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A smuggler’s tale from Good Friday night in 1771

On Good Friday night on March 29, 1771, two border inspectors found a herd of bullocks which had apparently been taken unlawfully over the river Kongeå by Hjortlund. The subsequent trial lasted five years.


Border inspectors on duty

It was a cold and clear night on Good Friday in 1771. The full moon shone clearly in the night sky, casting its luminous glow over a frozen Kongeå. This night was perhaps not the best one to smuggle a herd of cattle across the river, but nevertheless there were some men from Jedsted and Jernved who tried to do so. The good thing about the conditions was of course that it was easy to get across the river because of the ice, but the downside was undeniably that it was so light.

That evening, the two border inspectors, Christian Hess and Jens Borring, rode out in Ribe Customs District, just a little east of Hjortlund town when they saw 20 to 30 cattle. The herd had probably just come across the river, and it looked like the drivers, of which the inspectors could see two, intended to go towards Ribe.


The flight

Immediately the customs officers set off after the drivers and their livestock to stop this illegal traffic. They managed to catch one of them, while the other fled westwards. However, they did manage to get hold of his horse, but now they were trying to keep track of the herd of cattle, which was not so easy, because suddenly lots of people came forward as if they had shot out of the ground.

It was impossible for the customs officers to keep the cattle together, and the herd dispersed in all directions. According to the inspectors, it was the surge of people who had wrested the livestock from them. The herd should have been taken to Ribe as evidence of smuggling, and also it could have brought border inspectors a welcome extra skilling. Rather crestfallen, the inspectors had to go to Ribe to hand over the unfortunate smuggler and the two horses that they had managed to retain.


The customs officers’ account

This story had a very long aftermath, as the customs officers had seen and recognised some of the assembled people at Hjortlund. These, and a number of others, were later called as witnesses in the case, in which there were a total of 81 witnesses.

The border inspectors arrived at Ribe on Easter Saturday and made a statement at the customs house. They recounted that the night before, at around. 22:00 they were riding near the east side of Hjortlund where they met a drove of about 20 or 30 cows or steers  that had been moved to North Jutland over the river Kongeå.

Two people on horseback followed the livestock, one of whom led to a horse in addition to the one he was riding on. The inspectors had obviously confiscated the two horses and herd of cattle, but when one driver fled, suddenly a crowd of people from Hjortlund appeared and took away the confiscated animals.

The inspectors also reported that among the assembled people in Hjortlund, they had seen Christen Christensen of Hjortlund and Niels Knudsen of Jernved and if they were interrogated along with all the rest of the relevant people from Hjortlund and Jernved, it might be possible to sort things out.



The trial

However, there was a lot of cumbersome bureaucracy, which prevented the case from going straight ahead, so the first Commission meeting could not be held until 2 November, 1772. After five years of court hearings, it was finally concluded that on the wintry moonlit night in question, there was undoubtedly an attempt to smuggle a number of cattle and a few horses purchased in Jernved and Hillerup. The animals should have been handed over to the buyer Sonnich Nissen, a little south of the river by Linnetskov.

From Jernved parish, it was Niels Knudsen who had played the part of buying the livestock, who probably had the main role.

Hagen Jørgensen of Jernved played another important role. He had been more of a tradesman than cattle driver, as that fateful night he had been seen in Hjortlund among the large number of people. He became a wealthy man, partly thanks to his trade with cattle – so prosperous that he could later buy the Ørndrup estate on Mors.

From Hillerup another person was implicated, also a landowner, called Peder Nissen. He later became the owner of Spøttrup in Salling. His role can hardly have been a large one and certainly not as a cattle driver. Estate owners employed serfs, servants and own adult children or stepchildren to work as cattle drivers.


The decision

The owners of the animals were sentenced to pay fines and fees and legal costs, while the servants, who could hardly pay, were sentenced to civil arrest on bread and water for eight days. The cattle driver who fled would not confess and was sentenced to jail for 14 days.

In the judgment text, the case is described both in great detail and at length, and it is a very precise description indeed, as the trial began in November 1772 and was not completed until after 68 commission meetings in October 1776. No wonder the witnesses claimed that they had difficulty in remembering details, but then again, they hardly strained themselves either.


Authors: Magne Juhl and Ole Steinmeier, Jernved Parish archives


Sources and literature:

 National archives for North Jutland. B9-1070, Ribe Stiftamt: Kommission i en sag om toldsvig. Kommissionsprotokol 1772-1776. Stregkode 8027666881.

 National arhcives for North Jutland.: B9-1071, Ribe Stiftamt: Kommission i en sag om toldsvig. Dokumenter til kommissionsprotokollen 1772-1776. Stregkode 8027666871.

Magne Juhl: Forsøg på smugleri over Kongeåen langfredag nat 1771 i: Fra Ribe Amt 2009, s. 19-33.

Magne Juhl: En smuglersag ved Kongeåen ved Jernved og Hjortlund 1771, afskrift af de originale protokoller. Found at Jernved Parish archives and National archives for North Jutland.

Jernved Parish archives, see http://gredstedbroegnen.dk/foreninger/sognarkivet/