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Three hundred years ago on 24 April 1704, John Campbell, the postmaster of Boston, published the first issue of the Boston News-Letter. A small single sheet, printed on both sides, the News-Letter made history as the first continuously published newspaper in America. The Boston News-Letter appeared weekly until 1776 and had no competition in Boston until 21 December 1719, when the first issue of the Boston Gazette appeared. Even Philadelphia and New York, the two largest cities in British America, lacked their own newspapers until 1719 and 1725 respectively.
This first issue of the Boston News-Letter, as befits a British colony, was full of news from Mother England, including lengthy abstracts from mid-December issues of the London Flying Post and London Gazette. These articles concerned the Papist (i.e. French) threats to Scotland, Ireland, and England and warned of the "bloody designs of Papists and Jacobites." An extract dated Dublin, Nov. 27, tells of Irish "beginning to form themselves into bodies, and to plunder the Protestants of their arms and money." An extract of Queen Anne's speech to Parliament acquaints them of "unquestionable informations of very ill practices and designs carried on in Scotland by emissaries from France."
The local news, occupying only one column on page 2, consists of brief notices of maritime arrivals and activities, the appointment of Nathanael Byfield as Judge of the Admiralty, and the preaching of an "excellent" sermon by Rev. Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton of Boston's Old South Church on 1 Thessalonians 4.11: "And do your own business." The sheet concludes with Campbell's advertisement informing the public that the News-Letter would be continued weekly and soliciting advertisements and subscriptions.
John Campbell (1653-1728), the founding publisher and editor of the Boston News-Letter, was born in Scotland, later emigrating to Boston where he set up shop as a bookseller. Campbell served as postmaster of Boston from 1702-1718 and for several years, also served as a justice of the peace for Suffolk County. In 1722, Campbell transferred the operation of the paper to Bartholomew Green (1666-1732), who had been the printer of the newspaper since its inception. The ownership of the paper remained in Green's hands until his death in 1732, when, as with many family-operated newspapers in colonial America, it passed first to his son-in-law John Draper, and from there to Draper's son Richard and Richard's widow Margaret. The Boston News-Letter was the only newspaper to continue publication in Boston during the opening phase of the Revolution. The last issue appeared in February of 1776.
The Boston News-Letter was not, however, the first newspaper ever published in the colonies (simply the first to survive). That honor goes to another Boston publication Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick which appeared in a single issue on 25 September 1690. Richard Pierce printed Publick Occurrences for Benjamin Harris and its stated purpose was that "the country shall be furnished once a month with an account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our notice." Benjamin Harris was a printer and bookseller who had arrived in Boston from London in 1686, after encountering trouble with the authorities over certain of his publications. Unfortunately for Harris, conflict with the authorities continued in his new home. Although Publick Occurrences was apparently a great popular success, the authorities were not amused by either the contents (insinuations of incest in the French royal family) or the fact that Harris published the paper without legal authority. On 29 September, the Governor and Council of Massachusetts issued a broadside order forbidding the publication of "anything in Print without License first obtained from those that are or shall be appointed by the Government to grant the same."
The Massachusetts Historical Society has a large collection of early (pre-1820) Boston and Massachusetts newspapers--both originals and microfilm copies of them. For more information about our newspaper holdings, consult our online catalog or contact our reference librarian at email@example.com