Story last updated at 4/18/2012 - 11:10 am
Editor's note: This is the second installment in a four-part series about Charles Vincent Baronovich. In last week's issue, we learned about how Baronovich arrived in Alaska, married the daughter of Chief Skowl of a village in Polk Inlet and started a salmon saltery in Karta Bay. He also hunted and traded fur seals out of Kodiak. We continue his story when he decided to smuggle liquor to Alaska where it was illegal.
Baronovich sold most of his furs in Canada at Fort Simpson, near Prince Rupert, once Alaska became a U.S. possession in 1867. No longer was it necessary to make the extended trip to Kodiak to purchase supplies and trade goods.
It was through this change of ports that Baronovich became involved in smuggling. Canada possessed all the things desired by Alaskan Natives, items they had become accustomed by trading with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).
Liquor was in great demand. Back in 1844, the Russians and HBC had signed an agreement to prohibit the sale of liquor at all trading posts north of 50 degrees latitude. Alaska remained bone dry until 1898, although the ban to the Native population remained in effect until after World War I.
There are always those who break the law, and it was the fur traders who had the best chances to purchase Canadian liquor. Baronovich was a likely suspect for officials to watch for liquor smuggling.
Baronovich is perhaps best remembered because of his interactions with a U.S. Revenue Service commander, whom smugglers seldom baffled. The commander brought his vessel into Karta Bay and dropped anchor near Baronovich's saltery. Baronovich undoubtedly knew what to expect; he had been subjected before to unexpected searches.
The armed patrol came ashore with the commander. Baronovich, the old Slav, received them courteously without showing apprehension. The commander gave a formal announcement for the purpose of the visit.
Baronovich nodded his agreement, bid them to search the entire premises and asked leave to take a nap as they did so. But the commander was not to be fooled. He placed a watch on the trader, informing the sailors that Baronovich had better not get out of their sight.
Bringing more men ashore, the men and officers searched the entire area. In each building, every corner and hole was pried, poked and peered into for false partitions, secret cellars and dark cubbyholes. The saltery, the packing house with its barrels, the Indian bark huts, the tents and Baronovich's dwellings all revealed nothing. Even the canoes on the beach did not escape the search.
The men followed every trail and broken pathway into the woods, looking for signs of fresh dirt where the contraband could have been buried. Every tree, fallen log and stump was tapped to determine if it was hollow.
While this went on, the commander sent several men out in a skiff. Their orders were to row back and forth across the harbor to see if any whiskey was anchored out there. The men were soon exhausted and had given up hope of unearthing any smuggled goods. They were convinced that there truly was no liquor near Baronovich's trading post.
Back at Baronovich's home, the guard informed their commander that the old gent had passed the afternoon dozing and smoking beside the fire. Having himself checked occasionally, the commander was certain the trader had not left his chair.
An apology for the inconvenience of the search was made, and Baronovich invited the men to dine with him. Before serving the meal prepared by the Native women, Baronovich excused himself long enough to put on a white shirt and black frock coat. Then, at the head of the table, he played the congenial host to the commander and his officers.
At the end of the meal, the men sat back in their chairs exclaiming about the feast. "But the best is yet to come," the host announced. Baronovich disappeared for a few moments and then placed a full bottle of whiskey in front of each man. Returning to the head of the table, the wily old trader poured a glass from his bottle and lifted it to propose a toast to the U.S. Revenue Service and its commander.
A great silence ensued as the officers waited to see what their superior officer would do. The commander slowly tipped the bottle, watching the amber fluid flow into his glass, took an appreciative sniff, sportingly arose and accepted the toast.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.