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CONNECTIONS: Searching for the American Centinel

It is remarkable that anyone thought they could start a newspaper with little hope for advertising revenue and less hope for reliable delivery. And yet, on Oct. 23, 1787, the first issue of the first newspaper in Berkshire County, the American Centinel, appeared.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

A 2018 study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that thousands of American communities are at risk of becoming “news deserts” because, since 2004, one in five local newspapers have closed.

Living in the Berkshires, we are lucky in many ways, not the least of which is that we had a local newspaper as early as 1787. That is remarkable when you consider that the population was less than 2,000; most residents were farmers, not merchants; the condition of the roads was terrible; and the closest post office was in Springfield, and mail was delivered into Berkshire County only when there was “sufficient inducement” for someone to make the trip. It is remarkable that anyone thought they could start a newspaper with little hope for advertising revenue and less hope for reliable delivery. And yet, on Oct. 23, 1787, the first issue of the first newspaper in Berkshire County appeared.

It was called the American Centinel. Its masthead read: “Here you may travel the world from pole to pole; Increase your knowledge and delight your soul.” Not as terse as “All the news that’s fit to print” and probably more than it could deliver, the American Centinel only survived until May 1789. Yet it was the first, and its 19-month life was filled with reports of momentous events.

One month before the launch of the Centinel, on Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was ratified; then disseminated; and finally accepted by the last of the 13 states, Rhode Island, in May 1790. While the states considered whether to become part of the union, the American Centinel churned out copy. Blatantly Federalist, the Centinel urged adoption of the federal constitution as the law of the land and the creation of the United States: “Thus will America be a second time rescued from desolation and confusion” and “all united, firm as one, shall seek the general good.”

The masthead of the Argus. Image courtesy Berkshire Athenaeum

Massachusetts accepted in February 1788 by a vote of 187–168—not an overwhelming majority. Where people in Massachusetts, Berkshire and Pittsfield stood on the issue and why was much more complex and contentious than one would think. In its 10- by 15-inch paper, the Centinel gave space to both sides of the issue by printing of letters from those for and those against the federal Constitution, but its editorial page was clear in its support. In the December 1787 issue, the letter in support was signed: “One of the People.” The letter opposed was signed “Junius,” the man credited with expelling the monarchs and founding the Roman republic. The names chosen indicate the confused reasons for opposition. For example, some who were opposed were neither against the union nor the federal Constitution; they were opposed to George Washington, whom they feared wished to be king. In Pittsfield, what the debate lacked in clarity, it made up for in heat. Federalists and anti-Federalists fought, shouted and refused to dine or drink together, resulting in an anti-Federalist tavern being built in Pittsfield when a Federalist tavern refused to serve them.

The masthead of the ePittsfield Sun. Image courtesy Berkshire Athenaeum

The Centinel was published by “E. Russell near the meeting house.” The Centinel office was “near the meeting house” on East and School streets, later the offices of the Berkshire Chronicle and still later the offices of the Gazette and finally the Pittsfield Sun. The Berkshire Chronicle put out its first issue May 22, 1788, and continued until 1790. Some reports have called the Chronicle Pittsfield’s first newspaper, but a surviving copy of the Centinel is dated in 1787. Others report that E. Russell was Elijah Russell and that he partnered with Roger Storrs in publishing the Chronicle. However, the first issue of the Chronicle mentions Storrs’ name and not Russell’s, and for one year, the dates overlap. On the other hand, it is just possible that there is a misprint in Berkshire history, and it was May 1788 (not 1789) that the paper did not stop publishing but merely changed its name from the Centinel to the Chronicle and continued into 1790. It is hard to know because…

J.E.A. Smith wrote an article commemorating the 100th birthday of the founding of the Centinel in 1887. He wrote that “No. 9 of Vol. 1, Tuesday, December 9, 1787, Price (illegible) Published by E. Russell near the meeting house” was the only copy of the Centinel still in existence. The single copy was a precious relic from our county’s past, but unfortunately it has since disappeared. It was last seen in the Thaddeus Clapp House, Wendell Avenue, Pittsfield.

If found, let us know. To find a copy of the first paper would be lucky. What is luckier is that more than 230 years later, we still have thriving newspapers in the Berkshires.


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