This Place in History: Immigrant Smuggling in Newport

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At ‘This Place in History’, we’re in Newport with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins. 

“We’re going to talk a bit about smuggling on Lake Memphremagog behind us. Scott Wheeler, the publisher of Vermont’s Northland Journal, is going to tell us about immigrant smuggling from the early 20th Century,” said Perkins.

“I’ve been recording the history of this region for about 25 years now. And I’d heard bits and pieces of the Chinese smuggling in this area. But, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I really began to delve into it. And it was like, how did I not know this? I don’t mean it wasn’t just a trickle of people, of Chinese immigrants coming through this area. It was hundreds and it was thousands,” began Wheeler.

“It was started in 1882 with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. A lot of the immigrants were dropped off on the West Coast of Canada. The ones who wanted to go to the East Coast, they were brought all the way across by train. Then, you had Canadians who smuggled them, but Americans also became involved in it because it was very profitable,” explained Wheeler.

“Just going back to the Chinese Exclusion Act, if I remember my U.S. history correctly, this is really the first time that the United States made a law that said a specific people could not come into this country. I think it was fear against the Chinese taking all the railroad jobs in the West,” added Perkins.

“I will say it’s kind of disappointing that the person who signed it into law was a Vermonter, President Chester A. Arthur,” lamented Wheeler.

“People coming here, I believe, were the ones passing through to get to Boston or New York. You think this is rural now, it was very rural back then,” explained Wheeler.

“And a completely unguarded border. I mean, you had some revenuers looking for folks moving booze across the border, but a fairly porous area,” said Perkins.

“You’ve got to remember they weren’t in high speed cars in 1882. They were going by horse and buggy and by foot. The newspaper accounts of the time, they’re rather shocking. At first, I didn’t know how to handle it. In these days and time, the wording was just horrible. It was racist, horrible,” said Wheeler.

“Well, a lot of the Exclusion Act, if I remember rightly, a lot of it was driven by industry and the press,” said Perkins.

“It’s an amazingly sad part of our history. My theory on history is there are a lot of good, happy things to record. But on the other hand, if you’re going to record history, you’ve got to really get down and dirty and talk about some really bad things,” concluded Wheeler.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historical markers, click here.

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