Massachusetts

The Boston Post Road Historical Markers That Get The Facts Wrong

The historical markers along the Boston Post Road are many, but their history is often fake.

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One of the historical markers along a Boston Post Road milestone, in East Brookfield, Mass.

Since 1673, post riders have ridden the old road to deliver mail between New York and Boston. The Boston Post Road has three major branches: the Lower Post Road along the Long Island Sound through Providence; the Upper Post Road from New Haven through Springfield; and the Middle Post Road which diverges from the Upper Road in Hartford and runs east to Boston by way of Pomfret.

Many of the milestones set down in the 18th century still lie next to the old road. Next to some of them are historical markers that don’t quite get it right.

As Benjamin Franklin, deputy postmaster general from 1753-74, once wrote, “Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed.”

Fake Historical Markers

Sometimes the Post Road historical markers simply fall short of telling the whole story. There’s a historical marker in front of the D’Angelo’s sub shop on Rte. 20 in Marlborough, Mass., which used to be the Upper Post Road. The marker in 2014 read, ““Here the early circuit courts convened, and stage coaches changed horses, and historic personages tarried.”

The ‘historic personage’? George Washington, who stopped there once on his way to take over the Continental Army in Cambridge and once on his presidential visit.

historical-marker-quaboag

Quaboag Historical Society marker in 1995.

About 10 miles west on the Upper Post Road in Shrewsbury, Mass., there are two mile markers quite close to each other. One is near the entrance to Dean Park, the other across from the Artemas Ward House. One says it’s 35 miles to Boston, but the other says it’s 43 miles to Boston. (According to Google Maps, they’re both wrong: it’s 39.6 miles.)

That’s not the only thing that’s wrong about the Shrewsbury milestones. They’re also called the Franklin Mile Markers because Benjamin Franklin supposedly set them when he was deputy postmaster general.

The Franklin Myth

The myth lives on that Benjamin Franklin either set out or ordered the Boston Post Road milestones.

It goes back at least to 1866, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported on a milestone 'erected by Benjamin Franklin, when he was postmaster general [he was deputy postmaster general] and was measuring the stage road between Philadelphia and Boston.'

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Ben Franklin

Franklin supposedly road the Post Road in a carriage, measuring out the miles in a homemade odometer and ordering his assistants to place the stones.

A historical marker next to the East Brookfield, Mass., milestone 62 says Franklin laid out the post road in 1753. The next milestone on mile 63 of the Upper Post Road has the date 1763 -- 10 years later -- carved into it.

Historical markers in Brookfield, West Brookfield and Spencer say Franklin set the milestone in 1767 -- when Franklin was in Great Britain.

A historical marker in Northborough, Mass., manages to fudge the issue:

Franklin is said [emphasis added] to have measured the road himself with an odometer strapped onto his carriage wheel. One of Franklin's granite milestones still survives on East Main Street - 33 miles from Boston.

Some of the historical markers along the Post Road say Franklin simply ordered the milestones planted. In 1995, the Quaboag Historical Society in West Brookfield put up a historical marker 62 miles from Boston that reads, “He ordered the erection of milestones for the purpose of regulating postal rates.”

It never happened.

The Real Story

In 1971, the record was set straight by Leonard Labaree, editor of the Benjamin Franklin papers at Yale.

Labaree wrote that after detailed study of the Franklin papers,  “Not one document in this very substantial mass of contemporary documents has been found to contain so much as a single reference to roadside milestones, erected by Franklin or by any other persons."

Further, he wrote, Post Office officials had neither responsibility nor budget for building and maintaining roads, bridges, ferries and milestones.

The editors of the Franklin papers concluded:

Milestones were of no particular use to the postal service, for the postriders were thoroughly familiar with the roads they traveled. The convenience of other travelers, on the other hand, was not the Post Office's responsibility or concern. There seems to have been no good reason why Franklin should have spent time, energy, or Post Office money in erecting milestones, and...there is no documentary evidence that he ever did.

Images: Spencer, Mass., marker: By John Phelan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23973942; East Brookfield, Mass., marker: By John Phelan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23910638

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Pipal

    September 21, 2017 at 9:12 am

    You learn something every day, when you pay attention. I had no idea that “rode” is a derivative of “road” and, when poetic license strikes, can be spelled either way!

  2. Michael

    September 21, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Historical judgments like this are fascinating to me. Even in our own lives we often cannot be sure what really happened. A lot of things are not recorded. Some things don’t leave any evidence or the evidence fades. There are many unexpected but legitimate explanations for things.

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