If the reader is confused, imagine how confused Williamsburg readers were 200 years ago. By early 1775 there were three separate Virginia Gazettes, all operating in town and all under the same name.

There was Dixon’s Gazette (the original), Rind’s Gazette and Purdie’s Gazette (the newest).

They all carried pretty much the same news in largely the same format, four to eight pages weekly. The easiest way to tell them apart was by their mottos. The original Gazette was known to be "Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign an Domestick." Rind’s Gazette promised it was "Open to all Parties but Influenced by None." Purdie’s declared "Always for Liberty and the Publick Good."

Nor were these three the only Virginia Gazettes. By 1809 a total of 24 papers in the state had used the term Virginia Gazette in their flags.

The reason is simple.

"Gazette" in Britain specified "official record" and lent real authority to any periodical with that name. In the colonies, the Assemblies ordered their resolutions and proclamations printed "in the Gazette" or "in The Virginia Gazette" for public attention and consumption.

But it was not specified which Gazette was to get the business, leaving it up for grabs in Williamsburg among three papers. A printer calling his paper, say, The Williamsburg Bugle, was automatically eliminating himself from any government income.

Dixon did not run the original Gazette alone when Purdie left. Dixon went immediately into partnership with William Hunter Jr., son of the late printer. Together they continued their Gazette until the end of 1778. Early in 1779 Hunter joined the British forces and left Williamsburg.

Dixon then entered into partnership with Thomas Nicolson and revived the Gazette in February 1779, but it was not to last for long – at least not in Williamsburg. When the capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, the printers followed.

Rind’s paper was taken over upon his death in 1773 by his wife, Clementina. She thus became the first woman printer and editor in Virginia, and is credited by at least one historian as one of the 10 pioneer women journalists in America.

By 1775 John Pinkney took over as manager and then in 1776 as owner of Mrs. Rind’s shop and paper, but he moved to North Carolina early in 1777 and died in August that year. This marked the end of the second Virginia Gazette.

The third Gazette operated by Alexander Purdie continued after his death in 1779. His nephew, John Clarckson, and one of his printers, Augustine Davis, ran it until the end of 1780 when it ceased operations because the capital had moved.

Printers’ fortunes – indeed everyone’s – rose and fell with the legislature. As the Revolution intensified, so did government action, and in the brief 14-year span of 1766-1780 three Virginia Gazettes prospered, only to vanish when the General Assembly packed up and left.

The Gazettes of the 1770s contain a myriad of fascinating details about the Revolution, and about life itself. Ever since 1930 when it was revived, the modern Virginia Gazette has run a weekly column of extracts from these papers, usually 200 years ago to the month. The extracts ran on page 1 for years but now run on the Diversions page.

An essay in the Gazette of June 2, 1774, had this to say about the "Rise and Utility of Newspapers":

"Politicks are now little more than a Farce; The Rage of Party has, in great Measure, subdued, and Peace having fixed her Standard among us, we are no longer troubled with long accounts of Battles between contending Armies. Our Newspapers are now devoted to a more agreeable Purpose: They yield us a more amusing Variety of Matter, as they are either employed n the politer Services of Literature, or in establishing more extensive Connexions amongst Mankind."

Historian William P. Black said, "What is particularly important about the years of Alexander Purdie’s editorship is not simply that he provided a free forum for local writers, but that the very freedom of his press prompted Virginians to speak openly on native subjects."

Often when readers wanted to be free to write scathing criticism of policies and people, they signed their remarks with pseudonyms such as "Nonestus," "Phili Meritus" or "Dikephylos."

Sometimes it didn’t work, as in the case of a Virginia clergyman who attempted to praise himself using a pseudonym. He sent in a wedding announcement which described the sermon preached by the Rev. Mr. Dunlop as given in a "New and striking Manner." Three weeks later, the paper carried "A consolatory Epistle of the Reverend Mr. D_______P, Upon the Unlucky Discovery His Being the Author of His Own Panegyrick."

The Gazettes published much poetry, often satirizing or defending people. One writer, disgusted with the satirical verse, wrote one of his own, calling their writings the "Bully’s art," and comparing their poetry to the screeching of an owl.