"You've Got Mail!"

By Karen L. Hayden

By now, most of the reenactment community has seen the movie, "The Patriot". Remember that scene at the beginning when the boys get so excited when the post rider comes to their home. Then they have to wait so patiently for their father to open the mail. Now we have our computer to announce for us, "You've got Mail!" but the excitement at getting mail hasn't really changed since colonial days. It just arrives in a different fashion.

Early colonists lived for letters from their relatives back home. William Smith, author of The History of the Post Office in British North America tells us: "Individuals in the early years of the seventeenth century has to make such arrangements for the transport of letters as could be worked out with ship captains, but eventually a rudimentary postal system developed. The first organized effort for the transport of letters between New England and the mother country came in 1639, when Richard Fairbank, tavern keeper of Boston, agreed to accept responsibility for delivering letters from overseas left in his care."

Things improved slowly over the next one hundred years. One of the trailblazers in giving us a more effective postal service was none other than Benjamin Franklin. Along with William Hunter, "Franklin improved facilities and cut down the times of mail delivery so much that a Philadelphia merchant might mail a letter to New York on one day and receive a reply the next", says Smith. Getting mail to the deep south remained a problem into the days of the Revolutionary War. (No wonder those boys were so excited to see a post rider!)

In England, the penny post with reliable delivery had become the norm by the end of the eighteenth century. Popular letter writing manuals of the day taught people to write in a "natural" style with candor and spontaneity. A letter should be conducted as a polite conversation. Correspondence between gentlemen and ladies could occur in these safe conventions, much like email without pictures. Thomas Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams:

"Dear Madam, I have received duly the honor of your letter, and am now to return you thanks for your condencension in having taken the first step for settling a correspondence which I so much desired..."

But when writing to family members or close friends, things were different. Great fears and joys could be expresssed freely. Abigail Adams and her sister Mary Cranch were apparently very close as evidenced by this letter from Abigail:

"When ever I receive a letter from you it seems to give new Springs to my nerves, and a brisker circulation to my blood..."

Her sister replied:

"Indeed my dear Sister the Winter never seem'd so tedious to me in the World. I daily count the days between this and the time I may probably see you..."

Letters were the lifeline that kept people together across the distances short and long. Abigail wrote many letters to her sisters, her friends and of course, her husband. When she traveled to Philadelphia and left her children in the care of her sisters, she wrote:

"What, no Letters from Quincy. You can hardly judge how impatient I feel if I do not hear once a week."

Abigail's sisters were probably too busy to accommodate her wish; the postal system was not.

One of Abigail's friends, Mercy Warren, was also a prolific letter writer. Besides reading, writing letters was one way, especially for women, to engage in political discourse. She corresponded with John Adams as well. She wrote to him:

"...if you sir still flatter me so far as to express another wish to know further my oppinion, I would advise that a preparatory Conference should be held at the North west Corner of Liberty Sq Plimouth on any day you shall name preceding the 12 of August."

Post riders also brought newspapers to the colonists. Tavern owners in particular seemed to be their best customers. Mrs. Read, who operated a tavern in Boston, advertised that her customers could "read the news" in their rooms. Daniel Jones declared that his tavern "would be supplied with newspapers."

Dr. Alexander Hamilton, while traveling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, wrote this:

"I returned to my lodging at 8 o'clock, and the post being arrived, I found a numerous company at Slater's reading the news." Their "chit-chat and noise kept me awake three hours after I went to bed."

Obviously, "you've got mail" in this case referred to the whole neighborhood!

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that colonists were so angered by the Stamp Act. Newspapers and pamphlets were subject to this tax. It was repealed due to the threat by colonists to boycott all British imports.

The Continental Army soon learned the value of an express rider to carry information from one camp to another or from headquarters to Congress. Although it was expensive to maintain the men and the horses, the service they provided was necessary for survival. Elijah Bennet was a favored rider in 1776 "because he could be trusted to deliver oral as well as written dispatches and relay news he picked up along his route," writes Holly Mayer, author of Belonging to the Army.

By 1780, the order of the army was to make sure that express riders were:

"provided with suitable horses and other things requisite to enable them properly to perform their duty; to send every rider in his proper tour, so that each may do his proper share of duty in the most equal manner; to keep a register of the times when the riders go out and return & to examine their horses when they come in..."

In 1782 around Newburgh, New York, dragoons were charged with carrying dispatches in the absence of other riders.

Abigail felt the need to continue to be a mother through her letters. When her 11 year old son went to Europe with his father, Abigail wrote:

"It is a very difficult task my dear son for a tender parent to bring their mind to part with a child of your years into a distant Land (but) You have arrived at years capable of improving under advantages you will be like to have if you do but properly attend to them."

She also used them to be a sister, a wife, a friend. The post rider was not just carrying the news; the post rider carried the connection that makes us unique.


"PORTIA: The World of Abigail Adams" by Edith B. Gelles, 1992

"The Minutemen and Their World" by Robert A. Gross, 1976

"In Publick Houses" by David W. Conroy, 1995

"Women of Colonial and Revolutionary Times: Mercy Warren" by Alice Brown, 1896

"The Cultural Life of the American Colonies" by Louis B. Wright, 1957

"Belonging to the Army" by Holly A. Mayer, 1996

Copyright © 2000 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.