The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

News in Colonial America

Colonial Print Culture

Colonial Print Culture

Boston 1737

Boston 1737: A Local News Network Case Study

The English colonists in North America in the seventeenth century were part of an early modern global communication network, and yet at the same time, they were painfully isolated. They had been encouraged to risk the three-thousand-mile ocean voyage across the North Atlantic by a steady flow of hopeful reports from the New World that had been circulating in Europe for over a hundred years in the form of explorers’ letters, maps, and travel accounts. But once they were there in the early English settlements at Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay, they were frequently cut off from the news networks they had previously known: books, pamphlets, newspapers, letters, and face-to-face communication with family and friends. They longed for news from home, especially during the news-drenched decades of civil strife in England beginning in the 1640s. They labored to sustain and improve the transatlantic flow of information and news from England and Europe to America.

The seventeenth-century English settlers also began to construct their own news systems in their settlements in North America. This process took time, and it proceeded in different ways and at different speeds in the various colonies. In Massachusetts, settlement took the form of the town, a political, economic, and ecclesiastical institution that encouraged face-to-face communication through town meetings, church services, street and harbor life, and, by the early eighteenth century, taverns and coffee houses. Social interaction was different in Virginia, as settlement spread out along the tidal rivers, not in towns, but in widely separated plantations. But Virginia also developed gathering places for the sharing of news, such as churches and county courthouses.

Thus, except for the flow of publications from abroad, the early news networks of the English colonies did not involve print. But gradually during the colonial era, print became an important part of both local and intercolonial news networks, especially in New England.