“A close correspondency,” and “A more speedy Intelligence and Dispatch of Affayres.” These phrases embodied the reasoning behind Royal Governor of New York Francis Lovelace’s establishment of a postal service in 1672 at the behest of King Charles II. The English colonies had sought the creation of an official postal system as early as 1638, which King Charles I denied. Bostonians, realizing the importance of increased communication as their colony grew, established one anyways at their own expense. Less than half a century later, King Charles II would also realize the importance of increased inter-colonial communication amidst countries warring for New World land. His insight would lead to the Boston Post Road, a series of trodden paths connecting Boston to New York City.
The paths that comprised the Boston Post Road began as Native American trails. Each November Native Americans would “pave” the paths by a process the Dutch termed “bush-burning.” Setting fire to bramble, twigs, and underbrush ensured the paths would not be unpassable. Just three years after the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the spirited John Oldham and his exploratory party embarked inland on one such native trail, now known as the Old Connecticut Path. In the wake of Oldham’s explorations in the Connecticut River Valley came civilized New England. Colonists began pursuing settlement further inland as Boston became strained by a growing population. The towns of New England today owe their roots to the network of trails linking Boston to New York City. This network dictated where colonists moved inland, settled, and founded new towns. It was their only guide in an untamed wilderness. In this sense, historian Eric Jaffe describes the network of paths that would come to comprise the Boston Post Road as a “conduit of cultural progress.”
In 1672, aided with the help of Royal Governor of Connecticut John Winthrop Jr., Governor Lovelace spearheaded official creation of the Boston Post Road, a system of mail-delivery routes with three alignments—the Upper, Middle, and Lower Post Roads. This network used a series of towns and taverns that had been recently settled as checkpoints along each alignment. The westernmost path—the Old Connecticut Path—formed much of the basis for the Upper Post Road and became the first colonial post road.
Governor Lovelace found his “stout fellow, active and indefatigable” in Mathias Nicolls, whose departure from New York City on January 22, 1673 marked the first official post ride. Nicolls departed from the southern tip of Manhattan with explicit orders to stop at the home of John Winthrop Jr. in Hartford en route to Boston for further instruction and to switch horses. Along the way, the post rider would mark trees to aid others using the path for their own travels. He would also scout good locations for inns and taverns along the way. Nicolls stored letters marked “post-paid” in separate saddlebags organized by destination. At each stop, he would find the ideal place to deliver the mail while also informing locals of his estimated time of return. Nicolls arrived in Boston on February 11, 1673 before returning south to complete the second half of his journey.
The Boston Post Road has never enjoyed the same name recognition as Route 66, the Oregon Trail, or even the Pony Express. Moreover, the “First Postrider” has never been remembered as a significant figure in American history. Given the contribution of this system (and the first ride in particular) to increased communication and trade between colonies, we must wonder why it does not stack up to similar watershed moments in history. The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, Daniel Boone leading emigrants through the Cumberland Gap on the Wilderness Road, and Paul Revere’s glorified ride to warn colonists of the British advance all command respect in America’s collective memory. That a lone rider could trek over 200 miles of dangerous wilderness in less than a month to deliver “divers baggs” of correspondence through “terrifying darkness” should command an equal amount of respect. Several developments in the immediate aftermath of the first ride on the Boston Post Road may have dampened perspective and cooled historical remembrance of the event.
Just months after Nicolls successfully completed the first post ride in early 1673, Governor Lovelace found himself in Hartford visiting Governor Winthrop on postal business. Much to his surprise and dismay, when he returned home it was not to New York but to New Orange. A Dutch naval squadron had overtaken Fort James during Lovelace’s absence and now occupied the city. It was from this exact fear that Lovelace (and King Charles II) had originally promoted a postal road in the first place, so as to ensure “a more speedy Intelligence and Dispatch of Affayres” with the Massachusetts Bay Colony lest New York need call on their soldiers for aid against a Dutch incursion. It is quite possible Lovelace was discussing this exact threat with Winthrop during their midsummer meeting in Hartford, which later was described as “an urgent occasion.”
Suffice it to say, the Dutch were not interested in continuing postal correspondence with English colonists in New England. Along with outlawing this, Dutch Governor Anthony Colve sentenced English post rider John Sharpe to “the inner and nethermost Dungeon” for four days and banished him for ten years. Though the city would be restored to English rule (and its name reverted to New York) in 1674 with the Treaty of Westminster, the postal service did not immediately regain steam. Furthermore, a second king threatened to wreak havoc on the small town infrastructure on which the Boston Post Road relied so heavily.
Wampanoag chief Metacomet, who adopted the name King Philip in honor of the peaceful coexistence his father and the Mayflower Pilgrims had achieved, led a united assault on colonial towns in 1675. King Philip’s War arose from years of growing tensions between Native Americans and English settlers, but was ignited when officials in Plymouth Colony hanged three Wampanoags for the murder of a Christianized Native American.
Brutal fighting broke out across the New England countryside beginning in the summer of 1675, ravaging numerous towns that serviced the Boston Post Road. On the Upper Post Road alone, the towns of Worcester, Marlborough, Brookfield, Springfield, and Sudbury were reduced to ruin. Brookfield was home to Wheeler’s Surprise and the ensuing siege. This conflict left the town deserted for twelve years and without a tavern for another five. In total, King Philip’s War produced a death rate more than double that of the Civil War. Only by the end of the seventeenth century, over a quarter of a century since the first post ride, did the postal service achieve a sense of stability and permanency.
Dutch invasion and King Philip’s War functioned as growing pains for the infant postal service. These larger events separated the monumental first post ride in 1673 from the later, more consistent success achieved in the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin—the First Postmaster General—introduced practices that enabled the system to flourish with unprecedented levels of organization and operation nearing the dawn of the Revolution. With such a towering figure as Franklin, it is easy to overlook the achievements of the true originators, King Charles II, and Governors Lovelace and Winthrop Jr. The Boston Post Road of these men never gained momentum, nor did the first post ride by Mathias Nicolls revolutionize the service.
Nevertheless, these leaders, their vision, and their singular achievement did mark the beginning of a system that would achieve widespread and important success later on. Lovelace sought a postal service “as the most compendious means to beget a mutual understanding.” This mutual understanding would carry Paul Revere down the Post Road in 1774 with the Suffolk Resolves. Less than a year later, it would carry Ebenezer Hurd down the road with news of Lexington and Concord. Those that saw fit to send a lone post rider through the wilderness in 1673 should be remembered for laying that groundwork.
Eric Jaffe, The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route that Made America, New York, NY: Scribner, 2010.
Stewart H. Holbrook, The Old Poft Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road, New York City, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962.