Last week, we wrote about the Lexington Alarm letter, which is on view this week in the National Heritage Museum, in celebration of Patriots' Day. Today we're taking a look at the journey that the postrider, Israel Bissel, took as he delivered the alarm from Watertown, Massachusetts to New York City.
News travels fast today. One of the stories to come out of the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" a few months back was how quickly the news of the emergency plane landing on the river spread. The speed at which news spreads has always been of interest and concern in the United States. If you've ever traveled on a "post road" (and chances are you probably have, even if you didn't know it), you've driven on roads that were created to insure that the mail - including the newspapers that were delivered by mail - traveled quickly. In 1775, when news needed to be conveyed quickly over far distances, it was often by means of a letter carried by a rider on horseback.
Just before dawn on April 19, 1775, John Parker and 77 local militiamen gathered on the green in Lexington as a large number of British soldiers approached from the direction of Boston, where they had left during the night of April 18. Realizing that they were outnumbered, Parker ordered his men to disperse. Amid the confusion, a shot rang out. Who fired first has never been conclusively determined, but by the time the skirmish was over, eight men were killed and nine were injured. The British troops then left Lexington and marched on toward Concord where they intended to seize munitions that were stored there. The alarm - or news of the battle on the Lexington Common - was spreading quickly, however. By the time the British reached the Old North Bridge in Concord, they were met by 3,500 militiamen.
But news of the Battle of Lexington spread far beyond the immediate vicinity. It's not by accident that the news of the battle was able to be spread quickly and across a large geographic area. Committees of Correspondence were already set up throughout the colonies, insuring that an infrastructure was in place to facilitate the efficient spread of important news. In the second half of 1774, an alarm system had been set up, and British troops were being closely watched. The colonists were prepared to set into motion a pre-orchestrated plan that would quickly disseminate important news through local networks that spread the news. The spread of information in 1775 was a very physical act.
News of the Lexington alarm was not entrusted to just anyone: it was put in the capable hands of Israel Bissel (sometimes spelled Bissell). Bissel was a 23-year-old professional postrider from East Windsor, Connecticut, who knew the roads he was traveling very well, by virtue of having traveled them many times before delivering express letters. Bissel traveled along the network of post roads in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, spreading news of the battle of Lexington as he went. The news traveled fairly quickly: by noon on the 21st, the news had traveled to New York City, approximately 225 miles south - a sustained speed of around 5-7 miles per hour. That might seem quaint today, but to someone traveling by horseback on unlit roads, this is fairly remarkable.
In the letter that Bissel was carrying (which you can read about in our previous post), he was "Charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut," something that he accomplished by carrying a series of letters along a predetermined route. In each town where he stopped, a member of the local Committee of Correspondence would keep Bissel's letter and hand-copy it. The copy would be given to Bissel, who would bring it to the next town. Each new copy contained information about who had already received the letter, as well as when it had been received. To make a contemporary analogy, the letters can be seen as carrying information similar to a forwarded e-mail, including the list of previous recipients, and the date and timestamp that they received the message.
Using Google Maps, we've put together a map of Bissel's journey, along with the times that he arrived at each location (you can find a larger version of the map here, which is a bit easier to work with than the one below) Bissel's journey is well-documented, and, as mentioned above, the dates and times that he arrived at each location on his journey were noted on the copies of the letters that he carried with him. Using this information, and keeping with the theme of the spread of information, here's a 21st-century look at an 18th-century journey:
Two great resources on the Lexington alarm (also mentioned in our previous post) are:
John H. Scheide. "The Lexington Alarm." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Volume 50, Part 1 (1940) pp. 49-79.
David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Call number: F69 .R43 F57 1994