Sitting on the back of a horse, meandering through a wooded trail, has a way of soothing the soul. The bits of nature that go unnoticed in our fast paced world come to life when riding a horse. I often find myself wondering if some of the giant oaks I pass by are old enough to remember life without cars, planes, and trains. What was it like when horses were the only way to get to town, to go the neighbors, or to plow a field?
New England colonists lived in a vast wilderness with towns connected only by narrow Indian trails. Walking was the primary means of travel as there were very few horses in the colonies up until the mid-1600s. Horse breeding became a more important focus as colonial economics developed. Trade to the West Indies brought the need for more and better horses to haul goods to and from docks. In 1687, William Penn decreed that any horse more than eighteen months old and less than thirteen hands high had to be gelded. This was to promote a larger, stouter horse population. As horses became more common the need for better roads began to emerge.
It became apparent that a road was desperately needed between New York and Boston. In 1673, New York Governor, Francis Lovelace, began work on developing what would later be called the Boston Post Road. Francis was appointed Royal Governor of New York by the Duke of York.
After England’s King Charles II seized the land from the Dutch he gave it to his brother, the Duke of York, who promptly changed the name from New Amsterdam to New York. Royal Governor Francis was to encourage colonial development, but at the same time ensure the Dutch did not retake the area. Governor Francis proposed that a post road be established that would allow for post riders on horseback to deliver mail once a month between New York and Boston. The post rider would leave New York the first Monday of every month and, stopping at villages along the route, would return from Boston within the month.
While Francis succeeded in advancing new and better roads for travel between New York and Boston, he did not fair as well in protecting the small settlement of New York from the Dutch. While Governor Francis was visiting John Winthrop the Younger, Governor of Connecticut, to discuss his idea for a postal service, the Dutch sent war ships to New York and recaptured the settlement. The Duke of York was not happy with Francis. Francis Lovelace was ordered back to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He died not long after his imprisonment.
Francis Lovelace never got to see the fruits of his work. New York was eventually retaken by the English, and the Boston Post Road became the first primary road with post riders in the colonies. Gabriel Cooper, in my book The Drum of Destiny, walked the Boston Post Road to reach Cambridge where the patriot army was headquartered at the beginning of the American Revolution. While the landscape has changed since Gabriel’s travels, the Boston Post Road still exists.
Of course the Boston Post Road is not the only landscape to have drastically changed through the years. Our horseback rides through the Indiana countryside include paved roads and electric poles. Still, it is fun to think back to what the early post riders of New England would have experienced. In my view, one of the best ways to look back is from the back of a horse.
For more information on the Boston Post Road, check out The King’s Best Highway, by Eric Jaffe.