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Colonies and the Mail

simulated forest in an exhibit

Lone postal riders carried mail along such desolate roads between Boston and New York beginning in 1673. The riders used an axe to make a slash on trees along the trail, marking the way for those who would follow them. 

The American colonies began as lonely coastal settlements, separated by dense forests. Settlers were more eager for news of their families and homelands overseas than for news from other colonies. The British government, however, needed reliable mail service throughout the American colonies for official communications with colonial governors. 

Illustration of Blue Bell tavern in New York City
Illustration of Blue Bell tavern in New York City, located on the old New York-Albany post road. 

The British North American Postal System

In 1692 the English sovereigns William and Mary granted a royal patent to Thomas Neale to operate a colonial postal system. Neale, who never set foot on the North American continent, appointed New Jersey governor Andrew Hamilton as his deputy. Hamilton then appointed postmasters in every British colony. 

On May 1, 1693, the Internal Colonial Postal Union began weekly service between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Williamsburg, Virginia. It established post offices, consulted with colonial assemblies about postal rates, and made the mail a service Americans came to expect. It did not, however, make money. 

1655 map of the American colonies showing English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish claimed territories
1655 map of the American colonies showing English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish claimed territories

The colonial population was spread too thinly along 500 miles of coastline to support a long-distance post. The new British post lost money whenever ship captains and even some post riders carried letters for personal profit. 

Well into the 18th century, mail to the North American colonies was left at public gathering spots such as taverns and inns, as there were no post office buildings to receive the correspondence.