All hail snail mail

The Northwest Passage How we used to laugh at snail mail. Why, it took days to carry a letter thousands of miles. Har dee har har. Of course we don’t laugh any more because it’s so 2005 even to admit you know the stuff exists. Back when Yahoo was actually valuable instead of just being worth a few billion dollars. (Postal strike? What’s a postal strike?)

Still, spare a thought for the mail service on August 3. Because this is the date on which the first known letter was sent from North America, specifically from St. John’s, Newfoundland by a certain John Rut in 1527. Back when it still was a new found land.

Rut was sent by Henry VIII to find, wait for it, the Northwest Passage. So he set off in command of two ships, the Mary Guilford and the Samson, which promptly vanished in a storm and according to Wikipedia “it is assumed” was lost. Yes. I think if it hasn’t emerged from the fog in the last 499 years it’s probably not going to. Rut’s letter did, though.

It somehow got back to England to inform Henry that Rut’s own ship hadn’t sunk yet, the crew hadn’t died of scurvy or been massacred, that there were a bunch of foreign ships in “a good harbour called St. John” and that the letter was “written in hast”. Which is a bit odd given that before email there weren’t always 700 items in your inbox that you couldn’t swat away fast enough. You’d think this one would be worth spending a bit of time over especially as you never knew when you sailed off over the horizon whether your first letter from North America might be your last. So let us again remember the courage, verging on foolhardiness, that it took to create the things we now cheerfully sneer.

As it happens we know that Rut made it safely back to England the next year. At which point he vanishes from the historical record as completely as the Samson did from the face of the Earth. But possibly he lived out his days in contentment, unaware that he’d one day enjoy a few seconds of something vaguely resembling fame as a footnote to a footnote about a once-cherished form of communication called the “letter”.