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In the King’s Service

Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America
By Alison M. Gavin

ext-day delivery, the Internet, texting . . . never has communication on a

personal level been so easy. Telecommunications, which has made enor-
mous progress over the last 10 years, stands alone as a testament to
American ingenuity in the world market.

Not even today’s octogenarians can imagine, however, the extent to which
communications have improved since colonial times. Getting a letter to a neighbor-
ing town was difficult and involved, while trying to get one’s mail across the
Atlantic to Great Britain might prove futile.
Top: Hugh Finlay’s diary includes this map showing his survey for a postal road “from Canada to the Massachusets Province.” He states at the start of his
diary that “I received orders from Mr. Foxcroft to hold myself in readiness to enter on service in September [1773] by beginning the Survey in exploring
the uninhabited country between the most Southerly settlements on the River Chaudiere in Canada, and the most Northerly habitations on the River
of Kennebek in the Government of Massachusetts Bay.” He ended the survey in Virginia in June 1774.

Above inset: The postal rider was an essential part of mail delivery in much of Colonial America, but due to harsh terrain and conditions, delivery was often uncertain.
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The emergence of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Fairbanks, received and sent off letters sender still could not be certain that the letter
first as Philadelphia’s postmaster in 1737, from his Boston home. He charged a penny would arrive safely. Most postmasters in
and then as deputy postmaster for British for each letter but had to “answer all miscar- major American villages and towns kept
North America in 1753, brought much- riages through his own neglect in this kind.” sloppy accounts or no accounts at all. The
needed reform to the postal system in the In other American colonies,“every family position was usually a part-time job financed
American colonies. He developed a “Dead sen[t] a member on board [incoming by the Crown, given to the local customs offi-
Mail Office” for undeliverable letters and ships] for the purpose of receiving letters.” cial, printer, bookseller, tavern-keeper—or
began a system of fast-sailing “packet ships” Letters that went unclaimed were taken to simply anyone who was willing to do it. The
for the delivery of mail from abroad. a coffee house or a tavern near the wharf colonists did not consider post officer or post
Franklin was dismissed from his position that was heavily frequented by the commu- rider a desirable position. A larger issue was
in 1774 for his association with writings nity. There the items were spread out on a the reluctance of colonists to adhere to the
injurious to the Crown and replaced by loy- table. People would come in and “carried Crown-sponsored mail system. Resentment
alist Hugh Finlay. But Finlay’s appointment away not only their own letters, but all the over the cost of postage going to the Crown’s
was short-lived and nearly meaningless. letters belonging to people in the neigh- purse, and the inefficiency of the Crown’s
American revolutionaries were destroying borhood.” Letters or packages for persons post offices, led to widespread clandestine
British postal routes throughout the far from a city would be given to a local franking and delivery. This was something
colonies and viewed postage paid to the magistrate or minister to distribute in his Finlay was determined to change.
Crown as taxation without representation. town. For there to be any guarantees that a
The colonists began their own postal sys- letter would arrive at longer distances,
tem, the Constitutional Post, in May 1775 senders had to hire a rider or entrust it to
with Franklin as the new postmaster gener- travelers going in the general direction. Hugh Finlay’s Expeditions in
al.The Crown’s postal system in the colonies The idea of post offices and regularly
ceased by Christmas of that year. scheduled arrivals and departures of a
the Name of Better Mail Service
Franklin often gets credit for beginning postal rider, as established in England,
the first system of mail service along the evolved slowly in the colonies. Much of the Finlay did not begin his civic career as
eastern seaboard. But Hugh Finlay made territory, especially in the south, was wilder- a postmaster. Arriving in Canada from
improvements that are documented in a ness. Travel required fresh horses, overnight Scotland, shortly after the territory was
journal kept between September 13, 1773, stays, and hardship on the part of the rider in ceded to Great Britain in 1763, he worked
and June 26, 1774. The original handwrit- the event of flood, heat, or snow. Even if there first as a merchant in Quebec and rose
ten “Journal Kept by Hugh Finlay, Surveyor was a system of postal riders in place, the quickly among the English and French com-
of the Post Roads on the Continent of munities. No doubt his ability to read and
Benjamin Franklin (right) brought much-needed speak French fluently added to his value as
North America” is in the National Archives.
reform to the postal system in the
Finlay’s journal is significant among the American colonies when he became
National Archives’ pre-Federal records for deputy postmaster in 1753, as evidenced in
two reasons. First, it provides a transition part by his table of postal rates (below).
between the British postal system of the
colonies and the U.S. postal system. Second,
it serves as documentation of the antago-
nism that Finlay, a Crown appointee, en-
countered from American patriots in the
period leading up to the Revolutionary War.

A Neighborhood Event—Mail
Handling in the Colonies

The Massachusetts Bay Colony led the way

in establishing a postal system in America. The
introduction to the 1867 printing of Finlay’s
journal describes early methods of distrib-
uting the mail. As early as 1639, one colonist,

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a businessman. Quebec’s city council soon where he oversaw transportation and roads ings toward the Native Americans vacillated.
appointed him a justice of the peace. Later for the Crown. In December 1772 the Of the Indians’ cartographic abilities he
that year, Benjamin Franklin, then joint British postmaster general appointed him writes, “It is impossible to guess distances
deputy postmaster general of British North postal surveyor. In this position, he mapped from an Indian draft; that people have no
America, put Finlay in charge of the colonial out the most expedient routes in British idea of proportion.” Yet within a day he
post office in the Canadian territory. Finlay North America to facilitate the safe delivery wrote, “Every night after supper, Men-
established post offices at Quebec, Trois- of mail. In September of the following year, towermet, our chief guide, drew a sketch of
Rivières, and Montréal and between these Finlay began mapping out a new post route the next day’s route on a sheet of smooth
cities and New York. Two years later, Finlay between Quebec and Falmouth, Maine. On birch bark with charcoal.”As the expedition
was appointed to the Governor’s Council, October 2, 1773, he headed south from neared the border of Maine (then governed
Falmouth through New England by Massachusetts), Finlay released the
on a tour of post offices and roads. Indians from their duties: “I discharged my
Upon arrival in Philadelphia, he Indians here, and instructed the Interpreter
boarded a boat to Charleston, to return to . . . where we left provisions. . . .
South Carolina, to begin a journey I recommended it to him, to keep it ever in
northward to Virginia, where he his mind that the intention of this examina-
ended his trek in June 1774. tion was to learn the most proper pass for a
Finlay displays the zeal of road.” Finlay’s ultimate appreciation of their
Jesuit explorer and the tenacity services is obvious, however: “We parted
of a master politician in his jour- from our Indian friends.”
nal. The journal documents the The second part of Finlay’s postal survey
quality of roads and mail service, journey, taking him from Falmouth to
Finlay’s assessments of the post- Savannah, Georgia, and then to York,
masters and their records, and Virginia, serves as proof of his determina-
observations on the American tion. As with his trek through Canada, Finlay
colonists’ increasing antagonism encountered physical challenges such as
toward Great Britain. What em- hail, lame horses, quicksand, and broken fer-
erges from the journal is a por- ries. On a personal level, he encountered
trait of an intense and dedicated rude, inhospitable behavior from city-
public servant who refused to dwellers and farmers alike. In many cases,
back down from his allegiance to Finlay’s proposal of a new colonial postal
the British Crown. route was rebuked by the colonists. Instead
To support his postal survey of seeing it as an advantage, colonists felt it
from Quebec across Maine, the would “reduce the value of lands, for this
“Gentlemen of the Council” and reason they will not encourage the settle-
city of Quebec raised “more than a ment of the East by opening roads.”
Finlay recorded the “Post days at New York,” with
sufficiency” of funding. The expedi-
days and times of postal deliveries from and dis-
tion party included several Indians who
patches to Philadelphia, Boston, and Quebec. He
states, for example, that “The Boston Mail by way of knew both English and the Abenaki lan-
Hartford called the upper road, is irregular,” for rea- guage native to that region, a scout for mark- American Patriots and the End
sons he explains elsewhere in the journal. ing the path for a potential postal road to the
Kennebec River, two military officers, two
of Crown-Regulated Mail
Below: Finlay included a drawing and description of “an
servants to help carry the provisions and
avenue cut through an island” in the Cape Fear River
leading to Wilmington, North Carolina. “The island is a three canoes, and Finlay. Using their own, unpredictable method of
swamp,” he wrote, and “ ’tis with difficulty that one can Like many of the European immigrants to mail delivery, American patriots found a rela-
pass it on foot, with a horse ’tis just possible.” the North American continent, Finlay’s feel- tively easy way around the Crown’s system in

8 Prologue Summer 2009

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place. In Rhode Island, Finlay comments, In 1787 he was given responsibility an administrator, Finlay set an example
“[There are] two Post offices in New Port, the over the whole postal service of British for public service in the wilderness and
King’s and Mumfords [a resident]. . . . It is com- North America, not including the newly city alike.
mon for people who expect letters by Post formed United States. His participation in Hugh Finlay knew the American charac-
finding none at the Post office to say ‘well the first-ever international postal conven- ter well, even before the first shots at
there must be letters, we’ll find them at tion in New York in 1792 led to a signifi- Lexington. At the beginning of his tour of
Mumfords.’ It is next to impossible to put a cant decision by the Americans to permit the Eastern seaboard, he observed the
stop to this practice in the present universal mail from Canada to pass through New colonists’ character:“They are[,] they say[,]
opposition to every thing connected with York. But through a series of unfortunate to be governed by Laws of their own fram-
Great Britain.” Like the tax collector in early circumstances, Finlay was dismissed from ing, and no other.” In the face of opposition,
colonial America, Finlay was an unwelcome his position in 1799 on the grounds of unpopularity, and the growing resentment
sight to many post officers and riders. Anyone irregularities in accounting, even though of a nation, however, Finlay remained a
who cooperated with him, he wrote,“would the charge referred to a postmaster under steady loyalist civil servant.As he confident-
draw on himself the odium of his neighbours him, not to him directly. Finlay died on ly declared to a group of North Carolinians
and be mark’d as the friend of Slavery and December 26, 1801, deeply in debt. His he visited regarding the postal system in
oppression and a declar’d enemy to America.” life had been one of courage, tenacity, and British North America in 1774, “The
When Finlay visited Massachusetts, a allegiance to the Crown. From his early Publick good is the sole inducement for
“good authority” told him, “the assembly days as a postal surveyor to later years as taking so much trouble as we do.” P
will not grant one shilling towards opening
a road this way, into Canada. . . . Governor
Hutcheson [Massachusetts Governor
Thomas Hutchinson] promised to write to “The Journal Kept by Hugh Finlay, Surveyor of the Post Roads on the Continent of North America”
the Minister on this matter.” In Falmouth, lay dormant for 80 years and was rediscovered in the belongings of a dead Swedenborgian minister
the deputy postmaster “once attempted to in New York in the 1850s. It is not impossible that Finlay had some connection with the Church of
put the Law in force and took the letter bag the New Jerusalem, as the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) called themselves.
In a happy coincidence, the journal fell into the hands of publisher Frank H. Norton. He owned the
of one of those vessels [that carried letters
Mercantile Library Press in Brooklyn, NY. Norton transcribed the journal, carefully retaining the original
illegally outside the post] to the office, but wording and punctuation; he published 150 copies of the text, with his own introduction, in 1867.
it made such a bustle and noise in town Norton sent the journal to an official of the U.S. Post Office Department, and when the department’s
that he dared never attempt it again.” records were retired to the National Archives, the journal came with them. The journal is described in
Likewise, in Salem, if a complaint were A Guide to Pre-Federal Records in the National Archives (compiled by Howard H. Wehmann and
revised by Benjamin L. DeWhitt, [Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Board, 1989], p. 321). It has
made about letters not going through the
been microfilmed as Journal of Hugh Finlay, Surveyor of Post Roads and Post Offices, 1773–1774; and
post office,“(. . . an informer wou’d get tar’d Accounts of the General Post Office in Philadelphia and of Various Deputy Postmasters—“The Ledger
and feather’d) no Jury wou’d find the fact; of Benjamin Franklin”—January 1775–January 1780 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T268,
it is deem’d necessary to hinder all acts of one roll), Records of the Post Office Department, Record Group 28.
Parliament from taking effect in America” The easiest way to access the 1867 Norton transcribed version of the journal is through the
Library of Congress’s online collection of American travel narratives (through
Finlay’s public service did not end with
Pagination varies among the original journal as it was microfilmed at the National Archives, the
the establishment of the United States of Norton version of 1867, and the 2006 reprint published by Applewood Books (vol. 169, Finlay’s
America. As a loyalist, he found refuge in Journal and Drinkwater’s Letters [Bedford, MA]).
Canada when the war began. Always sensi- Little biographical information exists on Finlay. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5,
tive to the ways in which mail delivery might 1801–1820, edited by Francess G. Halpenny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983; www., offers a sketch of his life. Readers may also seek out his place in Canadian history at the
be improved, he participated in a correspon-
Canadian Museum of Civilization ( The web site of the Smithsonian’s National
dence with the British Home Office in the Postal Museum,, has some information on Finlay.
1780s. Urging colonization in Canada, and A pertinent study of early postal history is Kay
the creation of postal offices every 10 miles, Horowicz and Robson Lowe’s The Colonial
Posts in the United States of America, 1606–
he advocated the use of snowshoes for
1783 (London: Robson Lowe, 1967). Alison M. Gavin is a partici-
postal officers in a 1783 letter:“Till then the If Finlay’s journal is any example, the pre-Federal pant in both the Federal Career
Mails must be drag’d on handsleighs by men records in the National Archives are worthy of more Intern Program for Archivists
on snowshoes, a painful and slow mode of scholarly investigation. From them we can learn and the Archivist Development
Journeying in the winter, but there’s no other more about British North America and those who Program at the National Ar-
participated in its governance.The National Archives chives at College Park, Maryland. She has written for
way of getting forward in a country four, five,
also has records documenting appointments of post- New England Ancestors, Historic Nantucket, and
or six feet deep with snow, without inhabi- masters in towns throughout the country. Prologue (Summer 2007).
tants to beat and keep the way open.”

In the King’s Service Prologue 9