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Colonists sent letters by native American messengers, says new book

Historian Katherine Grandjean on how information traveled before the postal service

A map of New England by John Seller from 1675 hints at how unknown the region still was to white settlers.Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

People have always wanted and needed to communicate with each other, and New Englanders, from the start, have been no different. “The whole race of mankind,” wrote Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, “is generally infected with an itching desire of hearing news.”

In the 17th century, however, sending that news was no simple affair. Traveling to another town could make for a slow and dangerous adventure. Going by water was difficult; in 1630, the boat of one Boston shoemaker bound for Plymouth took on so much icy water that its passengers had to make an emergency landing. (Several legs had to be amputated, as well.) Going by land, without any roads or reliable maps, was hardly better. There was no postal service, no newspapers, no regular conduit for sharing personal stories or political intrigue.

In a new book, “American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England,” Katherine Grandjean reveals one surprising solution for the Colonists: Indian couriers. Grandjean, an assistant professor of History at Wellesley College, shows that Native American peoples often carried personal letters and breaking news between New England settlements. Colonists would hire couriers with trade goods or currency like wampum—then rely on the Indians’ networks and their knowledge of the terrain that separated one town from the next.

To study this mysterious relationship, Grandjean went back to the letters themselves, many of which were preserved in Boston’s archives (and many of which historians had not studied for decades). Eventually, she built a computer database of nearly 3,000 old letters, and that database allowed her to trace the movements of the letters and their carriers—from Boston to Hartford, from Plymouth to Manhattan. “I started to see a whole landscape of letters,” she says.


But Grandjean’s book does more than uncover the importance of Native American couriers. It reminds us that in the period between the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620 and the birth of newspapers like the one Benjamin Franklin’s brother started in 1721—a period that even historians tend to overlook—Colonial life, even within towns, could be bleak and unnerving. Letters, it turns out, offer a key to understanding the difficulties and desires of New England’s early settlers.


Grandjean spoke to Ideas by phone from her office at Wellesley.

IDEAS: How did New Englanders communicate in the 17th century?

GRANDJEAN: That’s the big mystery I started with when I was doing the research for this book....The letter that first intrigued me was written in 1649, after John Winthrop, the great founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had died. He died in Boston at the end of a very long, very cold winter, and the men who were attending him had to figure out how to get the news to his son, who lived 100 miles to the south. To send the news by boat, around Cape Cod, would take a week and would not reach him in time to attend the funeral. So they hired an Indian named Nahawton, a well-known friend to the English near Boston. He carried the letter directly.

The letter carried by Nahawton to John Winthrop Jr. in 1649, informing him of his father’s death.

Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The letter carried by Nahawton to John Winthrop Jr. in 1649, informing him of his father’s death.

IDEAS: So the Colonists needed Nahawton’s help.

GRANDJEAN: Right. These Englishmen, who we think of as very powerful and very in command of their world, had to cast around to find a way to get news to a dead father’s son...I found this was a common pattern. When families needed help, when war was looming, the Colonists turned to Native couriers in a sort of desperate move.

IDEAS: That makes sense for the Colonists, but why did the Natives cooperate?

GRANDJEAN: In many cases, they were traveling just for the economic incentive. But Native peoples were very interconnected. They traveled much more than we can see in the historical record....New England was covered by a network of intricate foot trails, and a courier would take a letter by foot through these main arteries that existed long before the English arrived....The Natives had ties of kinship and friendship and politics that spanned hundreds of miles. In contrast, travel was very, very limited for Colonists in this period—for practical reasons, since they didn’t bring many horses in the beginning, but also because it was a frightening prospect to go 50 or 100 miles beyond where you lived. It was an unfamiliar landscape without any English landmarks.

IDEAS: You examined thousands of old letters while working at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

GRANDJEAN: That Winthrop letter awakened me to the idea that communication was a problem in the Colonial period. There’s something magical and seductive about old letters as objects—the brittleness of the paper, the different shades of the ink. The Colonists brewed their own ink, which meant it could be blue or black or brown....Experiencing the letters in that way made me think of them as material objects that had to travel.

Richard Howard

IDEAS: Eventually, you built a database of nearly 3,000 letters. What did those letters say?

GRANDJEAN: People wrote for all sorts of reasons, including just to keep in touch. Some of the most touching and poignant are people writing to their mothers because they need diapers or cloth or soap. But they also wrote because they needed to send critical news about politics or war.


IDEAS: It’s wonderful to get a glimpse of the Colonists’ everyday lives. But do these letters reveal anything larger about their era?

GRANDJEAN: When you follow the flow of news you get a much different picture of early New England than we’re accustomed to. New England is thought about, in popular memory, as a set of orderly, isolated Puritan towns. But there’s an underbelly of New England history that’s more precarious and dark....No Englishmen could be totally confident that they were in control of the world they were living in. You see that when you start to think about how difficult it was for them to share news or to move across space. There’s a thread of fear, a feeling of threat.

IDEAS: Did those fears diminish, once communications improved?

GRANDJEAN: I thought I was going to wrap up the book with a very straightforward tale of how the English took control of the English frontier. They got a postal service running—inefficiently, but they got one running. They started to build roads. They started to launch newspapers....But at the same time, the French and the Indians began raiding English settlements on the northern frontier. The fact that communication was becoming easier, that there was a more established infrastructure, ironically meant that all of New England was subject to this terror. Everyone heard about it. Everyone read about it. All of that fear on the northern frontier trickled down to people who were removed from the violence.

IDEAS: That dynamic sounds as familiar as a family letter.

GRANDJEAN: There are interesting parallels between this part of New England history and what happens now. Think about what we see in the media, and think about how much fear runs through modern reporting. Better communication isn’t always a blessing.

Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail


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