Story last updated at 4/25/2012 - 11:50 am
The episode with the U.S. Revenue Service detailed in a recent column was not Baronovich's closest brush with the law. Thomas McCulley, a cooper or barrel maker, made a sworn statement before the Wrangell Collector of Customs charging Baronovich with smuggling. Baronovich owed McCulley wages and apparently did not realize the depth of McCulley's determination to get even. The statement read: "From March 12, 1875, Charles Baronovich brought or caused to be brought from Port Lapwai in British Columbia to his store in Karta Bay, a lot of English-made blankets, 60 more or less. On August 1, 1875, Charles Baronovich brought, or caused to be brought, from Fort Simpson to his store, a canoe load of hard bread flour, with said cargo consisting of 10 sacks of flour, 4 boxes of hard bread [pilot bread) and a lot of English blankets, not less than 100 in number. About September 1, 1875, Baronovich brought from Port Simpson [near old Metlakatla, B.C.] to his store 60 English blankets, and I [Thomas McCulley] know the exact number of the blankets as they were wet from the voyage, and I counted them as they were exposed to dry. I am less positive as to the precise dates, as I made no memorandum at the time, but all articles enumerated were brought from Fort Simpson while I was employed by Baronovich. I am positive the U.S. import duty was not paid by him or any persons upon any of the blankets, hard bread or flour, and Baronovich frequently informed me that the duties were not paid, and the fact of importation was concealed from the Customs Officers. Baronovich often remarked to me that a man was a fool to pay duties in Alaska as long as they could just as readily be smuggled and so much saved."
The Native people around Baronovich's trading post in Karta Bay desired Hudson's Bay (or English) blankets over any other United States product. To purchase the blankets Natives were to paddle canoes for miles over sometimes turbulent water to Port Simpson. This prompted Baronovich's desire to bring the blankets to the Haida and Tlingit people living on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island and others who learned he had blankets and hard tack. Very early, English and Yankee traders introduced the Natives to hard tack that was shipped in wooden boxes or barrels. In turn, the Natives traded deer hides and furs that were sent south by Baronovich on coastal steamers.
When, in 1879, the U.S. Customs Officer, William Gouverneur Morris, arrived in Sitka to take up his duties, he found that Baronovich had paid the wages, and McCulley no longer wished to press charges. Morris suspected the affidavit was made more to compel the settlement than for "real zeal for the welfare of public service." Nevertheless, Morris traveled to Karta Bay from Sitka to read the charges to the trader, "which he indignantly denied interlarding his conversation in broken English with oaths. The antecedents and previous character of this man [Baronovich] are bad," Morris added. He went on to report "and I have no doubt that he has been a systematic smuggler for years. I have made a thorough examination of his store and stock of goods on hand and no evidence of smuggling was found." Those of us who read about the Revenue Cutter captain's experience in my last column are not surprised at the outcome of the search!
Morris learned that "He has sold nothing to speak of for two years: his fishery has been closed and has done no business of any kind worth mentioning. He is deeply in debt and very poor. In addition to this, the man is so badly paralyzed that he is a helpless cripple. His system is so broken that, in my opinion, he can not live long....His sands of life are nearly run out and no longer will his pirate craft thread the waters of Karta Bay."
Prosecution required transporting the smuggler to Port Townsend, WA, and Morris doubted the elderly man could survive such a trip. The charges were dismissed.
Morris' premonition proved true. Charles Vincent Baronovich died later that year of 1879 aboard a coastal steamship taking him for medical help in Victoria, B.C. He is buried in that city. After his death, the trading post closed. The saltery remained and, for a time, was a profitable business for his widow Mary and sons, who leased it to various operators.
This proved, however, not to be the end of shenanigans at the Karta Bay salmon saltery.