The route overland between Montréal and New York forms a natural pathway. It functioned through the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries as the conduit for an extensive illegal trade in furs between Montréal to the north and the originally-Dutch town of Albany to the south on the upper boundary of the British colony of New York.
During the French regime, the occasional letter from France reached Canada during the winter through the ports of New England when the St. Lawrence River was closed. More local correspondence also travelled this route, carried by the merchants, fur traders and Amerindian messengers who made their way back and forth through the territory that separated the two colonies. However, the volume of mail that passed over this route was limited by the frequency with which the two colonies were at war and the constraints on trade between them.
With the British defeat of the French in 1763, this route, which had previously seen limited and largely clandestine European travel, soon saw letters channelled regularly, back and forth from the Atlantic, particularly in winter when the St. Lawrence River was closed. Initially, merchants and others in the former French colony relied on a military express service. It had been established by the British army to provide a channel of communication between General James Murray at Québec and Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the British Commander-in-Chief at New York. This was replaced by a regular service in 1763 in response to pressure from the British merchants in the colony. As Benjamin Franklin, the Deputy Postmaster General of British North America observed: It was "advisable to establish a Post, tho the Expense should for some time exceed the Produce of the Letters; as the Facility and Regularity of Correspondence increases Commerce, and of course increases Correspondence and multiplies the number of letters." This route carried both local correspondence and transatlantic mail. Its particular significance was that, for the first time, Canadians had the opportunity to keep in touch regularly with Europe in the winter.
Canadian correspondents writing to Britain via New York had a number of options. Most simply, on payment of the inland postage from Québec or Montréal to New York, they could put their letters into the Canadian Post Office whence they would be carried to New York to be automatically put on board the first mail packet for Falmouth by the Post Offices New York agent. Alternatively, correspondents could send their letters through the Post Office to a friend or agent in New York to be put aboard either the packet or a commercial vessel in the harbour. As traffic over the route increased, Canadian correspondents could also hand their letters over to travellers who would undertake to carry them "by favour" to their destination.
The outbreak of war in 1775 abruptly cut off access overland to New York. Throughout the American Revolution, British colonists in the Province of Quebec were deprived of the access to the Atlantic that the New York route had provided them, to the great dismay of the colonys merchants. The route reopened in the winter of 1784-85, although arrangements were awkward and costly until the 1792 postal convention resolved some of the difficulties that had plagued relations between the two territories since the war.
The vulnerability that resulted from dependence on a communications route through a foreign territory prompted officials to develop the all-Canadian overland route to Halifax. Nevertheless, the New York route would function as one of the main pillars of the Canadian communications network for decades to come.
Jane E. Harrison
Harrison, Jane E. "The Intercourse of Letters: Transatlantic Correspondence in Early Canada, 1640-1812." Unpublished PhD Thesis, Toronto: University of Toronto, 2000, pp 159-171, 201-223, 231-236.
Labaree, Leonard W. (ed.). The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 10, Philadelphia, Franklin to Anthony Todd, 14 April 1763, p. 253.
Smith, William. The History of the Post Office in British North America, 1639-1870. Cambridge: University Press, 1920.