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US History E-Text > Colonial Life > Travel; Mails; Newspapers
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Means of Travel;
Mails; Newspapers

In nothing has there been a greater change in the last hundred years than in the means of travel. For two thousand years, as Henry Adams says, to the opening of the nineteenth century, the world had made no improvement in the methods of traveling. That century brought the river steamer, the ocean greyhound, the lightning express train, the bicycle, the electric car, and the automobile. In colonial times travel by land was in the old-fashioned stagecoach, on horseback, or afoot. The roads were usually execrable. Many of the towns were wholly without roads, being connected with their neighbors by Indian trails. The best roads to be found were in Pennsylvania, all centering into Philadelphia, and on these at all seasons the great Conestoga wagons lumbered into the busy city, laden with grain and produce from the river valleys and the mountain slopes. Long journeys were often made on foot by all classes. A governor of Massachusetts relates that he made extensive journeys afoot, and speaks of being borne across the swamps on the back of an Indian guide. A favorite mode of travel was on horseback. A farmer went to church astride a horse, with his wife sitting behind him on a cushion called a pillion; while the young people walked, stopping to change their shoes before reaching the meetinghouse. Great quantities of grain and other farm products were brought from the remote settlements on pack horses, winding their weary way through the lonely forest by the Indian trails. Coaches and chaises were few until late in the seventeenth century. Not until 1766 was there a regular line of stagecoaches between New York and Philadelphia. The journey was then made in three days; but ten years later a new stage, called the" flying machine," was started, and it made the trip in two days. A stage journey from one part of the country to another was as comfortless as could well be imagined. The coach was without springs, and the seats were hard and often backless. The horses were jaded and worn, and the roads were rough with boulders and stumps of trees, or furrowed with ruts and quagmires. The journey was usually begun at three o'clock in the morning, and after eighteen hours of jogging over the rough roads the weary traveler was put down at a country inn whose bed and board were such as few horny-handed laborers of to-day would endure. Long before daybreak the next morning a blast from the driver's horn summoned him to the renewal of his journey. If the coach stuck fast in a mire, as it often did, the passengers must alight and help lift it out. When they came to a river, they found no bridge. The crossing was made, at the peril of all, on a rude raft of timbers, or a number of canoes lashed together. After five or six days of such torture the traveler from Boston found himself in the city of New York. The great highways of those early days were those that nature had furnished -- the rivers and bays. Without these the people of the different colonies would have been isolated indeed, and would scarcely have known of the existence of one another. Even as it was, only the few ever traveled far from home; the majority of the native common people lived and died in the neighborhood in which they were born.

The mail was carried by postriders, who followed the main roads as far as there were any; on reaching the roadless settlements they found their way through the forest as best they could by the trails and bridle paths. The postman left a city, not at regular intervals, but only when he received enough mail to pay the expenses of the trip. The remote settlements were fortunate if they received mail once a month. Benjamin Franklin was appointed post-master general in 1753, and he served about twenty years.1 He soon made the service a paying one to the Crown. Yet even then the amount of mail delivered in the whole country in a year was less than that now delivered in the city of New York in one day.2

Newspapers were not carried in the mails, but by private arrangement. The newspapers were small and ill-printed, and contained little that we would call news. The chief contents were bits of poetry, advertisements for runaway slaves and indented servants, arrivals of cargoes, bits of European news, and essays on politics, morals, and religion. The Boston News Letter, established in 1704, was the first permanent newspaper in America. At the opening of the Revolution there were thirty-seven newspapers printed in the colonies, with a combined weekly circulation of about five thousand copies. The first daily was not printed until 1784.


Footnotes

1As early as 1710 Parliament passed the first colonial post office act. [return]

2McMaster, Vol. I, p.41. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter X p. 208-210. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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