Today much of our communication is transmitted electronically. It was only a few decades ago that all of our correspondence, documents, and bills were delivered by human hand to our doorsteps. In colonial America, post roads influenced what people knew about current events, and houses along this road were considered prime real estate. By ‘post road, ‘ I mean those byways specifically designated for the delivery of mail or correspondence.
These roads were different from those of the New Hampshire turnpike system that I have written about previously. The history of New Hampshire’s (and America’s) post roads is older than that of the United States Post Office. Although mail had been delivered prior to 1 January 1673, that date marks the day that Governor Francis Lovelace of New York established a post between New York and New England. Following his visit with Governor John Winthrop of Connecticut, a post rider was dispatched on a regular basis from New York to Connecticut to Springfield, Massachusetts, then east to Boston. From there he would return to his point of origin.
On 17 February 1691 Thomas Neale received a royal patent for twenty-one years to control the colonial post offices. “Neale never came to America, but, in conjunction with the royal postmaster-general in London, he appointed Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia his deputy in America.” [Old Boston post road, page 7]. In 1692 “An Act for the Encourageing a Post Office,” was passed, including that “no person or corporation shall carry letters for hire, or furnish horses….under penalty of one hundred pounds current money for every offense.” Duncan Campbell was appointed deputy postmaster in Boston.
On May 1, 1693 the postal service went into effect with a weekly post from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Boston (old Route 1), Saybrook, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. “Five riders were engaged to cover each of the five states twice a week in summer, and in winter, fortnightly.” [Editor’s Note: This post road from Portsmouth to Boston was New Hampshire’s first].
An article in the May 9, 1868 Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, entitled Colonial Postal System, indicates that New Hampshire was the fourth [New England] state to have a post-office, i.e., “in New Hampshire a post-office was established by the colony in 1693, under the patent of Thomas Neale…at that time there were but one post-office in Maine, one in New Hampshire, five in Massachusetts, three in Rhode Island, and four in Connecticut. It does not appear that the mails were carried in coaches in New England, except between Portsmouth and Boston, and Boston and Newport. The mail carriers generally rode on horseback and did trading along the road, sometimes delaying the mail by driving in cattle they had been off the road to purchase.” In these early days there were few formal post offices, with letters typically being left at local taverns and inns.
In 1737 Benjamin Franklin and Colonel William Hunter of Virginia took over the job as postmaster-generals from William Bradford of Philadelphia. In the summer of 1753 Franklin visited all the post-offices in the country. He paid great attention to the Boston Post Road, using a device attached to his personal carriage wheel to determine the location where a stake was placed, and soon milestones were built. [Editor’s Note: one of Hampton New Hampshire’s mile markers still exists. Another marker in Portsmouth NH, at the junction of Peverly Road & Middle Road.]
One source [An Old Town by the Sea by Thomas Bailey Aldrich] states that Benjamin Franklin visited the Portsmouth area again in 1762 when he supervised the installation of a lightning rod, reportedly the first one in New Hampshire. The postal delivery was profitable during Franklin’s employment, but stopped being so when he was dismissed in 1774.
We know that in 1758 the post road extended from Portsmouth, New Hampshire south to Newbury, Massachusetts by the following newspaper notice in the New-Hampshire Gazette:
Portsmouth, March 23, 1758
LOST between Newbury Ferry (Massachusetts) and this Town in the Post Road, a Bundle directed for Mr. John Hill, Merchant in Portsmouth; it was tied with a piece of Thread or Twine, and wrote on per Favour of Capt. Bradford. Whoever will bring it to the Printer hereof shall be well Rewarded.
The first postmaster in New Hampshire appears to have been one Eleazer Russell of Portsmouth. The 24 May 1849 edition of the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene NH) reprinted a story originally in the Portsmouth Journal: “We have before us the ‘Register of the Province of New Hampshire,’ for the year 1772 printed in Portsmouth by D. & R. Fowle. The following extracts and summary of the Register, presenting the positions which the grandsires of many of the present generation then held, will be interesting to some of our readers. At that time, Eleazer Russell was the Postmaster of New Hampshire…” According to the United States Postal Service history, ‘Finlay’s Journal of 1773-1774’ also mentions that “Eleazer Russell was postmaster, and had been for many years.” By 1776 Jeremiah Libbey was postmaster, as he submitted an account of the Portsmouth NH post office that year. [Editor’s Note: the History of Goffstown states that the first post office was established in 1775 in Portsmouth with Samuel Penhollow as postmaster but I can find no evidence of same].
Immediately after the American Revolution, when the states and federal government were grappling with the needs of their citizens, New Hampshire enacted laws relating to the conveyance of mail and post offices. November 9, 1785 the NH House of Representatives of New Hampshire voted “to establish two post routes, one to extend from Portsmouth to Haverhill NH and return, and another from Portsmouth around Winnipesaukee Lake and return, and the President and Council were empowered to appoint postmasters and postriders, and fix postage on letters”…. On 3 March 1786 the legislature established four post circuits through different sections of New Hampshire, one to set out from Portsmouth and proceed through Exeter and Concord to Hanover and return by way of Boscawen, Canterbury, etc; another from Portsmouth through Exeter, Chester, Londonderry and Litchfield to Amherst and return….In 1791 the legislature rearranged the four routes, the third beginning at Portsmouth, thence through Exeter, Kingston, Plaistow, Hampstead, Chester, Londonderry, Litchfield, Goffstown, Bow to Concord, returning through Pembroke, Deerfield, Nottingham, by way of Newmarket Bridge to Portsmouth, this was known as the third route…”
On 12 February 1791, the New Hampshire legislature established a postal service. The Granite State, page 278 states: “Ten postmasters were then appointed for various sections of the State, and four routes were set up to be traversed by post-riders on regular runs….By act of the United States Congress on February 20, 1792, the postal system of the nation was fully extended to New Hampshire, and remained a division of the Treasury Department until 1825.” According to the History of New Hampshire “post offices were established at Portsmouth, Exeter, Concord, Amherst, Dover, Keene, Charlestown, Hanover, Haverhill and Plymouth” [by George Bartow, 1842, page 290].
Local New Hampshire postmasters even printed their own postage stamps between 1845-1847, at which time the United States Postal Office Department issued its own stamps and ordered all postmaster stamps destroyed. Worcester Webster of Boscawen NH, a cousin to the famed Daniel had been one of the earliest postmasters to print their own stamps.
Benjamin Franklin became the first Postmaster General under the 2nd Continental Congress on 26 July 1775. Franklin left this service late in 1776 in order to serve in France as an American diplomat. By 1785, under then Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard, stage-coachs, rather than individual riders were contracted to carry mail, and he established a regular mail route via stagecoach between Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In 1787, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution, known as the Postal Clause or the Postal Power, empowers Congress “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” As an explosion of additional roads were now designated by Congress, the Postal Service, which was expected to be a self-sufficient, struggled to just break even.
In 1796 there was a post road between Concord and Plymouth NH, evidenced by this newspaper article: “In New Chester, in the county of Grafton, and State of New Hampshire, an excellent stand for a trader, tavern-keeper, or mechanic; on the post road leading from Concord to Plymouth….” [18 October 1796 in the Courier of New Hampshire (Concord)]
By 1798 there existed another post road that went from Concord to Dartmouth College, based on this newspaper article: “For Sale, a Good Farm in Canaan, county of Grafton, State of New Hampshire, situate on the post road from Concord to Dartmouth College…” [27 October 1798 Courier of New Hampshire (Concord)].
By this time, seventy-five post offices and over 2000 miles of post roads already existed in the United States.
Apparently it was not always easy for the post riders to collect their fees. Up to a certain date most newspapers were delivered free by the post-riders who had to collect payment from the customers. One such difficulty is evident by the following newspaper notice: “PAY THE POST. The Subscriber, having been at great expense in carrying on the post riding business, and received but few payments from his customers desires that those in arrear would attend to a settlement, and make payment now or before the expiration of this year, which will end in less than three months.–The Printer cannot purchase his paper without money, neither can the Post live forever upon the ingredients of anticipation and the fluence of a scorching fun. These are not the object–No, good customers, it is your cash or produce he wants, and without your help he is no more your news carrier, he is done! This is a serious consideration–Help! O! help–a moneyless and needy post rider. JOHN LADD. Dunbarton, June 15, 1799. N.B. These Customers who live off the main post road, are requested to leave their pay at the places where they receive their papers.” [On 24 June 1799, the Concord NH Mirrour]
In 1803 Keene’s New Hampshire Sentinel noted, “Oustings From Office,” showing new and former appointees under the new president Thomas Jefferson, including the following postmasters: “Dismissed, George Hough, Postmaster Concord: Appointed: Charles Walker”
“Dismissed, Thomas Thompson, ditto Salisbury; Appointed: Moses Eastman”
“Dismissed, John Rogers, ditto, Plymouth; Appointed Jonathan Robbins”
“Dismissed, Joseph Bliss, ditto Haverhill; Appointed Moses Dow”
“Dismissed, Alexander Thomas, ditto, Walpole: Appointed Gurdon Huntington”
“Dismissed, Henry Mellen, ditto, Dover: Appointed John Wheeler”
In 1803 Keene’s New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper announced a “Mail Stage” that ran on the “middle Post Road from Boston to Walpole, N.H. that passes through Concord, Groton, New-Ipswich, Jaffrey, Marlborough and Keene, to Walpole, wtice a week, which meets a line of Stages that conveys passengers &c. on through Windsor, to the Colleges at Hanover, twice a week.
The Farmer’s Cabinet of Amherst NH, 29 January 1805 announced a petition had been made for a post road from Worcester (Massachusetts) to Keene (New Hampshire). In 1816 The Portsmouth Oracle announced that “Ebenezer Hale has begun to ride on the new Post Road from Portsmouth to Plymouth, through Dover, Barrington, Barnstead, Gilmanton, Meredith, Holderness &c….”
The New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette (Concord) New Hampshire of 15 September 1818 announced: “New post road–A new post road has recently been established from Dunstable by Nottingham-West to Pelham in this State. A post-office is established at Nottingham-West of which Reuben Greeley, Esq. is post-master.”
The 1823 gazetteer of the state of New-Hampshire by J. Farmer and J.B. Moore mentions a post road leading from Keene to Concord. A law of 1838 designated all existing and future railroads as post roads.
By April of 1847, the Twenty-ninth Congress of the United States passed a law that created additional post roads including the following in New Hampshire:
– From Exeter to the City of Manchester.
– From the city of Manchester to Amherst
– From the city of Manchester, through Candia, South Deerfield, Deerfield, Nottingham, Wadley’s Falls [Lee], Lamprey river [Newmarket], Stratham, Greenland, to Portsmouth.
In 1827 there were 7000 post officers; in 1837 11,177, in 1847 15,146; and in 1857 they numbered 28,586 [from December 1857 President’s State of the Union Address, James Buchanan]
In 1862, during the Civil War, the law established who was exempt from enrollment by the laws of the United States: Officers judicial and executive of the government of the United States, the members of both houses of Congress and their respective officers, Custom House officers and their clerks, inspectors of exports, pilots and mariners employed in the sea service of a citizen or merchant within the United States, postmasters, assistant postmasters, and their clerks, post officers, post riders, stage-drivers in the care and conveyance of the mail of the United States, ferrymen employed at any ferry on the post road and workmen in the United States Armories and Arsenals. [Saturday August 2, 1862, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth NH).
In 1872 the Farmer’s Cabinet of Amherst NH reported, “In the House of Representatives Monday, Mr. Bell presented the petition of citizens of New Hampshire asking the establishment of a post road with a daily mail from North Weare to Hillsboro Bridge.
Both the post roads and the local turnpike system were instrumental in influencing the future of New Hampshire’s transportation and highway system. The mileposts have given way to metal signs. Many of the old post roads are still in use, but as secondary roads bowing to the faster interstate highways. The postal service is quickly giving way to internet transmission. Can the Postal Service have a Future?
Find the list of postmasters in your (or any) United States city and town [not all are completely researched]
The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road, by Stewart H. Holbrook (1962)
The Old Boston Post Road, by Stephen Jenkins, with 200 Illustrations, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913