Mail Service in Colonial-Era Charleston
Long before the invention of email, and long before the advent of the U.S. Postal Service, how did the people of early Charleston exchange letters and news with other towns, other colonies, and across the Atlantic Ocean? And how long did it take to get your mail from overseas? These are the sort of “practical” history questions that keep me busy at the library. You might think this topic is quaint, but not nearly as historically significant as, say, the American Revolution. But here’s my point: we can’t fully appreciate the timing of the spark that ignited the American Revolution without first understanding how breaking news traveled across the Atlantic and between the American colonies.
In seventeenth century America, before the creation of a postal system, if you wanted to send a letter to a nearby friend or to a distant relative across the ocean, you had a choice of two different types of services. The first choice I’ll call a “closed network” (for lack of a better term—I haven’t found any historical literature that examines this topic). A “closed network” is a series of contacts that are known and familiar to both the sender and the recipient. If you wanted to send a letter to your mother who lived several miles down the road, for example, you might entrust the letter to a sibling, a spouse, a friend, a servant, or (in early South Carolina) a slave. If your correspondent lived some greater distance away, say, in New York or London, you might ask a friend or relative, who happened to be going in that direction, to personally deliver your letter. In such cases, your letter traveled free of charge and stayed within a series of familiar hands. Alternatively, if you needed to send a letter, but didn’t have a friend heading in the right direction, you would use what we might call an “open network,” which involved your letter passing through a series of hands who were unknown to you before it reached its destination. Someone had to pay for this service, of course, either at the front end of the transaction, or at the end of the network, where your letter was received, or both. This informal network of people carrying letters for strangers in return for a small fee, eventually coalesced into what we now call the postal system.
The Public House and Post Office:
In the earliest days of American colonies, “public houses” such as taverns or coffee houses were the information hubs of every community. In a port town like Charleston, information about the outside world arrived by way of ships from distant lands. While on shore, ship captains would frequently use local taverns as their business offices. By bringing stories, gossip, and, later, newspapers to their favorite watering hole, ship captains helped taverns attract customers who wanted to hear the latest information from abroad and to discuss business and politics with their peers. More importantly, ship captains would also place mail bags in taverns and offer to carry letters to their next ports-of-call. If a ship captain happened to be carrying a letter for you, sent by distant correspondent, it was your responsibility to pay the captain for his trouble. This was the scene at hundreds of taverns across the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the bigger cities, the tavern scene was even more specialized. On Birchin Lane, in the heart of London, for example, there was a business called the Carolina Coffee House. From the earliest days of Carolina in the 1670s into the early 1800s, the Carolina Coffee House was the place to meet ship captains headed to or just arrived from Charleston. If you wanted the hear the latest news about Carolina or had letters to send to family or friends there, you went to the Carolina Coffee House.
As communication between England and its far-flung colonies increased over the course of the seventeenth century, so too did the amount of private money being spent on sending letters. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the business of carrying mail between the colonies and across the Atlantic was becoming, well, a business, and the government took notice. As often happens when the scent of profit arises from private commerce, the government stepped in to impose regulations and fees for the public good (and to take a bit of revenue). The English government dabbled with establishing a national postal system in the early 1600s, but it wasn’t until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that the concept of “Royal Mail” began to take root in a legal sense. Their early system encompassed only the country of England, but here in North America, our various provincial governments began imitating the English model. By the end of the seventeenth century, each of the American colonies had an officially-designated letter depot, or post office, but there was no official inter-colony service until a bit later.
The South Carolina legislature established an official letter office in Charleston in January 1694/5 in the house of one William Smith. This legal appointment, oddly enough, was made in the context of a law concerning the stockpiling of gunpowder. In a 1698 revision of this law, the legislature named Mr. Francis Fidling the colony’s official letter collector. In September 1702, the South Carolina legislature ratified “An Act to Erect a Generall Post Office,” and named Mr. Edward Bourne its sole employee. The texts of our early postal laws followed the pattern established back home in England. Every ship captain arriving in the port of Charleston was required to deliver his letter bag to the designated post office, along with a written inventory of all the letters in his bag. The government-appointed letter collector (not yet called a postmaster) was required to make a list of the letters he received from each ship captain and to post said list somewhere in his house (usually a “public house” or tavern) for public view. As people came in to receive their letters, the letter collector was required to make a second list recording the name of the person to whom he had delivered each letter, in case someone later claimed they had not received their mail. For this service, the recipient of the letter—not the sender—had had to pay a small fee (three pence three farthings in 1695, for example).
After the formal unification of England and Scotland in 1707, the new nation of Great Britain began to think of itself with a much broader scope. In the autumn of 1710, the British Parliament passed “An Act for establishing a General Post-Office for all her Majesty’s dominions” (9 Ann c. 10). This law set up a principal post office in London, with regional administrative offices in Edinburgh, Dublin, New York, and in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. In addition, this law directed that post offices were to be established “at some convenient place or places in each of her Majesty's provinces or colonies in America.” From this point onward, therefore, South Carolina’s sole post office and postmaster in Charleston came under the jurisdiction of the much larger imperial network administered from London. The British postmaster general delegated his authority by appointing a deputy postmaster general for the West Indies, and another for North America (which was later divided into northern and southern postal districts).
The post office in colonial-era Charleston was not a stand-alone, bricks-and-mortar kind of edifice. It was a humble affair, usually kept within another sort of business, often within a printer’s shop, and it moved frequently. Our post office didn’t require much space because, for most of it existence before the American Revolution, it was simply a place where the postmaster received and sorted incoming mail brought in mail bags by ship captains. Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about the collecting of mail to be forwarded to destinations beyond Charleston, or beyond South Carolina. For the first half-century of its existence, our post office was not involved in the business of gathering mail to be sent elsewhere. That service was entirely in the hands of private contractors until the 1750s. To understand why Charleston’s early post office provided such limited services, we need to explore the history of the two principal modes of mail transport—by land and by sea—and Charleston’s place in the larger world of trans-Atlantic communication.
Post Riders on the Post Road:
The earliest English settlements in New England commenced in the 1620s, and within a few decades there was a system of rudimentary roads, or at least riding paths, connecting the various northern colonies. In 1673, the governors of both New York and Pennsylvania created post offices to facilitate a monthly mail service along a road stretching from Boston, Massachusetts, to Annapolis, Maryland. Because this road, really more of a horse path, was maintained with government funds, it became known as “the King’s highway.” Along this public highway, men riding on horseback carried mail bags from one end of the road to the other, stopping at towns along the way to pick up and deposit mail. It wasn’t until more than a century later, years after the American Revolution, that the volume of mail increased to the point that it needed to be carried by wagons or coaches.
Following the creation of the North American post office in New York, in conformity to the postal law of 1710, the big challenge for the North American postmaster was to improve the existing New England post road and connect it to Virginia. The southern colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas had smaller populations than those up north, however, and our people were scattered among rural plantations instead of clustered in towns like in New England. The idea of connecting the King’s Highway to Charleston was part of the government’s plan, but it remained a low priority for many years. From the perspective of government officials back in London and merchants in Charleston, South Carolina was more closely aligned with the Caribbean sphere of communication and trade.
In the spring of 1739, the South Carolina legislature appropriated money to employ a post rider to carry mail once a month from Charleston to Georgetown and then on to Cape Fear and Edenton. There, the South Carolina post riders could connect with North Carolina post riders, who would exchange mails with the Virginia post riders, and so on all the way to Boston. Although this plan included the support of the South Carolina postmaster and his boss in New York, it fizzled after a short period of operation. We can assign part of the blame for its failure on a lack of government commitment and the poor state of our Lowcountry roads, but there was an important economic reason as well. The terrestrial mail service flourished in in the northern colonies because it was supported by a relatively large and dense population. Here in the lowcountry of the two Carolinas, however, our population was smaller and spread thinly over a large area. From an economic perspective, the southern leg of the king’s American postal route simply didn’t generate sufficient revenue to cover the expense of such an operation.
More than a decade later, Charleston’s official terrestrial postal connection with the northern colonies commenced in the late summer of 1756. Prior to that time, the dirt path known as the King’s Highway terminated in Newbern, North Carolina. On 19 August 1756, however, South Carolina’s postmaster, Peter Timothy, announced the beginning of a fortnightly service using a rider who would carry the mail between Charleston and Wilmington, where it would connect with the northern mail carriers. All persons receiving mail or wishing to send letters could visit Timothy’s shop, where he also published the South-Carolina Gazette (see that paper, 12–19 August 1756).
By the autumn of 1756, after many decades of wishing for its completion, the King’s postal road from Boston to Charleston was finally a functioning reality. But what about a postal road from Charleston to the new colony of Georgia (established in 1733), and then new colony of East Florida (established in 1763)? For many years after the founding of these colonies, there weren’t sufficient roads to facilitate such a service, and there wasn’t a sufficient population base to cover the expense of creating an official overland postal route. In response, independent contractors offered to fill the need.
In early 1742, for example, a private rider named Robert McMurdy began a weekly subscription postal route south of Charleston, to Ponpon Bridge on the Edisto River, with a number of stops between the two places. The price for this subscription mail service was £3 (S.C. currency) per year. Advertisements in the newspaper demonstrate that McMurdy continued this circuit for at least two years, into the spring of 1744, before it fizzled out. A generation later, in the early months of 1770, German immigrant Christian Sigwald advertised his intention to start a similar subscription mail-carrying service, traveling from Charleston to Jacksonboro and back every Tuesday and Friday, and continuing all the way to the Ashepoo River once a week. Sigwald undertook this private service with the consent of the postmaster general, he stated, “as the revenue arising from the postage would, at present, be insufficient to defray the expense” (see South-Carolina and American General Gazette, 7 February 1770). Sigwald’s southern postal route commenced in April 1770, but it’s unclear how long it continued.
Finally, in September 1774, his majesty’s postal service in America commenced a weekly postal route from Charleston to Jacksonboro, Beaufort, Pocotaligo, and Savannah. There, the South Carolina post rider exchanged mail with the Georgia post rider, who brought mail from as far south as St. Augustine, and then returned to Charleston (see the supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette, 17 September 1774). Six months before the first shots of the American Revolution, the king’s great postal highway (still just a horse trail), connecting Americans from Boston to St. Augustine, was finally completed.
Trans-Atlantic Mail Packet Boats:
One of the most important features of the British postal law of 1710, and its subsequent revisions, was the appropriation of money to fund a small fleet of packet boats. More than just a simple sail boat, the packet was a medium-sized, ocean-going vessel designed for speed and efficiency rather than for cargo. A packet boat might carry a few passengers and a bit of cargo, but its main purpose was to transport mail and other small “packets” or packages on a regular timetable. While a cargo ship might linger at port until her hull was full, however long that might take, a packet boat was expected to depart and arrive on a set schedule. In accordance with the 1710 postal law, the first government-sponsored packet boats provided a weekly service between the regional post offices in Dublin and Edinburgh with the central post office in London.
What about connecting the central post office in London with the regional postal headquarters in New York and the West Indies? In the first half of the eighteenth century, it appears that there wasn’t a sufficient volume of mail to induce the British postal system to appropriate money for a fleet of trans-Atlantic and inter-colony packet boats. Instead, the government relied on the customary practice of using private ship captains to carry mail bags from port to port. To encourage ship captains to participate in the system created by the 1710 postal act, the British government authorized colonial postmasters to pay ship captains one penny for every letter delivered to the official post office in the colony where they arrived. To ensure accountability, the law required ship captains to make a list of the letters they carried and to deliver said list to the local postmaster, who was also required to make a list of all incoming letters and the names of the persons to whom the letters were delivered. Eventually this duty would be executed by packet boat captains in coordination with colonial postmasters, but in the meantime, this public-private partnership endured for many decades.
In the autumn of 1755, the British government announced the beginning of an expanded trans-Atlantic packet boat service (see the London Gazette, 25 October 1755). Commencing in 1756, there were two fleets and two branches, one servicing the northern colonies in America, and another connecting Britain’s southernmost colonies. Each month, a northern packet boat departed Falmouth, England, and sailed directly to New York, carrying mail for all of his majesty’s colonies in North America. From the main post office in New York, mail was distributed to the post office in each colony by way of the post road, or King’s Highway. Because that highway didn’t yet extend to Charleston, however, this new and improved postal service had no impact on South Carolina. Meanwhile, the southern branch of the new packet service departed Falmouth monthly and delivered mail to Barbados, Antigua, Monserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts, and Jamaica, before returning to Falmouth. In the mid-1750s, the two Carolinas and Georgia were simply too thinly populated to merit inclusion in the British government’s expanded packet boat service. While other colonies benefitted from improved mail transport, we continued to rely on the old practice of private ship captains carrying mail bags from port to port.
In 1763, immediately after the conclusion of our latest war with France and Spain, the British postal service began planning another expansion of its colonial packet boat service. The northern branch, sailing between Falmouth and New York, remained unchanged, but in 1764 the route of the southern branch was altered to include Charleston and Britain’s new possessions in Florida. This new service involved three 140-ton packet boats, each manned with eighteen hands (London Gazette, 28 January 1764). Two years later, in the spring of 1766, the British government added two 170-ton packet boats to this route to ensure that his majesty’s colonies overseas would enjoy a monthly mail service (see the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 3 June 1766).
As South Carolina’s economy and population boomed in the 1760s, so too did our volume of mail, and so we began to garner even more attention from crown officials back in England. In late 1768, the king’s Postmaster General initiated a new, monthly packet service that sailed directly between Falmouth and Charleston, carrying mail for the provinces of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. Four vessels were assigned to this route, which commenced in early 1769: Swallow, Eagle, Earl of Sandwich, and Le DeSpencer (the last two ships named for John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, and Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le DeSpencer, who jointly held the office of His Majesty’s Postmaster General). The passage from Falmouth to Charleston took anywhere from six to nine weeks, but by dispatching one packet boat on a fixed date each month, the goal was to ensure that Charleston would receive the latest news from England at least once a month. Once the packet mail bags arrived in Charleston, the local postmaster would carefully inventory their contents, separate the mail destined for our neighboring colonies, and hand the appropriate sub-packets to post riders who then galloped to the north and to the south along the King’s Highway.
A Conclusion (and a Cliffhanger):
Now that we’ve outlined the policies and practices related to the postal system of colonial-era Charleston, I’d like to conclude this conversation with a segue to next week’s topic. On the 19th of April, 1775, the day that Massachusetts militiamen fired the first shots of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord, an incident took place at the Post Office in Charleston that set South Carolina on the path to rebellion. Historians have largely ignored this incident because its significance is clouded by the obscure logistics of the colonial postal system. Now that you have a good understanding of how mail and news was transported between the colonies and across the Atlantic at that time, however, you are primed to appreciate next week’s story. Tune in next week, when we’ll visit the post office on East Bay street in mid-April 1775 and witness the spark that lit the fuse of the American Revolution in South Carolina.