The U.S. Coast Guard is known for many of its heroic endeavors, especially when it comes to rescuing civilians. However, the military branch known for its harrowing rescues has part of its origins in something people might find surprising: fighting smugglers and pirates.
The agency was founded on Aug. 4, 1790, when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act, according to the USCG.
Written and submitted by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the Tariff Act authorized the construction of 10 small ships called "cutters" under the control of the Treasury Department. The purpose of the ships, or "revenue cutters", was to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling and piracy.
In fact, the first anti-piracy action occurred in 1793. According to the USCG, the cutter Diligence ran a pirate vessel ashore in Chesapeake Bay.
Policing commerce on bays and other waterways was significant at the time. As neither the interstate nor the automobile existed, waterways and shipping vessels that traveled on them were the fastest and most convenient way to transport people and goods.
Given the valuable nature of some cargo, creating a maritime agency to protect them was a major priority for the American government, particularly the Treasury Department. In fact, the agency, which would later be called the Revenue Cutter Service, served as the country’s only maritime armed force until the Navy was established in 1798.
In the years that followed, the Revenue Cutter Service experienced a transformation. In 1915, it was combined with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, an agency comprised of dozens of crews stationed around the country’s coastlines with the purpose of saving the lives of people at sea. This merger resulted in the establishment of the "U.S. Coast Guard".
According to the USCG, the legislation that created the official USCG also codified the service’s long history of working alongside the nation’s other armed forces to defend the country by stating it "shall constitute a part of the military forces of the United States."
In times of peace, the USCG operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security, while during times of war, it serves as part of the Navy.
Today, the Coast Guard serves as a law enforcement organization, a regulatory agency, a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community and a first responder, according to the USCG said.
It boasts a membership of more than 50,000, operating a fleet of 259 Cutters, 200 aircraft and more than 1,600 boats. According to the USCG, it oversees the high seas, more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline, 4.5 million square miles of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.