The Postal Service Enabled America’s Westward Expansion
Paper tracks. By Cameron Blevins. Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $ 34.95 and £ 22.99
BBEFORE COLORADO was a territory, not to mention a state, there were post offices. The first opened in 1859 in Auraria, a mining colony founded by migrants from the South in search of gold. Life could be unpredictable west of the Mississippi. Gold did not materialize, drought ruined farmers, and settlers clashed with Native Americans. Soon, Auraria merged with a rival company town, Denver City. Today, a large university campus stands on its site. Amid all the upheaval, argues Cameron Blevins, a historian at the University of Colorado-Denver, one feature has remained constant: the postal service.
Rather than focusing on ideas disseminated through the mail, in “Paper Trails,” Mr. Blevins examines the agency’s infrastructure itself. Using a database compiled by Richard Helbock, a postal historian, he traces the rapid opening and closing of post offices in the second half of the 19th century, thus tracing America’s expansion to the west.
The maps in the book are revealing. By 1864, there were few branches on lands controlled by Native Americans, who still made up most of the West. Over the next 25 years, as indigenous peoples were killed or forced to settle on government reserves, the dots representing post offices grew exponentially (see map). Using them as a proxy for colonization, Mr. Blevins sees the colonization of the West as the result of great government rather than brutal individualism. As federal grants and land concessions pushed Orientals to the mountains, deserts and high plains of Indian country, the post kept them connected.
By the mid-19th century, the Post Office Department (as the United States Postal Service was previously called) was far from a centralized bureaucracy. To follow migratory patterns, the postal services have been grafted onto existing businesses. The federal government commissioned private stagecoaches to transport the mail and awarded short-term contracts to local businessmen (and sometimes women) to act as city postmasters. These flexible partnerships allowed the courier to quickly follow migrants, helping to weave remote parts of a vast country.
“Paper Trails” recalls that long before the recent squabbles over postal voting, the post was political. Until 1971, the postal service was a government department of the executive branch, and jobs within it were distributed in the form of patronage. Of the 80,000 appointments submitted to the Senate for approval between 1829 and 1917, nearly 62,000 were for postal jobs. The facilities themselves were often turned into de facto campaign headquarters where supporters courted voters. Members of Congress were often stuck in rows on who should be the postmasters in their districts. A friend of Jules Sandoz, a postmaster from Nebraska, expressed his exasperation with postal politics: “Why have you had to spend your whole life fighting for stupid things like post offices, Jules?”
However, the existence of the postal service in the 19th century was not in itself a divisive factor. Both Democrats and Republicans filled the department with supporters; To please voters, members of Congress from both parties searched for more roads in their districts. Today, the post remains popular: last year 91% of Americans viewed the agency positively. Yet Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers despised it, including postal voting.
One of the most striking aspects of “Paper Trails” is not in the book. Mr. Blevins is a digital historian, which means he uses data science to analyze historical trends. He built a companion website filled with interactive maps to show readers how, in a generation, the Postal Service helped colonize a continent. These online dispatches beautifully illustrate the formative power of postal mail. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “How the West Was Won”