Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England

Article excerpt

American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England. Katherine Grandjean. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 312 pages. $24.99 (hardback)

Since Fredrick Jackson Turner's now-famous 1893 essay, historians have grappled with the significance of the frontier in American history. Katherine Grandjean joins that continuing conversation with her book, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England. Utilizing almost 3,000 letters which are part of the Winthrop Family Papers, primarily housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Grandjean argues that "communication, in the end, was an arm of colonization" (215). While her dataset is primarily these letters which date from 1635 to 1675, Grandjean's analysis of communication extends beyond the content of the letters to the technology and the personnel-the logistics-of communication, including roads and waterways.

Grandjean asks us to rethink some moments in early American history through the lens of communication. For example, her book opens with the two traders found dead in their boats which helped spark the Pequot War. Why, she wonders, would the deaths of these two men (who had questionable reputations) cause the war? In the early years of settlement in New England, traders were the lifeblood that kept the people who had moved beyond Boston connected with food, supplies, and letters/news. Without them, colonists in places like Connecticut would not be able to survive for long. "Because the violence threatened those who carried goods between the English colonies, it threatened all" (33). Once the war was over, colonists worked to make peace between the warring Mohegans and Narragansetts specifically to keep the land route between Boston and the outlying communities connected.

Initially, these land routes were the domain of Indians who frequently served as couriers of letters (especially during the winter when water travel was nearly impossible, if a letter needed to reach its destination quickly, or if the contents were confidential, as most Indians could not read English). Grandjean argues that "Letter writing was a way of making New England whole, of conquering space" (49). As such, an official postal service served as a critical component to ensure letters were delivered. …

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