You’ve Got Mail: Development of the Colonial Postal Service in Virginia

The sending of a letter in Colonial America was more challenging than today.  The concept of post offices and regularly scheduled mail arrivals and departures evolved slowly in the colonies.  Colonial mail faced many obstacles.   Geography, political opposition, and a general lack of interest hindered a national system that serviced all the colonies. 

How to Get a Letter Sent                                    

While not impossible to get a letter sent, the question was, would it arrive?   There were two main ways to send your letter: send someone you know or pay someone else to deliver your correspondence for you.

We will call these two types of mail delivery private and public systems.  A private system means that the sender and the recipient knew the mailing source.  For example, you might entrust your letter to be delivered by an acquaintance, family member, or servant.  You would put your mail in the hands of someone you knew who happened to be traveling in the direction of the addressee, be it across town or the colonies.  In such cases, the letter was delivered free of charge.[1] 

A public system consisted of a letter being passed through a series of people unknown to the sender, with postage paid by the sender.  This was an informal arrangement where strangers, for a fee, carried letters for people to specific destinations.   This would eventually evolve into what we now recognize as the postal system. 

Artist Lloyd Branson depicts a colonial mail carrier in this partial view from his painting “Transporting Mail”.Credit: Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum

English Colonies

The history of mail service in America is complicated.  It took over one hundred years to evolve into a true American Postal System.  In the beginning, the English government established the “Royal Mail” in 1660.[2]    Under the Act of 1660, the price to send a single letter was two pence for “fower score English miles,” or threepence for greater distances.[3]  The colonies did not have an official postal service until King William and Queen Mary appointed Thomas Neale to create one in 1691.  This patent established an officially-designated letter depot or post office, but there was no inter-colony service until later.

Mail in Virginia

Shortly after his appointment Thomas Neale chose Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey as a resident deputy.  Hamilton established regular service in the North between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.[4]

1729 Moll Map of New York, New England, and Pennsylvania (First Postal Map of New England). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton was eager to continue establishing service to the Southern states of Virginia and Maryland.  However, his application to extend the post to Virginia was not accepted with enthusiasm.  Virginia didn’t find a need to link up to a more costly overland inter-colonial mail service because their mail could travel by the schooners and tobacco ships.[5]

Lieutenant governor Alexander Spotswood persisted in starting a post-service in Virginia.  In 1717, Spotswood announced that post offices had been “settled” throughout Virginia and that fortnightly (two weeks) post was established between Philadelphia and Williamsburg.[6] However, Spotswood’s works were not appreciated by many Virginians, particularly politicians, and there was still considerable resistance to the service. [7] The people’s main concern was that the postal service would become a monopoly where prices were controlled by the owner rather than by competition.[8]

When the Assembly met in the spring of 1718, many counties complained about this postal monopoly.  The Burgesses and the (Governor’s) Council united in passing a bill that prevented the execution of the Act of Parliament establishing a mail service in the colony.  Spotswood subsequently blocked this bill, but the bill’s proponents were successful and promptly suspended official service in Virginia.  Because of this lack of co-operation as late as 1727, Annapolis was still the southern terminus for regular postal service.[9]

In 1730, Spotswood took over the position of Deputy Post Master General after the resignation of John Hamilton for failing to turn a profit for the post office and suffering accusations of excessive spending.[10] His goal was to establish a better route between Annapolis and Williamsburg and eventually push that further south.  He succeeded and, by 1739, had created a route from Williamsburg to Charles Town, South Carolina. Spotswood’s post office was called “General Post Office at New Post” and was located near the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg on land he owned.  After Spotswood’s death in 1740, the post office was maintained in New Post, Virginia, until Benjamin Franklin took office in 1753 and moved headquarters to his native Pennsylvania.[11]

Revolution

The postal system in the Colonies continued growing until British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765.  The Stamp Act placed an official stamp on all printed material, including legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and other types of paper used throughout the colonies.  [12] 

Unsurprisingly, the Stamp Act was very unpopular among the colonists as many considered it a violation of their rights as Englishmen not to be taxed without their consent.   With the significant uproar and protests, the act was quickly repealed in March of 1766.  Still, Parliament continued to declare its power to legislate the colonies by passing the Declaratory Act.  Additionally, a new series of taxes and regulations were introduced, which fostered resentment to British rule and was the beginning of what would become a revolution in America. [13] 

The post office symbolized British power, and a new system would have to be established if the colonists wished to overthrow the government and create an independent country.  The colonist began their postal service, the Constitutional Post, in May 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as the new postmaster general.  Subsequently, the Crown’s postal service in the colonies ceased by Christmas of the same year.[14]

By July 1775, the Second Continental Congress ordered The United States Post Office (USPO) with Franklin overseeing its creation as department head.  In 1789, George Washington appointed Samuel Osgood as the first American postmaster general.  More than 75 official post offices and more than 2,000 miles of post roads.[15]

 Over America’s development as a new country, its postal system has continued to grow to accommodate its populations and postal needs.  Today, the United States Post Office has over 30,000 offices and delivers around 150 billion pieces of mail a year.[16]

Heather Baldus

Collections Manager


[1] Butler, Nic. 2018. Mail Service in Colonial-Era Charleston, Charleston County Public Library, 2018 https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/mail-service-colonial-era-charleston

[2] Ibid

[3] Harrison, Fairfax. “The Colonial Post Office in Virginia”, The William and Mary Quarterly, Apr 1924, 73.

[4] Ibid, 74.

[5] Ibid, 74-75.

[6] Ibid, 78.

[7] Ibid, 79.

[8] Colonial Post Office N-10, Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania Historical Markers, 2021 https://fredmarkers.umwblogs.org/2008/03/23/colonial-post-office-n-10/

[9] Harrison, 79.

[10] Colonial Post Office N-10, 2021

[11] Ibid

[12] Wood, S.G. “The American Revolution: A History.” Modern Library. 2002, 24.

[13] Daniella Garran (19 July 2010). “Steps to the American Revolution”. Lesson Planet. Retrieved 21 July 2010.

[14] Gavin, Alison M. “Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America”, 2009 https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2009/summer/finlay.html

[15] The Early American Postal System”, https://www.constitutionfacts.com/founders-library/early-american-postal-system/

[16] “Size and scope”. About USPS. United States Postal Service. Archived from the original on December 15, 2018. Retrieved December 8, 2018.