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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - October/November 2005
Colonial Era


Communications varied greatly within the American colonies based on location and time frames.  The American Revolution dramatically altered the structure as well.  The majority of America was ruled by the English crown.  Residents considered themselves as British subjects versus Americans.  This tendency continued well into the American Revolution as well.  Recent historical findings have concluded that until the latter stages of the American Revolution, only around 40% of the population openly supported the revolutionary cause.  Many were sympathetic to the cause but fear retaliation if the British emerged victorious.  This factor also affected communications in a variety of ways.

Most communication was personal, often verbal, or via the grapevine.  Letters were often transported by friend who were traveling.  Printing presses were considered potential threats to stability by the British government.  Most early colonists probably considered them irrelevant to their primary purpose of survival in the new world.  The first major printing press was operated by the Harvard College.  Their specialty was broadsides (printing on one side of a single sheet of paper), religious works, almanacs, and law books.  Broadsides were used to print proclamations and ballads that pertained to upcoming or interesting community events.  British authorities closed monitored the content of these.

It would be nearly a century after the first permanent American settlement in America before the concept of a newspaper would exist.  The first successful regular newspaper in the colonies was the Boston News-Letter in 1704.  Most colonial era newspapers were only in business for brief periods of time.  Newspaper publishing would continue to be sporadic until the 1750's.

What was considered newsworthy in colonial times would surprise people today.  Local events were seldom mentioned since most communication was via the grapevine.  Emphasis was on news from England and Europe which was dependent on the arrival of ships carrying newspapers and other communications from England.  News from other colonies, business and commerce events were also important.  Advertising existed albeit in a limited format.

Although deaths of prominent persons might be noted, births and marriages seldom appeared in print.  Local individuals were mentioned only in relation to business affairs such as having items for sale (including slaves), detained wandering livestock, had letters waiting at the post office, or had a servant, slave or wife who had runaway or been found.

As newspapers became more common and successful, the British authorities increased their efforts to control the content.  One avenue for control was the Stamp Act of 1765.  At this time period, there were 23 newspapers operating in the colonies.  More than 25 others had failed within the previous decade.  The only states that had no newspaper at this time were Delaware and New Jersey.

The Stamp Act decreed that all newspapers, books, and legal or official documents had to be printed on special paper stamped paper to prove the tax had been paid.  Individual advertisements were also charged an additional tax.  The intent was twofold, generate income for the crown and put a damper on the increasingly political nature of some newspapers.  Instead, the Stamp Act fueled the forces which would lead to the Revolutionary War.  No American newspaper was ever published on the designated stamped paper.  Some suspended publication, some morphed into non-newspapers by removing the serial number or the name, and others defiantly continued publication on normal paper.  In the end, the crown repealed the act.

Relatively few issue of colonial newspapers survive.  Almost all that have survived have been microfilmed by private companies.  The Family History Library has a few in their collection, but the best resource for locating them is in college libraries located in the general area of where they were published.

Mail and post offices are two other factors in colonial communications.  Initially, postal contracts were royal contracts awarded to individuals.  By the end of the 1600's, only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had such contracts.  Service was limited to the cities and a few nearby settlements and those along the roads connecting the three cities.  The Postal Act of 1711 altered the system.  The Postmaster became a royal appointee, rather than a private charter.  This helped expand and improve postal service, especially in the southern colonies where settlements were dispersed.

There was a close link during the 18th century between the mail and newspapers.  The Postmaster was often the printer of the newspaper.  Newspapers were often dispersed by the same carriers who carried the mail.  Roads as we know them today were non-existent.  News, whether contained in letters or newspapers, traveled slowly.  Winter and rains caused additional delays.

The Revolutionary War created a difficult situation in the rebelling colonies because the postal service was controlled by the crown.  Some private postal deliveries services had become operational which offset this issue with the crown.  Other underground alternatives presented themselves as the war progressed.

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634

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