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Curator's Corner — Postal history of Virginia PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, June 15, 2013 12:35 AM

I just returned yesterday from my trip to Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown and Monticello. It was a wonderful trip and very relaxing. We stayed a few nights in each of the hotels we are considering for our MPH tour. I must tell you the Comfort Suites Hotel, just three-fourths of a mile from the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, was just wonderful. The hotel is a little over a year old and it is sleek, modern and very well appointed.

Both in Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown we will have our own personal guides. Regardless of whether you have been to these places before, you will find that these are not just characters in a play but are part of a living history.

As you wander through the villages, you will see the people who live in these colonial dwellings in period costumes and they are always in character. If this trip sounds like something you would enjoy, know that there is still room on the bus for you and your family, but that won’t be the case for very long. Please note that most of our trips have had waiting lists. Need more information, please check out our website: or call me at 419-303-5482. Six days/five nights includes seven meals, nightly entertainment, professionally guided tours, and time to wander and to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of this amazing place. The dates are Sept. 28-Oct. 3.

Did you know that Virginia is not a state? It is a commonwealth. What does that mean to you and me? There are actually four states that refer to themselves as “commonwealths.” The term is derived from the old British terms of common law and for the common “wealth” or welfare of the people. The Commonwealth of Virginia considers all their cities as independent. As I mentioned in other articles – most of the South did not call their fight the “Civil War.” For these people it was the war over states’ rights. One interesting distinction between states and commonwealths can be seen in how they handle criminal prosecutions.

In Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia, criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the “Commonwealth.” In California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and New York, they are brought in the name of the “People.” In all the other U.S. states, criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the “State,” while federal criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the “United States of America.” Sorry, I digress.

But on to postal history: The most time consuming portion of the study of postal history is the amount of research needed. Recently, I came across a research tool that has been somewhat forgotten – the bibliography. You remember when you did research papers in high school – you had to identify all the sources you used for your information.

The former librarian for the National Postal Museum, Tim Carr collaborated on an illustrated bibliography of the materials held in the Smithsonian’s collection on the subject of the colonial post. If you think this is a rather narrow subject, you may be shocked to learn that there are several hundred books, journal articles, and related publications just in this one location.

One journal article that was mentioned was written by George W. Browne, entitled: “Early Posts and Post Riders.” In the article it states that after 1639, “Mounted couriers, or men on foot, were employed by government to send its messages to different sections of the country, there being no news-papers…Government fixed the compensation at three pence a mile, while inn-holders were warned not to charge exorbitant prices for their fare and ferry-men were ordered not to delay them on their passage and to carry them free.”

That may seem like a great deal of money, about 2 and a half cents per mile. However, that was an annual compensation. You see in England and many European nations, the taverns, inns and coffee houses were often the location where mail was deposited in each town. That practice continued until there were post offices established throughout the colonies.

To put things in perspective, postage rates were identified in a letter from Alexander Hamilton in 1699: For a distance of 80 miles or less – six pence (about five cents), 80 miles but less than 150 was nine pence. The distance from Boston to Jamestown, Va., was approximately 680 miles and the cost of sending that letter would be 42 pence a sum equivalent to about 37 cents. Now how do you feel about today’s postage rates?

Hopefully, we will encounter the colonial Postmaster of Williamsburg while we journey there this fall.


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