A Mystery from the First Handwritten Newspaper Published in America

One of the oldest newspapers published in America was the Boston News-Letter. The origins of this historical newspaper were detailed, handwritten reports by John Campbell.

In 1702, John Campbell became the Postmaster in Boston. “As part of his job, Campbell had the official task of writing letters of important information to the main office.”  (Sloan, William David and Julie Hedgepath Williams. “The Early American Press, 1690-1783.” Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. 233p. Quoted material is from page 18.)

As ships arrived in America carrying incoming mail and newspapers from England and the continent, along with the passengers and crew, Campbell was in a good position to learn the latest overseas news.

As people came to his office to receive or send their mail he was able to learn the latest local news as well. It was Campbell’s responsibility to write detailed reports in the form of letters filled with descriptions of every ship that arrived or left America’s ports and the cargo they were carrying, along with the latest news he had learned.

He copied these letters by hand and circulated them to “postal officials, merchants and other affluent colonists…many subscribers shared them with nonsubscribers and some letters ended up posted in taverns and other public places.” (Sloan, page 18.)

Campbell could not create enough copies of the letters to keep up with the demand. Realizing there was a market for his “newsletters,” he launched one of America’s oldest newspapers, the Boston News-Letter, on 24 April 1704.

So, what do we make of this handwritten notation added to a shipping notice published in the Boston News-Letter in 1706?

handwritten entry to a ship's list, Boston News-Letter newspapr article 25 November 1706

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 18-25 November 1706, page 4

Was this note added by the editor on every copy of the newspaper?

Was this a throwback to the previous handwritten news format or simply a notation made by a person who had purchased a copy of that week’s newspaper?

It might take a handwriting expert to determine who wrote this in the old newspaper.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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