Thursday, July 23, 2009

The American Centinel: The first newspaper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Presented to the Monday Evening Club, April 14, 2003 by Martin C. Langeveld

Every day, the editorial page of The Berkshire Eagle carries a line proclaiming that the paper’s origins date back to the founding of The Western Star, a newspaper launched in Stockbridge on December 1, 1789. In an age when newspapers were generally both short-lived and strongly partisan, The Star was a mouthpiece for the county’s Federalists, then led by the venerable Stockbridgian judge, later U.S. Senator, founder of the Sedgwick clan and hub of the Sedgwick circle at the Stockbridge cemetery, Theodore Sedgwick.

One might assume that with this ancient origin The Western Star must have been the first newspaper in Berkshire County, but it was not. That honor belongs to a Pittsfield sheet, The American Centinel, launched about two years earlier in 1787. At the time, there were only two other newspapers in Massachusetts west of Worcester – the Hampshire Herald, which started in Springfield in 1782 as the Massachusetts Gazette; and the Hampshire Gazette, progenitor of the present Daily Hampshire Gazette, begun in Northampton in 1786.

Everything we know today about The Centinel is based on three copies, two of which were last seen in the 19th century. Those two we know only from mid-19th century published descriptions. The third issue was in the collection of Robert C. Rockwell of Pittsfield, who died in 1928. At his death, that copy, too, went missing and was unavailable to scholars for the rest of the 20th century. Rockwell’s copy, Vol. I, No. 4, dated October 19, 1787, was apparently examined during the 1920s by Clarence S. Brigham, a bibliographer who compiled the History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690-1820, which is the definitive bibliography of early American newspapers. Brigham provided little further detail about The Centinel, however, and the whereabouts of the Rockwell copy were unknown for three-quarters of a century following Rockwell’s death. But based on this copy, Brigham deduced The Centinel’s starting date of September 28, 1787.

In March 2000, however, the Rockwell copy resurfaced, when it was donated to the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester by Peter R. Haack, a West Newbury antiquarian book dealer. The Antiquarian Society boasts the country’s largest selection of early American imprints of all kinds, especially newspapers. Haack had acquired this copy, along with other newspapers and books, from a relative of Rockwell who lived in Andover. So today, for the first time in over 200 years, a copy of The Centinel is available for public perusal, and I recently visited the Antiquarian Society’s library and examined it and other early Berkshire newspapers.

The Centinel, a 4-page paper with pages 11 by 17 inches, was published by the partnership of Elijah Russell and Roger Storrs, “at their office, only a few rods west of the meeting house.” This would place them on the site of the present Berkshire Bank headquarters.

As I mentioned recently during a club discussion, newspapers in this era before copyrights reprinted somewhat random bits of news (much of it inaccurate and incomplete), anecdotes, opinions, reviews, poems and the like, all lifted without compensation from whatever other newspapers, books or pamphlets happened to reach the office of the publisher, whose principal occupation was generally that of printer. Local news was virtually absent from these newspapers because it circulated faster and more reliably via the grapevine, so there was no point in wasting valuable paper by printing it. The papers we will examine here follow that style.

Vol. I, No. 4 of The Centinel is a well-preserved copy that leads off with the concluding portion of a letter by George Washington, as president of the Constitutional Convention, transmitting the proposed Constitution to the president of the Continental Congress. Washington wrote “in our deliberations on this subject, we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consideration of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence.”

Under its flag, or title, The Centinel carried the motto, “Here you may range the WORLD from POLE to POLE – increase your KNOWLEDGE, and delight your SOUL.” The publishers had lifted this quotation, without attribution, from the introductory poem in the “The World in Miniature,” an anonymously written account of travels around the then-known world published in 1752. (Incidentally, in 1800, when the Pittsfield Sun was launched in the same location, its first two numbers bore what appears to be a parody of The Centinel’s motto: “Here all may scribble with unbound sway, If they will do it in a DECENT way.”)

Immediately following Washington’s message, the paper presented a remedy for cancer, cribbed from the Maryland Gazette, followed by an item called Miscellany, submitted by “A CUSTOMER” and signed “Observator,” who offers “Reflections suited to the Times.” These appear to be for the most part swiped without attribution from Jonathan Swift, including: “Law in a free country, is, or ought to be, the determination of the majority of those who have property in lands.” And: “When a true GENIOUS [sic] appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

The Centinel had its readership’s moral needs strongly in mind and continued with an extract from Matthew Hale’s Sum of Religion, a 17th century tract reprinted by Benjamin Franklin in 1740, and “A Portrait of Pleasure” – “Pleasure is a beautiful harlot sitting in her chariot, whose four wheels are Pride, Gluttony, Lust and Idleness.” It then lightened things up with an “Anecdote of Antisthenes:” “Anthistenes, being asked what he got by learning, answered, that he could talk with himself, could live alone, and that he needed not to go abroad and be beholden to others for delight.”

The Centinel offered its readers a collection of brief news items on European affairs as well as domestic dispatches, all of them gleaned from and attributed to a variety of other newspapers that had made their way to Pittsfield.

From Europe, there was news of a European peace conference being held at Versailles, with a July date (remember, this issue is from October, 1787), as well as items from Madrid, Utrecht, London, the Hague and the East Indies (the latter dispatch was fully a year old).

The domestic news led with this from Philadelphia, dated September 26 (and note the tenuousness of the source): “A report was circulated Monday (said to be upon the authority of a gentleman who came in the British packet which arrived at New York on Saturday last), that war had been declared between England and France before the packet sailed from Falmouth.” This roundabout intelligence obviously superceded the July item in the same issue on a Versailles peace conference. In any case it appears that both items were wrong. The Versailles conference most likely refers to the Assembly of Notables held at Versailles, a domestic gathering. A precursor to the French Revolution, the Notables first established the idea of representation in French politics, and no new war on Britain was declared that year.

Shays’ rebellion being fresh in the minds of Berkshire readers, the editor included a dispatch from Petersburgh, New York, dated September 6, in turn quoting “a gentleman from Great Brier county [meaning Greenbrier, now West Virginia] that a number of the inhabitants of that county, headed by one Matthews, have lately attempted to stop the court from proceeding to business . . . and had nearly effected their purpose … but in consequence of the interference of civil authority, Matthews thought proper to retire, and the rest dispersed. It is said Matthews has since been apprehended, and is now in close confinement.”

Closer to home, there is news from New Haven that the town meeting, on October 1, voted to request the legislature to hold a convention as soon as possible to ratify the proposed Constitution.

Finally, there is a Pittsfield item, an extract from a letter from a gentleman in Ridgefield, Connecticut to his brother in this town, dated the 29th of September, recommending “that this Constitution, once established, will do immortal honor to the patriots who formed it, establish the fame of America, and suit the greatest part of its inhabitants.”

To this the editor of The Centinel could not resist adding the following, full of typographical flourish: “This Constitution will not only raise Columbia (DIRECT) from a lingering despair, which (if nothing can rouse her therefrom) will justly entitle her to the animadvertion of him who once extracted her from the iron bounds of tyrannical power, and saved her from impending ruin, but directs a way to the FUTURE prosperity and national honor.” Getting more excited and carried away with punctuation and capitalization, he continues: “The only question to be determined now is, Where shall we find a PRESIDENT? --- Surely we need not apply to the king of Great Britain for one! --- Will the immortal WASHINGTON take on him the task, the laborious task, to navigate us through the second gulph, and land Columbia on a peaceful shore? --- If WE will be United, He doubtless will; but there’s the FEAR!” It seems very likely that Russell and Storrs founded The Centinel precisely in order to help drum up support for the not-universally-approved-of Constitution as well as for Washington himself as president. Interestingly, their landlord at the corner next to the meetinghouse, the redoubtable Parson Thomas Allen, was, at least in later years, a well-known anti-Federalist, who helped his nephew Phinehas start the staunchly Democratic Pittsfield Sun in 1800. But Allen named his fourth son George Washington Allen, so these may in fact be his own words.

Next we turn to a 1787 lawyer joke headed “Recent Anecdote:” A ‘countryman’ assured his friend the Judgment Day was near at hand. Asked how he knew, he told of a client of a lawyer of his acquaintance, who sent the lawyer 15 dollars and the promise of more if he won his case, and the lawyer “very honestly returned all but FIVE, which in my opinion forebodes some dreadful event.”

Rounding out the issue is an advertisement from J. Danforth’s general store, and a message from the publisher stating that “a few copies of the New Federal Constitution may be had of the printers.” There are also some poems, an essay on happiness, a list of axioms in Trade, and a set of Maxims, prepared for The Centinel by one Maximus.

Even in this age before telemarketing, circulation sales were on the mind of the publishers and their distributors. Bela Smith, Post Rider, offered in an announcement to deliver The Centinel in Lanesborough, New Ashford, Williamstown, Adams, Windsor, Partridgefield (later known as Peru), Dalton, Washington and Becket each Friday, at 2 Shillings per quarter, but “To obviate a great difficulty (viz. the want of cash) he will take grane of those who will advance a half year’s pay,” quoting rates per bushel for wheat, rye, oats and flaxseed.

As I mentioned, we only have 19th century descriptions by previous historians, but no physical copies, of a few other issues of The Centinel, so we have no idea how long Smith actually delivered The Centinel. Based on those descriptions, we do know that by December, after only about half a dozen issues, the publishing partnership was dissolved and only Elijah Russell was listed as publisher.

One of those issues, most likely the first published by Russell alone, on December 11, 1787, was described in the Pittsfield Sun, 91 years later, as having contained a continuation of a story of shipwreck and adventure, two or three contributions on abstract subjects addressed to “Mr. Printer,” a poem, a ponderous article on the study of history, the obituary of John Lippit of Adams, “a man of unblemished character who had lived above 60 years with his surviving widow,” and news from Lanesborough that Capt. Daniel Brown had slaughtered a heifer two years and seven months old, which weighed 782 pounds. “It is experienced that by good keeping and proper care we may make our cattle weigh near double to what they do with ordinary treatment.” The no-local-news rule could, apparently, be broken with something extraordinary. (By the way, a typical heifer today should weigh 600-700 pounds, depending on breed, at puberty or age 12 to 14 months, and fully 1200 pounds as an adult cow by age two and a half years.)

In another issue, (described in Josiah Gilbert Russell’s 1855 History of Western Massachusetts), Russell wrote that he “returns his thanks to those gentlemen who expressed their anxiety to have the printing office at Pittsfield . . . print a certain number of papers, and begs leave to inform them that he has a large number of papers on hand for which he has, as yet, received nothing, and which he wishes those gentlemen to call for, according to agreement. If agreements are not fulfilled, the Centinel must stop.”

Ultimately The Centinel did stop, but we don’t know quite when. However, the following springtime, Roger Storrs, the other partner, appears solo as publisher on the masthead of a successor publication, The Berkshire Chronicle, established May 8, 1788. On December 19 that year its name was changed to the ponderous title of Berkshire Chronicle and Massachusetts Intelligencer, which was published at least until September 30, 1790, and of which a fairly complete run is extant.

In No. 5 of The Chronicle, June 5, 1788, the publisher ran the first known “carrier wanted” ad in Berkshire County, apparently to replace Bela Smith, stating that “diligent, faithful post-rider is wanted to ride from this office.” Apparently he hired Alvin Woolcott, who announces in the September 4 issue that he will take his pay in linen rags at the store of Moses Woolcott in Lanesborough. Via the barter system, the publisher could get these rags converted to printing paper.

Cash was obviously still in short supply, and the paper did a brisk trade publishing notices from tradesmen and storekeepers requesting customers to settle accounts, including this creative gem published August 26, 1790: “The subscriber begs leave to inform the Public, that he has a small Book, and in that book there are some small Accounts, – and likewise, that he has a small Drawer, and in the Drawer are some small Notes – which must be immediately settled, in order to save some small cost, in a very small time. This from yours to serve, Nathaniel B. Torrey, Lanesborough.”

An early member of our Monday Evening Club, Thaddeus Clapp, collected early newspapers and contributed information on them to Russell’s 1855 history. Besides The Centinel, The Chronicle and The Western Star, only two other pre-1800 Berkshire newspapers are believed to have existed. Clapp described these other two as follows: “We have a traditionary account of a paper started by Mr. Spooner, about 1790, and soon afterward removed to Windsor, Vermont, and another by Merrill and Smith, between 1790 and 1800.” There are no surviving issues of either of these papers, and even the names have been lost. But the vigorous political thinking in our young nation, and the guarantees of the First Amendment, ensured that these early papers would have many successors during the 19th century. (It seems quite possible, by the way, that members of our club perused now-lost copies of the Centinel at an early meeting of our club, at his home on Wendell Avenue, recently converted to a bed-and-breakfast.)

The available issues of The Chronicle mention various mileposts in the adoption of the Constitution, and the seating of the first Congress. It did not take long for some signs of dissatisfaction to crop up in contrast to the earlier cheerleading by Russell and Storrs. A letter signed "Junius" appears in the issue of July 29, 1790, expressing impatience at the lack of substantive action by Congress after being in session four or five months. (Junius apparently was a popular pen name for anonymous political critics during this era – in this instance it is again possibly the voice of Parson Allen.) The most important decision made by Congress in five months, writes Junius, had been to decide on the location of a temporary capital. “It is hoped,” he continues, “that another election will introduce such characters, as will attend the great business of government, to the exclusion of local interest and detestable party combinations.”

The great business of government did get started, but neither local interest nor detestable party combinations have been eliminated to this day.

Illustration: Pittsfield in 1807, from Bay State Monthly, 1885.

1 comment:

  1. Martin,

    Nicely done historical piece. As I read through it, I thought some people might be confused about the content that was "lifted without compensation from whatever other newspapers, books or pamphlets happened to reach the office of the publisher." This seems to parallel today's use of news by bloggers without compensation. But not really.

    I don't know for sure how fully developed the system of "exchanges" was in the 18th century, but very quickly that system became the equivalent of the nation's first "wire service." When a newspaper came into a publication office, that office sent its own publication in exchange. Everyone who exchanged their publications in that fashion was free to use the content. But it did involve compensation in the form of the newspaper exchanged in response and the cost of mailing. As a result, a publication in Pittsfield could learn of happenings all over the country. (I don't think the exchange system applied to international news.) By the early 19th century, this exchange system was well established.

    It's also worth noting that our Constitution and democratic system of government were created in an atmosphere of partisan journalism, but it was one where no one had any illusions about neutrality. In fact, neutral newspapers were looked down upon during the Revolution and afterward.

    Norman Sims
    Journalism professor
    UMass Amherst