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Backstory and Context
Benjamin Franklin did visit Southold prior to 1750, well before he became involved in the post office. We know that he traveled across Long Island on his way to visit Jared Elliot, an agricultural experimenter who lived in Connecticut. The men were collaborating on publishing some of Elliot’s agricultural articles. Franklin later wrote to the local Southold minister asking for a drawing of some of the local living fences made from lopped trees.
Unfortunately, truth about the milestones is not as glamorous as legend... In 1829, New York State mandated that, “It shall be the duty of the commissioners of highways of each town, to cause mile-boards or stones, to be erected, where not already erected, on the post-roads, and such other public roads in their town, so they may think proper, at the distance of one mile from each other, with such fair and legible inscriptions as they may think proper.” (New York State. The Revised Statutes of the State of New York. Albany, New York: Packard and van Benthuysen, 1829. 503)
Since Southold, at the time, only had one road that ran from west to east, the stones were installed along the length of the town on what was then the King’s Highway. The miles on the stone indicated the distance between the stone and the county offices in what was then Suffolk Courthouse (Suffolk CH), now known as Riverhead.
For 80 years the stones were simply another part of the landscape of the town, until in 1898, when Alice Morse Earle, capitalizing on the public’s interest in history, wrote a series of books, that were advertised as, "Illustrated by Photographs Gathered by the Author of Real Things, Works and Happenings of Olden Times…" What she didn’t mention was that most of what she wrote was had little bearing on history. In two of her books, 'Home Life in Colonial Days' and 'Stagecoaches and Taverns Days,' Earle stated that Benjamin Franklin personally set up milestones in upstate New York and Connecticut. The story was repeated in a book by Katherine Abbot during the 1920s, and appeared in a number of newspapers state-wide as part of Abbot’s advertising campaign. Somewhere along the line, someone probably said - "Hey Benjamin Franklin set up mile markers, wait, we have mile markers!", and the legend of the Franklin mile markers was born.
To read more about Benjamin Franklin and the history of the US Post Office check out some of the sources listed below.
Abbott, Katharine M. Old Paths and Legends of the New England Border. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.
Butler, Ruth L. Dr Franklin Colonial Postmaster General. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928.
Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. London, England: Macmillian Company, 1898.
Finlay, Hugh. Journal Kept by Hugh Finlay. Brooklyn, New York: Frank H. Norton , 1867.
Franklin, Benjamin. "Letter to Cadwallader Colden." franklin papers.org. January 27, 1747. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedNames.jsp (accessed April 30, 2015).
Grasso, Christopher. "The Experimental Philosophy of Farming: Jared Eliot and the Cultivation of Connecticut." The William and Mary Quarterly, July 1993: 502-528.
Griffin, Augustus. Griffin's Journal. Orient, New York: privately published, 1858.
Kasuga Folk, Amy. Milestones of Southold Town. Lecture, Southold, New York: unpublished, 2015.
L'Hommedieu, Ezra. Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures instituted in the State of New-York. Albany, New York: Charles and George Webster, 1801.
Overton, Frank. "Old Lopped-Trees Fences." Long Island Forum, 1943: 49-50.
State, New York. The Revised Statutes of the State of New York. Albany, New York: Packard and van Benthuysen, 1829.
Upham, Charles W. Life of Timothy Pickering. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1873.
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York City, New York: Viking Press Inc. , 1965.