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Curator's Corner — Williamsburg PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, October 05, 2013 1:04 AM

Hello, fellow Virginians! No, I am not lost; and yes, I can read a map. The reason you might be confused is that I am going back in time to July 4, 1776. Yes, Virginia covered an area that included several states – West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and parts of Pennsylvania and Michigan. Why is that significant? I just returned home yesterday from our latest excursion with MPH Tours. We toured the mansion and estate of our third US President, Thomas Jefferson, better known to many as Monticello. I have been here many times and find the breadth of his genius fascinating with each visit. I wonder what he would say about our current events in Washington. I recently read an op-ed stating that politicians can be characterized more by those involved in the oldest profession known to man rather than as one following a noble pursuit.

But back to postal history.

Benjamin Franklin is one of the first names everyone thinks of when it comes to the postal service of the colonial period. Yes, he was the first Postmaster General of the United States but not the first after the creation of the USA with the ratification of the Constitution.

But let’s go back to the very beginning. In 1607, you had Jamestown as an English settlement. At that time, people relied on friends, family, Native Americans and slaves to transport letters between the colonies. Truthfully, most correspondence ran between the colonists and England.

In 1639, the first official notice of a postal service in the colonies came from the General Court of Massachusetts. It designated Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston as the official repository of mail brought from or to overseas. As was the practice in England and many other nations, coffee houses and taverns served as mail drops.

In 1673, the governor of New York set up a monthly post between New York City and Boston. In 1683, William Penn established the very first post office in Pennsylvania.

It was some time before the service became more organized when Thomas Neale, an Englishman, purchased the rights to run the service in 1691. Neale received a franchise or contract to operate for 21 years at a cost equivalent to only $.80 per year. Ironically Neale never stepped foot in America and he hired Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey to be Deputy Postmaster General.

Just eight years after receiving the franchise, Hamilton died heavily in debt. Another eight years and Hamilton’s widow and a gentleman named R. West sold the rights back to the crown. John Hamilton (Andrew’s son) took over that operation until 1721 when he was succeeded by John Lloyd of South Carolina. A former Lt. Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood assumed the post as Deputy Postmaster General in 1730. His most notable achievement was the appointment of Benjamin Franklin as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. Franklin was only 31 years old at the time, the struggling printer and publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Two more Virginia statesmen served as Deputy Postmaster Generals before Franklin: Head Lynch in 1739 and Elliot Benger in 1743. When Benger died in 1753, Franklin and William Hunter, postmaster of Williamsburg, Va., were appointed by the Crown as Joint Postmasters General for the colonies. Hunter died in 1761, and John Foxcroft of New York succeeded him. However, the beginning of the revolution had a profound effect on that. In 1774, colonists were beginning to distrust the Royal Post and moved swiftly to dissolve that relationship. The King fired Franklin for his political concepts. Shortly after, William Goddard, a printer and newspaper publisher set up a Constitutional Post for intercolonial mail service. Colonies funded it by subscription and net revenues were to be used to improve the postal service rather than to be paid back to the subscribers.

By 1775, when the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia, Goddard’s colonial post was flourishing, and 30 post offices operated between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Williamsburg.

While visiting the Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg this week, it became very evident that the colonists were not at all prepared for the rigors of mail delivery. Thanks to all of you who attended our fundraising trip to Virginia. We certainly hope you enjoyed our tour.


SAVE THE DATE: As the week goes on, you will see more and more about the Art Auction to be held at the museum at 3 p.m. Nov. 3. Call me or Ruth Ann Wittler for tickets and more information.


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