and Citizen in October. Perth Amboy (New Jersey) Collection District, Abstracts of tonnage duties collected 1 April 1818—31 December 1829, RG 36, National Archives and Records Administration; Wharf Book and Daily Work Book, Perth Amboy Wharf, MG 455, New Jersey Historical Society. Together with Importer and Mary Lord (see note 1 above) these five ships made a fleet of seven, identical save one to the seven named by William C. Hunter in The ‘fan kwae’ at Canton, 1 with note. Maria reached Perth Amboy on a second voyage in April 1829, only to be seized with her cargo by the U.S. Marshal and sold at auction; Bruen filed suit, and the New Jersey Supreme Court found in his favor.

[5] Documents relevant to the case were gathered and printed in the Congressional Serial Set, H.R. Doc. No. 134, 23d Congress, 2d Session (Washington 1835). For Jackson’s comment see Daniel Feller et al., edd. The papers of Andrew Jackson, Volume VII, 1829 (Knoxville, Tenn. 2007) 462. Thomas H. Smith’s bankruptcy and its repercussions occupied the courts for many years, producing some significant decisions; cf. Bruen v. Ogden (1830), Stuyvesant v. Hone and others (1844), Iddings v. Bruen (1846).

[6] Whitehead touches on his temporary employment, and so also on Smith, the tea trade and the building of the Bruen Stores, at the point in his memoir “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830” at which he assumed the collector’s position in Key West. A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida; page 27 of the transcription contains the reference. In Whitehead’s monograph of Perth Amboy history the Bruen Stores receive only incidental mentions. Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 111, 311.

[7] The caption for a photograph of one of the Stores, for example, claims that “this brick warehouse was standing before the Revolution and tea was taken from Boston and stored here for safe-keeping.” James S. Cawley, Historic New Jersey in pictures (Princeton 1939) 80.

[8] A decline in tourism turned the Bruen Stores, easily spotted from the deck of a passing steamboat, into the town’s sole distinguishing feature. Joseph A. Scoville (The old merchants of New York City 33) supposed that “travelers to Philadelphia by the old route must often have wondered what those immense brick stores were doing in such an insignificant place as Perth Amboy.”  In the 1870s the editors of Morford’s short-trip guide to America thought them the only feature of note in this “old but decayed seaport.” Mapping the streets and structures that existed in 1823, Whitehead included the Bruen Stores—four years too early—an inadvertence which suggests their profound impression on the psyche of the town. Whitehead, Contributions, facing page 57.

Images: Peabody Essex Museum, photo Sexton-Dykes (Factories); liveauctioneers.com (certificate); John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical collections of the state of New Jersey (Newark 1844) 305 (Bruen Stores).
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