Colonial Times

In early colonial times, correspondents depended on friends, merchants, and Native Americans to carry messages among the colonies. However, most correspondence ran between the colonists and England, the Netherlands, or Sweden — their mother countries. It was largely to handle this mail that, in 1639, the first official notice of mail service in the colonies appeared. The General Court of Massachusetts designated Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston as the official repository of mail brought from or sent overseas, in line with the European practice of using coffee houses and taverns as mail stations.


Local authorities operated post routes within the colonies. Then, in 1673, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York set up a monthly post between New York and Boston. The service was short-lived, but the post rider’s trail became known as the Old Boston Post Road, part of today’s U.S. Route 1.


Governor William Penn established Pennsylvania’s first Post Office in 1683. In the South, private messengers, usually slaves, connected the huge plantations; a hogshead (a barrel 43 inches high and 26 inches in diameter) of tobacco was the penalty for failing to relay mail to the next plantation. As plantations expanded inland from port regions, so did the communications network.


Central postal organization came to the colonies only after 1692, when Thomas Neale received a 21-year grant from the British Crown, whose settlements dominated the Atlantic seaboard, for a North American postal system.2 Neale never visited America. Instead, he appointed Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey as his deputy postmaster general. Neale’s franchise cost him only six shillings and eight pence a year but was no bargain. He died heavily in debt in 1699 after assigning his interests in America to Andrew Hamilton and another Englishman, Robert West.


In 1707, the British government bought the rights to the North American postal system from West and Andrew Hamilton’s widow. The government then appointed Hamilton’s son John as deputy postmaster general of America. He served until 1721, when he was succeeded by John Lloyd of Charleston, South Carolina.


In 1730, Alexander Spotswood, a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, became deputy postmaster general of America. The appointment of Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 may have been Spotswood’s most notable achievement. Franklin, only 31 years old at the time, was a successful printer, publisher, and civic leader. He would later become one of the most popular men of his age.


Two other Virginians succeeded Spotswood: Head Lynch in 1739 and Elliot Benger in 1743. When Benger died in 1753, Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter, postmaster of Williamsburg, Virginia, were appointed by the Crown as joint postmasters general for the colonies. Hunter died in 1761, and John Foxcroft of New York succeeded him, serving until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.


During his time as joint postmaster general for the Crown, Franklin made important and lasting improvements in the colonial posts. He began to reorganize the service, setting out on a long tour to inspect Post Offices in the North and as far south as Virginia. New surveys were made, milestones were placed on principal roads, and new and shorter routes were laid out. For the first time, post riders carried mail at night to speed service between Philadelphia and New York.


Thanks in large part to Franklin’s efforts, the colonial posts in North America registered their first profit in 1760. When Franklin left office, post roads operated from Maine to Florida and from New York to Canada. Mail between the colonies and the mother country operated on a regular schedule, with posted times.


The Crown dismissed Franklin in 1774 for actions sympathetic to the cause of the colonies. Shortly after, William Goddard, a printer, newspaper publisher, and former postmaster, set up the Constitutional Post for intercolonial mail service. Colonies funded it by subscription, and net revenues were to be used to improve mail service rather than to be paid back to the subscribers. By 1775, when the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia, Goddard’s post was flourishing, and 30 Post Offices operated between Williamsburg and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


The Constitutional Post required each postmaster to hire only reputable post riders. Each post rider had to swear to secure his mail under lock and key. As for the Crown’s service, Goddard warned:


Letters are liable to be stopped & opened by ministerial mandates, & their Contents construed into treasonable Conspiracies; and News Papers, those necessary and important vehicles, especially in Times of public Danger, may be rendered of little avail for want of Circulation ...3


The Constitutional Post afforded security to colonial messages and provided a communication line that played a vital role in bringing about American independence.


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