Today, the Pilgrim Tercentenary Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers when John Campbell began the first periodical newspaper 313 years ago.
His newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, was not the first attempt for a periodical newsprint, however it is the first newspaper that successfully distributed more than one run.
An excerpt from an article by Lyman Horace Weeks titled Early Massachusetts Newspapers in the American Historical Magazine of March 1908:
For three-quarters of a century the colonists continued to be wholly without home newspapers. During that time journalism was gradually developing in Europe.
Up to the beginning of the eighteenth century three newspapers had been started in London, two in Edinburgh, two in Paris and one each in Frankfort, Antwerp, Stockholm and Worcester; but on this side of the Atlantic there was less demand for news publications of a local character.
The fledgling communities were small, and it was not difficult for news to be disseminated from mouth to mouth, or by manuscript letters.
Sending news by means of personal letters was of course early in vogue, as they had been in the old country and there continued until long after the newspaper had come into being.
One of the earliest productions of this description was the letter which Governor Thomas Dudley sent from Massachusetts to the Countess of Lincoln, written, as he said, “rudely; having yet no table nor other room to write in, than by the fireside in this sharp winter.”
Letters from those in one settlement or town to relatives or friends in other settlements in different parts of New England were numerous and gave the colonists all the general information that they cared for in regard to what was going on.
As the towns and cities grew in size, the need for something of a broader and more formal character than these purely personal communications began to be recognized.
Copies of the London newspapers came from the old home and were sufficient to whet the appetites of the people for something of the same kind in their own communities.
Written letters sometimes took on a more official character than before, another evidence of the growing desire for news information, among the people generally.
Toward the latter part of the seventeenth century, John Campbell, who was then postmaster of Boston, was in the habit of sending written letters quite regularly to the governors of the several New England colonies, giving therein the news of what had happened in Boston, and the latest items that he was able to gather from the ship captains who had lately come into the port of Boston, and from other sources.
Occasionally, there was important news with which it was deemed desirable the people generally should become acquainted.
Then broadsides were printed and distributed. Such for example was the broadside entitled “The Present State of the New-English Affairs of 1689,” which contained the report of the Reverend Cotton Mather, concerning the result of his mission to London, whither he had gone in the interests of securing a new charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Another broadside of similar purpose was that in which was republished Admiral Russell’s letter to the Earl of Nottingham, describing the victory of the English and Dutch fleet over the French fleet in May, 1692.
These manuscript newsletters and broadsides were precursors of the newspaper, although they were in no sense real newspapers, lacking the essential element of periodicity and continuity.
It was in September, 1690, that the first attempt was made to establish in America a newspaper,— that is a publication to be issued at regular intervals.
This was Public Occurrences, which came out in Boston but lived only through a single number, being suppressed by the government of the colony.
Interesting references to this publication appear in the diary of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, volume I, page 332, as follows : “September 25 (1690) A printed sheet entitled Publick Occurrences came out, which gives much distaste because not licensed, and because of the passage referring to the French King and the Maquas [Mohawks]. Oct. 1 Print of the Governor and Council comes out showing their disallowance of the Publick Occurrences. Oct. 2. Mr. [Cotton] Mather writes a very sharp letter about it.”
Again Judge Sewell, in his “Letter Book,” volume I, page 112, under date of September 25, 1690, refers to “the first sheet of Occurrences, which came out this day.”
Subsequently, in 1703, the letters of John Campbell, before referred to, were written and distributed.
In the following year Campbell had made up his mind that the time was ripe for the presentation in printed form of the news which heretofore he had endeavored to disseminate in his manuscript letters.
In April, 1704, he began the publication of the Boston News-Letter, the first newspaper started in America that succeeded in maintaining a permanent existence, and the second newspaper to appear, holding that Publick Occurrences was intended as a periodical publication and would have been so continued had the authorities not suppressed it.
Concerning the Boston News-Letter Judge Sewall wrote, volume II, page 100.
“April 24, 1704. I went to Cambridge to see some books of the Revelation, and there met with Mr. Piquet. Went into Hall and heard Mr. Willard expound Rom. 4, 9, 10, 11 and pray. I gave Mr. Willard the first News-Letter that ever was carried over the River. I came home with Mr. Adams.”
For nearly fifteen years the Boston News-Letter alone occupied the journalistic field in the Massachusetts colony.
On December 21, 1719, William Booker, who was then postmaster of Boston, published the first issue of the Boston Gazette, which was the next Massachusetts newspaper, and from that time on journalistic activity developed rapidly in the colony.
The Pilgrim Tercentenary Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with a facsimile image of the first Boston News-Letter of 1704.