The First Printing Press on the Prairie
On this date in 1639, the first printing press was set up in the American colonies. Brought to Cambridge, Massachusetts from England by the Rev. Joseph Glover, a Puritan Minister, the press was transported to the fledging colony to become a part of a new college that would soon be known as Harvard.
Printing presses played an integral role in the growth of the nation as it expanded westward. As settlers broke ground in new territories, the printing press moved with them, helping build a sense of collective identity and community as settlers began new lives. The blank page of the American west and its emerging communities was enticing – a place to write a new and different chapter.
Printers moved westward for various reasons: for adventure, for personal gain, and for evangelical and moral causes.
Not unlike the Rev. Joseph Glover, who brought the first press to the colonies in a hope to spread his Christian beliefs, over two hundred years later the Rev. Alonzo Barnard, a Presbyterian missionary, would bring the first printing press to what would become North Dakota.
The press was purchased at Cincinnati, Ohio, a gift of Oberlin College students for the Reverend Barnard, who was about to be stationed at Cass Lake in Minnesota. He used the press for his ministry with Native Americans, printing in Ojibwe. In 1852, the Reverend and his printing press were again on the move. The press travelled by canoe down the Red Lake and Red Rivers, then by ox cart to St. Joseph on the site of present-day Walhalla. At the time, St. Joseph was still in the Territory of Minnesota, but it would later become part of Dakota Territory.
The Rev. Alonzo Barnard and his wife Sarah Philena Babcock were abolitionists at Oberlin College, and members of the American Missionary Association. The young couple had come west to work with the Chippewa and Sioux, and they also aided fugitive slaves in the Underground Railroad. The Rev. Barnard and his wife did not stay long at St. Joseph. They soon moved north, taking the press with them, and by 1854 were living in Selkirk Settlement, now Winnipeg, where they continued their missionary work and anti-slavery efforts.
There are no remains of any printed materials produced during Rev. Alonzo’s stay in St. Joseph. However, he likely printed newsletters and pamphlets for his parishioners, as he did during his time at Cass Lake.
Printing presses were not small machines, and transporting the heavy and cumbersome cast iron contraptions was no small feat. However, it was the mass media of its time, an important and powerful tool to spread ideas, a far cry from the instant ease of today’s handheld Tweets.
Written by Maria Witham
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Lounsberry, Clement. History of North Dakota; Essential Outlines of American History. Washington, DC: Liberty Press, 1919. Internet Archive. Web. 30 Aug, 2017
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