The US Post and the Making of the American West

Thursday, May 6, 2021 at 4 p.m. ET on Zoom
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Susan Smith: Welcome to our conversation, the US Post and the Making of the American West, with author Cameron Blevins and Robert Dalton Harris.

I am Susan Smith, the Winton M. Blount Research Chair at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

This event is a webinar. As such, members of the audience will not be able to use their cameras or their microphones. We ask that you place any questions or comments in the Q and A box, which can be brought up at the bottom of your screen. Other's questions will be visible only to the panelists. We will get to as many of them as possible in the Q and A after the conversation. We'll be leaving 15 to 20 minutes for that.

I would like to start by introducing our speakers.

Cameron Blevins is an associate professor, clinical teaching track in the History Department at the University of Colorado Denver, where he teaches courses in US history and as part of the digital studies certificate, an initiative to help students develop computational skills, while exploring the relationship between technology and wider society. From 2017 to 2020, Cameron was an assistant professor at Northeastern University and a core faculty member for NU (Northeastern University) lab for texts, maps, and networks. His research focuses on 19th-century US, Western United States, and the American state.

He is a leader in the field, spatial history, and digital history. He explores the application of computational methods such as geographic information systems, or GIS, data visualization and text mining to the process of researching and teaching history. Cameron's work has appeared in the Journal of American History, Modern American History, and Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, the book being discussed today, was published by Oxford University press last month.

Robert Dalton Harris, a PhD in theoretical physics, is an independent scholar and editor who has made communications history his vocation and passion for five decades. He and partner Diane DeBlois work together as antiquarians - a Gathering™ Historical Papers. They edited their own publication, PS A Quarterly Journal of Postal History, until 1993 and have edited the Postal History Society's Postal History Journal since 2000. They present their own research at conferences, such as the Blount Postal History Symposia, and at international conferences in the fields of business and economic history. Together they were honored in 2008 with the Ephemera Society of America's Rickards Medal for Significant Contributions to the Study of Ephemera; and in 2016 with the American Philatelic Society Luff Award for Excellence in Philatelic Research. They have they've also been inducted into the Society's Writers and Dealers Halls of Fame.


Robert Dalton Harris: Thank you, Susan. Hello, Cameron.

Cameron came to our attention more than six or seven years ago when Diane and I were teaching a summer seminar at the American Philatelic Society's headquarters in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. We saw Cameron there to participate in that research methods symposium by what, I think, we called a video feed. Do you remember that Cameron? Was that a video feed?

Cameron Blevins: I believe so, yeah, pre-Covid times.

Robert Dalton Harris: Yeah, we have a new word for that. So, it was a very exciting development to find someone stepping into our field from well outside of it and posting such an arresting and attractive beginning. Now it's become a book. Can you tell us what happened since?

Cameron Blevins: Yeah, I'll just summarize the last six years of my life in a couple of paragraphs; it should be easy.

Thank you, thank you, Rob. I really appreciate that, and I also want to say thank you to Susan and Lynn for helping organize this and also for the, I think, currently 135 attendees that we have on here. Thank you for coming out today. I'm really impressed that there's so many people interested in this. Hopefully I won't disappoint.

But the origins of this book really started when I was a graduate student, and I was fishing around for a research seminar paper topic. And, at the time, I was mostly interested in the western United States and geography, and specifically trying to figure out where and when people moved and migrated across the region. And I was trying to think of different ways one could measure and map this and arrived at the idea of, oh, a post office. So, if a post office opened somewhere, the idea is that there are probably people there.

And so, if you map post offices, you might be able to figure out, again, these patterns of migration across the region. But the more I started looking at this topic, the more intrigued I became by not just using post offices as some proxy for population, but really looking at the role they played in these Western communities and in the region as a whole, and as a kind of structuring force that connected all of these really remote locations. And then you go to the archives, of course, and you start reading letters from people living in these remote locations and they're communicating with people, friends, and family that are living thousands of miles away. And they're getting these letters in a matter of days and it's kind of remarkable, and so I kept thinking to myself how did this happen? How does this network function? How did it expand? How is it serving so many people scattered across this region?

And, so, I started down the path of trying to collect more and more information, information and data, and that involved, for about the first year of working on my dissertation, a lot of time in the National Archives branch in San Bruno, California poring over microfilm like this and then transcribing on my laptop there in kind of over air-conditioned offices there. And then, a year into my research I stumbled across really one of the people who is primarily responsible for this book, which is Richard Helbock, famed postal historian and philatelist, who I, of course, discovered, had spent decades doing this exact same thing and transcribing data for almost every post office in the United States. Unfortunately, Richard Helbock had passed away by the time I kind of discovered his incredible work, but fortunately, Cath Clark, his wife, was still managing his online presence and I was able to buy a database from Cath for I think it was 80 bucks or something. Of course, it's 166,000 records of post offices.

And what do you, what can you do with that? My focus is on digital history, and one thing that that encompasses is being able to map this data. And so, this is what this data looks like if you put it onto a map. This is a map from 1865. And the blue dots there are post offices and, in fact, Richard Helbock's dataset was so comprehensive you could map on a year-by-year basis the spread of the American postal system across the country. And this dataset became the analytical backbone for the rest of the book. And I was mostly interested in the West, of course, but I was able to take just decades of this work that Richard Helbock had done and use it to study this network and its expansion in the West. And so that was kind of the story, the story of the origins of the book and the way it progressed forward. And again, it would not have been possible without the work of Richard Helbock.

Robert Dalton Harris: You said in your book that you've been criticized for long on flash, short on substance. It must be that you're challenging some expectations here with respect to these methods in historical analysis. Can you give us a sense of where you lie with respect to those issues?

Cameron Blevins: Sure, so this is probably my, maybe unfair, characterization of I think sometimes critiques get lodged at people who are doing again what I call, or not what I call, what in the field is called 'digital history’, and that's using computational methods to study the past in some way. And there's a lot of different ways that this informed some of the book, but I use these methods, not just to kind of show this flashy map of animated post office, but really as the basis for trying to figure out again what this network was and how it functioned. And I think you can help to conceptualize what that means.

So, historians read these kinds of records all the time, especially if you're reading government reports from the Postmaster, Postmaster General, let's say, and you'll see quotes like this one. This is from Postmaster General John Wanamaker in 1889 talking about the post office as the visible form of federal government to every community, every citizen, every neighborhood. At the time, of course, you can read tables of figures 58,999 post offices operating in the United States, about 670,000 kilometers of mail routes. But that doesn't necessarily mean much to me.

But it does start to mean something when you can start to visualize and quantify that information and, for instance, compare it to other postal systems across the world. So, what you're seeing here on the vertical y-axis is the number of post offices in different national postal systems,

and then on the X horizontal axis, the length of postal routes in those countries.

What you're seeing is the United States is a massive global outlier in terms of the size and coverage of its postal system. And that kind of begs the question, right, what does that mean? What does that mean for the country and, in particular, for my field, what does that mean for the history of the western United States? And, so, thinking about what is, you know 57,000 post offices. Well, this is what 57,000 post offices looks like on a map and you can start to study the different ways that its operating, again, in my area, the western half of the country.

Robert Dalton Harris: This map, this is kind of an undeclared ally in this, in this whole project, or watching the year by year spread of the post offices across the country looks like I'm being engaged to try to do some pattern, find some pattern in it and do a pattern analysis. I saw that the Adirondacks were not populated by post offices, that Northern Maine, that certain areas in the West but had no post offices at all.

With respect to the development of the acuity of recognitions of pattern as a part of the historical treatment, that's a long way away from historical narrative as a tool. So, there's always the problem with trying to bring the text or the meaning back into the picture and making it relate to the patterns you're seeing on the screen. Is that not

Cameron Blevins: That's absolutely the case. And I think that certainly was a challenge in trying to write a book, right, you can't have animated maps in a book. But I knew going into it, that it was going to be fairly heavy on these kind of data visualizations, but it's really important for me, that the visualization itself is not the point. It's not just to, again, show a pretty picture, but these visualizations and maps, I always want to use try to illustrate specific patterns or specific theories and concepts that I'm trying to articulate, articulate to a reader. So, I think it's useful for understanding different processes in the western United States to see what they look like, look like on a map. So, you can see kind of zoom into different areas of the country again like you said looking for patterns.

This is an animation from Colorado, the state of Colorado in the 1870s, so territory and then becoming a state. And what you're seeing on the left-hand side of the screen there is what starts off as land that is possessed and occupied by groups of Ute tribes being dispossessed by the Federal Government. And then the postal system is really the first federal presence to be able to occupy some of this land outside of the US military and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And that, I'm arguing here, is really central for the history of the western United States because it facilitated this process by which settlers could occupy native land. And so again, being able to toggle back and forth between a narrative-based approach to this, I could tell this story purely with words, but being able to see it on a map I think drives home just how quickly that happened.

Robert Dalton Harris: The land had already been surveyed largely, is that not the case?

Cameron Blevins: Parts of it, yes.

There's already illegal trespassing onto this giant area, attractive land by prospectors, specifically looking for gold in the San Juan mountains.
When gold was discovered that became a trigger for the federal government to basically coerce Ute tribes into ceding some of that land.

Robert Dalton Harris: Did you mention this particular method data, digital history, for example, using computational methods, will be more attractive to people who have grown up with these tools? I guess you imagine so.

Cameron Blevins: You know, I think it's, it's easy to overestimate what we would call digital literacy of different generations. But I always think, you know I tell my students this all the time, whenever you're making a map or visualization or anything digital, you really need to meet your reader where they are and make sure that you are actually conveying the message that you want to convey. You shouldn't put it on them to have to figure it all out on their own and that's kind of how I've approached a lot of this here.

Robert Dalton Harris: Central to your discussion is a phrase the 'gossamer network', which is this presumably this pattern. The word 'gossamer' is attractive, and is rarely found in conjunction with networking, but certainly not a technical term. How did you come to that, that word? I think it works; it works for me.

Cameron Blevins: It works for you. So, originally, thank God, that was the original title of the book was ‘gossamer network’ until I got the feedback that many people have no idea what the word ‘gossamer’ means, so it's probably not a great title for a book. But it is a really central concept that that I use throughout the book to describe the rural postal system and the western postal system, in particular. And there's a couple different features of what I mean by ‘gossamer’. So, the idea of ‘gossamer’ is this kind of light ephemeral web. That's not necessarily the metaphor that I think a lot of us would think of when it comes to something like federal infrastructure.

And what I mean by this was I arrived at this by, in fact, looking at this data, visualizing this data and trying to understand what was happening on the ground. So, I can show a couple of examples here. So, this is a map of the western United States and in grey our existing post offices there were operating and then in red are all the post offices that were discontinued, changed names, or changed locations during that year, in this case, 1884. And you can go through, year by year. And every single year, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of post offices across the country that are shutting down, changing names, changing locations.

And this is what I mean by ephemeral; it's not necessarily that the entire thing is about to collapse, but it's that these individual nodes in the network are far less stable than I was expecting. When you map out how the post office expanded, its able to move, right, spin out these light webs into distant areas of the country, but then also withdraw from those places as well. And, if you think about the western United States, that's particularly relevant. It's a resource-extraction based economy, so you have mining sites cropping up - the post office is able to reach them very quickly and then also shut down.

And so that metaphor, and that idea of a ‘gossamer network’ then kind of prompts the question for me: how? Right, how is this working? What is happening here? We're not used, again, to a post office that opens up to then shut down a year later, but that's what you're seeing in the data and the archive of what's going on. And so, for me that led to a kind of second concept that drives a lot of the book of trying to explain - the functioning behind the gossamer network that was the idea of an agency model.

This is a model of kind of organizational structure. You'll see it in the private sector, as well as the public sector during the 1800s and well into the night into the 1900s, as well, but this is a concept of an organization that is decentralized. It is operated in large part through private actors scattered across a large territory. These people are kind of temporary, part-time employees and they are also non-salaried for the most part, operating on this payment structure of commissions, fees in contracts.

So, what do I mean by that and when it comes to the US Post? Well, especially in the West, mail was transported - if you were not near a railway line, which much of the West was not near a railway line - was transported in the back of a stagecoach. And a stagecoach was not only cover, excuse me, carrying the mail, carrying passengers, it's carrying freight and they'll toss a bag of mail in the back, and then they would bring it to a local post office, which is not a freestanding structure dedicated solely to the postal system. It's not owned and operated by the federal government or full-time salaried employees. It's run by the local store owner, who's paid a really small commission to hand out letters across the counter of their general store to their neighbors and customers. And so that's what the gossamer network and the agency model that fueled it looked like in the western United States and it has all sorts of implications for the history of the region.

Robert Dalton Harris: Well, it seems to me, it has basically implication with respect to governance and governed, you know, the nation and the individual and how that is distributed, how the people come to know themselves as Americans, for example, as a result of being a part of this network.

I wonder, in order to use these ideas, which are relatively loose and insurgent in the field of history, that you selected the West, the 166,000 post offices, of course, covered the nation, the West has many fewer and Bill Helbock's compilation, this one volume out of eight. Your selection of the West and what you call the greater period of the Greater Reconstruction is a ground for laying out your ideas seems to be an important choice, because you sort of like a blank petri dish in some respects, although we do remark that it is the settlers driving out the Indians and that there's a lot of other things going on, but we decided upon the civil war and the we don't see the railroad and the usual heroic themes that had to do with overriding the rest are not present, but you want to show what's a more nuanced view from the ground up, it would seem.

Tell how you must have been leaning towards the West to begin with, or did you just decide that it was a good place to test your ideas?

Cameron Blevins: So, it was a combination of both. I mean I'm a scholar of the West that's why I went to graduate school to study the western United States. But I would also argue that the West during this period from you know my book covers roughly the 1860s through the early 1900s, I think the West is absolutely crucial to understanding American history during this time period. This is the period in which the federal government is trying to assert its power in the western United States, incorporate this massive, massive area of territory that only recently acquired into the rest of the country. And that process by which that happens is central to understanding this period of time. It's based on warfare and conquest of native tribes in the West. It's also based on rising industrialization, railroads, mines, timber. All this is fueling the larger American economy, and while the population of the West actually isn't very large at the time, it's playing this kind of outsized role in the national imagination and also the national conversation about what the United States is going to be. And so that was kind of the basis for trying to study the post office in the West, specifically and also its role in facilitating this process of really, really quick rapid territorial expansion and integration.

Robert Dalton Harris: The collector in me is always fascinated by the particular, the ground plane, and I share that with collectors of everything, I think. And you did such a marvelous example of using or finding a few troves of delectable material that you were able to
pace yourself with, to encircle your theme. Can you tell us a little bit about how you chose your theme and found your materials with respect to the archival end of things here?

Cameron Blevins: Sure. So, I'm a historian, first and foremost, which means that I also love archives. I love being in the archives; I love touching and feeling and you know, looking at the paper and reading these
these little snapshots into the past. And for me the archival work was front and center for the book as a whole. This was not just some data project where I'm looking at the 60,000-foot view of the system, but to understand what that meant in the lives of individual people, in the lives or the kind of the social realities of these individual communities, you have to go into the archives and look at documents and read the words that those people are writing.

And so, for me, there's a couple of different archives that I found really helpful. Just to take one example, there was a family called the Curtis family and they're a group of four orphans born in Ohio, kind of scattered to different family members and raised in eastern United States, and then eventually over the course their adult lifetimes, they move West. And a family member kept many of their letters. There's several dozen letters and they're now housed in the Huntington Library.
And reading through their letters was this incredible window into what the US post meant in their lives.

And they're obvious ways, right? It's connecting these four orphans across again hundreds of miles, but even in less obvious ways that I found really fascinating. The fact that two of the four siblings actually served as postmasters briefly spoke to just how common this role was across American society. They're sending money orders through the mail. They're sending small gifts and presents. They're sharing news they're sharing gossip. And then for me what was really striking was one brother, in particular, ends up in the middle of nowhere in Arizona trying to start a ranch. The nearest major town is 40 miles away, but, despite that, he's living basically with his cows and horses, he's able to subscribe to half a dozen newspapers and magazines from across the country and receive letters from his sisters in San Diego, again hundreds of miles away, that arrived there in a matter of about five days.

So, even though he's living in this remote, remote location, he's staying connected to the wider world. And that to me was a central, again, window into understanding, just how important this massive coverage is ability to expand into all these different places really was for the lives of individual people.

Robert Dalton Harris: Cameron, Bill Helbock was first a stamp collector, then a philatelist, postal historian, and then a geographer. He graduated from the Military Academy so strategic interests in mapping and so forth. My own route was from stamp collecting through philately, postal history to physics. And many postal historians, in that way, have their heart in philately, but they address it with some disciplined way from however else they have conducted their lives. How do you imagine that from 30,000 feet such people will be able to use this book to look at their stuff?

Cameron Blevins: That's a great question. I just want to say, Robert, you're such a cliche career path, philatelist, a physicist.

Robert Dalton Harris: I know, I'm a big pool of such things.

Cameron Blevins: Exactly. So, throughout this process, I mean, I just have been struck at the incredible body of knowledge that the philatelist community has and postal historians have about this topic. Obviously, Richard Helbock's work as being a central, central piece, central piece of my own analysis and research. And I'm guessing a lot of people on this call know a lot more about specific areas of postal history than I do, but I come at this from more perspective of a historian of the American state, a historian of the western United States, and I think what's been fascinating for me is trying to link some of this extremely specialized, incredibly deep knowledge of all of these different features of the postal system, postal history, specific covers, envelopes, letters etc. to some of these bigger questions, historical questions about this time period, this region, about what is the nature, you know federal power at the time.

Robert Dalton Harris: I think that's where your power

Cameron Blevins: was all states.

Robert Dalton Harris: Where your power for philatelists will be to more or less confirm their intuitions about how important their stuff is and to set them, alert them to the fact that this is a wider concern and they're likely to have some input in these other questions. You know all the historical value, usual understanding the American post offices is as a distributor of newspapers and that, in order to do that the United States post office in 1800 inaugurated a distribution system, which provided for economies of scale and the and to accommodate exponential growth. We've become very familiar with these kinds of references to [ ] so forth, during the Covid year. It sort of intercepts your book in a
in a formative way with respect to the eye of distribute, idea of distribution, in a sense, the federal government decentralizing its own practices.

Have you yet considered that, with respect to your ‘gossamer network’ and how that might displace what you see from the gossamer, as like mistake initiative from the central government to decentralize from one from the churn and instability of the hinterland?

Cameron Blevins: Yeah, yeah. I think this idea of a distribution system, you know, and of course the centrality of newspapers and news, in particular, was obviously you know, Richard John, the historian, has established it so well in the book, Spreading the News. And his work is also kind of central to my own, and I could not have done this project without that scholarship. But I think what I find really interesting about this was this tension between centralized administration, on the one hand, and kind of planned governance versus the reality on the ground.

So, there are these decisions that get made in Washington DC, in Congress, that then had these ripple effects that I'm not sure that people making those decisions necessarily expected. And so, from very early on the federal government really did commit itself to this idea of a distribution system, of subsidizing the particular the transmission of newspapers, and then also providing the equivalent of universal access, so the idea of no matter where you are moving to, the federal government is going to supply you with mail. And I think that was a certain reality when they were 13 states hugging the Atlantic seaboard, but then 50 or 60 years later, of course, this is a continent-spanning nation encompassing 3000 miles and suddenly, the question of how do you provide universal access to a minor living, you know, 2000 miles away in Montana or rancher in the middle of nowhere in Arizona territory, suddenly becomes logistically a lot more difficult. And what I found was that this opens up all sorts of unintended consequences. So, this, again, the agency model that, again, allows the network to expand into all these different places and carry letters and newspapers to the minor or the rancher, also means that it's very, very unregulated. There are just not enough administrators employed by the postal system to oversee all of its operations on the western periphery.

And this leads to a lot of different things. There's kind of infamous called the star route frauds in 1870s and the early 1880s in which contractors, stagecoach contracting companies, basically institute this system to defraud the government of hundreds of thousands and into the millions of dollars. It became a national scandal. Or just the fact that individual post offices were kind of run however the local store owner or businessperson wanted to run it. There was very little federal oversight and so again that tension between intentionality of what they were trying to do in Washington versus how it operated on the ground, some of that I find really fascinating just as a historian, I love those moments of paradox intention.

Robert Dalton Harris: With respect to the intentionality, I can assure you that the post design of the postal system was quite intentional and with respect to the idea that, as a network, the postal routes could not necessarily pay for themselves. They were they were important for connecting strategically distant points and something that's the place where the postal revenues were gathered had to be those revenues had to be expended in extending transportation to unproductive places.

When you treat money orders in one of your chapters calling attention to the fact that these little post offices are sending money all over the United States, my experience with money order offices, and the small ones in particular, is that that travel, that movement of money is very asymmetric, meaning they're sending a lot more money to large cities than they're receiving outside of their own domain and that sort of gives us a clue why the postal system was set up to pay for the transportation under unproductive places, because there was a return on that investment and that return was with respect to the economy of the urban centers.

Could you, would you like to comment on that return cycle, with respect to the money order offices?

Cameron Blevins: Absolutely yeah. So, I think the postal system in general, you can think of as really being tilted in some ways, towards rural areas. Every year it's way more expensive to operate the post office in rural parts of the country, compared to the amount of revenue that it's generating from postage in those places. But, as you mentioned, right, there's all sorts of ways in which that is still beneficial to some of these urban, more urban areas.

And just a side note, what's really fascinating about this period, too, is that you will see some political alliances in Congress based not on party, but on section. And so was, again coming at this from, right, 2021 highly partisan area, but you read these Congressional testimonies of, say, Republican and Democratic senators from the West kind of banding together and saying well, of course, we need more post offices, of course, we need more post routes, and then you'd have a Democrat and Republican Senator
from, let's say, you know, New York, Vermont, that kind of area, banding together to say, do we really need a post office in every tiny mining town in the West?

But generally speaking, there's less resistance to this expansive network than one might expect, in part because of the agency model, and that is because it wasn't that expensive to operate. Federal government is not building its roads out there to carry the mail. It's not buying its own stagecoaches. It's not paying full-time salaried employees to run them. It's not building or buying its own buildings. It is effectively grafting this public service onto an existing private infrastructure, and that has implications, you know, that I talked about already with corruption and fraud. But the benefit of that was that it's a fairly low cost and low friction system to set up and then again withdraw from these areas as well.

Robert Dalton Harris: Thank you. Susan.

Susan Smith: Wonderful.

Thank you so much.

We're going to…My camera didn't come back on, did it? That always helps.

Robert Dalton Harris: Not for moi.

Susan Smith: No, there's the redundancy there, closing that flap.

Thank you so much to both of you. We have a lot of questions in the Q and A box. Please feel free to continue putting questions in the Q and A. I want to mention that some of the questions can probably be answered if you go to, is that right, Cameron, where he provides five-year increments and six-year increments in terms of the development in the West.

So, in terms of visualization, I want to follow up with a few of those questions first. So, is there any way to show on these maps the relationship of the development and the comings and goings of the post offices to the development of the railroads?

Cameron Blevins: Yes, there is, and so in the online gossamer network, which, I might be able to just pull up here really quickly, you can overlay - one of the benefits, I think, of using this kind of data set and taking a mapping approach is that you're able to overlay different kinds of data on here. In this case, I'm using a data set of western tribes and unceded native land, kind of in green here, but then you can also overlay something like railroad data, too.

So, during the late 1860s is when you see the development of the transcontinental railroad here, and you can see, in some ways,
post offices sprouting up along the railroad line. But what was interesting to me was that you see much more of an impact of the railroad on either end. These kind of explosions of rail of, excuse me, post offices, on either end of the railroad rather than running in between, and, if anyone's ever been to southern Wyoming, the reason for this should be fairly clear - there's just not a lot of people that live there.

But these railroads, I think, were really central to the operation of the larger network, not necessarily because of the post offices that operated on them, but because they became trunk lines that were able to transport the mail really quickly from distant parts of the country, but then to reach where the majority of the people in the West we're living that's when I had to turn to this gossamer network, the agency model of stagecoach companies having to transport it, 1300, you know, 100 miles away from a railroad line.

Susan Smith: Are there other services that are also mapped in the gossamer network, for example, does the last question, specifically about the Pony Express routes or Butterfield or any of those? Can those be found as well?

Cameron Blevins: Yeah, so my book kind of starts a little bit after that. So, the Butterfield is a little bit before that, but the Pony Express, and of course it's like an unavoidable question here, it's actually, I think this is a record it's been 38 minutes into a book talk, where the Pony Express hasn't come up so congratulations to the audience on that.
But the point is that the Pony Express, I think, is probably the most successful brand in American history. The fact that we all recognize it we all kind of know about it.

But what's really interesting to me as a historian, is that it was a complete business failure. It was a private initiative by a transportation company to carry the mail across the western United States to California via horse and courier. And it was very fast, but also prohibitively expensive. It costs around somewhere at kind of adjusted rates around 100 bucks to send a letter. So, no one's going to use this for regular correspondence, but it was a publicity stunt in order to try and win a government mail contract to actually carry the US mail. It failed in this and it shut down after about 18 months and sold out
to a competitor. And so, it's phenomenally important in terms of some symbolism at the time, so the early 1860s uniting East and West, at a time when North and South, are being torn apart. But in terms of actual impact on the ground, I'm always fascinated by, again, just the outsides imagined kind of symbolic importance in in the national imaginary versus what actually happened at the time.

Robert Dalton Harris: I'd like to comment to that too, Susan, if I could. My understanding of the Pony Express involves a telegraph and its completion across the gap between where it was finished to connect with Eastern lines and to the West Coast was. That was a very important feature during the beginning of the Civil War in strategic estimates of what was California going to do, the Pony Express and analyzing the materials which were sent, and there's a lovely census of all material sent one way or another, was used for command and control, It was privy to the correspondence from the telling them what to do with the troops in the forests and with respect to the insurgencies and so forth. So, we leave out the strategic level more or less, but when we were talking about the Pony Express really do have to explain, get back to, that it was a strategic instrument.

Susan Smith: Before you  mentioned that you were interested originally in American migration to the West, Cameron. What other ways, did you consider studying this before you hit on the postal service?

Cameron Blevins: I thought about a couple of different options, schools, for instance, churches, might be another proxy for settlement patterns, but, ultimately, I think what sets the US post apart from these other ones, is that it is a truly national institution, and it comes with a mandate to establish a presence in pretty much any community in the country, which does make it this ideal, again, proxy for studying this kind of migration pattern.

I spent a lot of time trying to think of other kinds of private or public institutions and their spatial footprint, and what that might look like.
And almost across the board there's no real national institution that has the same level of presence in so many different local places. And that's why I think the US post was both useful, again, starting the research with the idea of a proxy, but then has all sorts of implications for, if it is the only real national network within a foothold in every community, then it becomes this channel or vehicle for all sorts of other larger processes as well.

Susan Smith: Among other things that you talk about in your book that I found so interesting was the relationship of these post offices and the Postmaster general appointments and the political machine, and that the post offices themselves served as campaign offices effectively at certain points in time. Can you talk more about that aspect of it? When you talk about all the things that this network enabled, it seems to me that this concept of national politics would be one of them.

Cameron Blevins: Absolutely, and this actually goes back to this unintended consequence, I think of operating a) in this agency model, but then also b) the fact that there are so many post offices across the country means that it becomes the dominant federal institution for dispensing patronage positions. And so, the Post Office Department is controlled by the executive branch, so whichever party controls the presidency controls the distribution of tens of thousands of potential positions. And so, I collected data from annual reports from the Postmaster General that reports on how many postmasters at these local communities were removed from office each year, so basically kicked out of office by the administration. And this lines up perfectly with election cycles in the late 1800s, where you have very few down here, and then it flips from Republican to Democrat and suddenly you have a spike of 9000 or more postmasters removed during that year, so that they can promote to them, although not all of them will necessarily be replaced with Democrat operators.

And so, this institution was highly politicized at the time, again, a kind of unintended consequence of the way it was set up and it's not just
that you have this national level, someone sitting in Washington saying okay we're going to kick these people out and bring these people in,
but, oftentimes, it's local communities that are driving a lot of this politicized turnover. And so. one of the fascinating things, if you read correspondence from any national politician during this time, I guarantee you, you will find way more discussion of the local post office and local postmaster than you would ever expect. And so, you had, actually, James Garfield, before he became President, was a representative and his letters are just filled with responding to constituents' requests being
saying you need to remove this Postmaster from the position and give it to this other guy down the road because he's, you know, a better Republican operative. And he is pulling his hair out because he's spending so much time dealing with these little squabbles about post offices.

And so again, this interplay between the local level of this network with the vast national level of the network and the ways in which national politics and local politics intersected is a really interesting theme for me.

Susan Smith: In terms of the bureaucratic apparatus, can you talk a bit more about what all of these post offices enabled in terms of further bureaucratic developments in the American national government?

Cameron Blevins: If you think about the postal system as having this presence in so many different areas, what I realized, was it, this was also the most expansive arm of the federal government, by far, and so the American state during this period, looked a lot different than it does today. And, in particular in the western United States, if you are working let's say in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, if you are working for the US military, the Treasury Department, some of these other institutions, you become entirely reliant on long distance communication. And depending on where you live a lot of that long distance communication is going to come through letters. It's not necessarily going to be  telegraph communication. And so, the post, because it has this expansive presence, you see people like governors of territories being able to  exchange and get reports from hundreds of miles away from the other side of a territory from lower-level government officials. And so, the mail and this really interesting ways, not just of knitting the nation together but also of knitting the larger apparatus in the federal government together in kind of unexpected ways again ones that I was not necessarily expecting.

Susan Smith: Can you discuss some more of those unintended consequences, of things that surprised you?

Cameron Blevins: Let's see, things that things that surprised me. So, if we go back to the money orders that Rob, Rob was talking about before so money orders developed in the 1860s as a way for primarily soldiers during the civil war to send sums of money to the home front, without necessarily sending actual currency through the mail that might get stolen, and it gradually starts to expand in the coming decades. What I ended up coming across was a single town called North Bloomfield, California. It's a former mining town up in the foothills of Sierras. And the post office there, there are records of individual money orders that are being sent from that town. And so, again, I was able to collect all this data and then map out where are these money orders going, where are they sending money orders. And I was expecting, you know, money orders being sent to friends, family, that's what the institution was originally used for. Overwhelmingly these are a) women using this system to make purchases for at retailers in Sacramento and San Francisco, about 50 to 100 miles away. And so, it's this commercial vehicle that stitching together the West and unexpected ways and, in particular, if you put it on a map, what's surprising to me is they're not ordering this from Sears Roebuck in Chicago, which is what I would have expected for this time, but instead it's this really localized economy. So that's a very specific example of what you can do if you start looking at data, discovering some of the patterns and the ways the post is operating.

Susan Smith: I was surprised by your mention of so many different commercial aspects at the individual level of the shop that might have had the post office in it. Not just bringing people in to pick up their mail and then they purchase something at the same time, but some of the other elements of that, and one of the things that you mentioned, that was a bit of surprise, given the write-ups earlier by historians with these claims that postmasters were frequently the local newspaper editors, was that that didn't actually hold to be the case in the Mountain West, that they were much more likely to be commercial figures because of this wide array of commercial overlap basically with the mail. Can you mention a few of those other overlaps beyond somebody coming into your shop to purchase something?

Cameron Blevins: Yeah, so again, this is all requiring looking at communities themselves zooming down from this, you know, level of what is 10,000 post offices look like on a map to what is an individual dot on that map mean for a community. And what you find is that the post office be is, not surprisingly, the central gathering place for that community.
And if you are a store owner, of course, that really incentivizes you to try to get a postmaster appointment. This is why people are spending so much time and energy fighting over the location of post offices; if you have the post office, people have to come into your store. But, as Susan mentioned, it's not just about people coming into your store it's also that you have an incredible hold over information in your community. You know what newspapers, what magazines your neighbors are subscribing to, you know who they're communicating with.

So, there's all sorts of ways, where postmasters and post offices, again, become this hub for a community and, also, it's where people go to get information. If you needed information about a town, for instance, most people, if you don't know anyone there, you write the Postmaster, because they're going to know the most about that locality. So, again, all these different ways in which these post offices, because this is prior to rural free delivery when mail gets delivered to the doorsteps, of Americans in rural areas, you have to go to the post office to get your mail, which means that it is the central gathering place for community with all the messiness that that might entail.

Susan Smith: And you had discussed, and you showed this visually, the opening and the closing so frequently of some of these very small locations. And you talk about this with the Curtis family. What did that mean for the individuals that were using that that post office that lasted three years?

Cameron Blevins: Right, that's what always struck me about this was that
it's not just that they're closing, but some of them would close after a couple months, and then they'd reopen and then they'd shut down again, and then they reopen. And so, it took me a while to cognitively kind of shift from thinking in my head of what a post office is and what I've experienced going to the post office in my life to realizing the experience of going to a post office is much different in the 1800s, and  it's not necessarily, right, a uniformed USPS official; it is your neighbor, it is your local store owner. And so, the shutting down a post office, I think, is really interesting where oftentimes communities will then have to go to another post office, but because there is such an immense coverage here, sometimes that doesn't mean that's that bad. In the case of the Curtises, they had two post offices within a, I believe, a two-mile radius of their front door, which meant one of them shut down - the business owner got went bankrupt, and so they just went down the road another extra mile to the ranching home of, I believe her name was, Lucinda Armor, tiny post office, and their lives didn't really change that much. And that's surprising to me and really, I think, speaks to just how different this system was.

Susan Smith: And what impact if any did the expansion of these other alternatives, such as the telegraph and eventually the telephone, have on the income of the post offices?

Cameron Blevins: On the income of the post offices?

Susan Smith: And the purposes they served?

Cameron Blevins: Gotcha. During so during this period, since the late 1800s, surprisingly little, at least that I could find. This is, in particular in rural parts of the country, I think, in at least in my head, but my assumption was right telegraph explodes along with the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, 1870s, but then if you stopped to look at it it's actually not a very expensive network and, on top of that, it's also very expensive. So, Richard John has termed this, I think, at the time, people actually refer to as the 'rich man's mail'. It costs a lot to send a telegram so you weren't just using this for casual
correspondence. For anything else you would still use the post and so you see the post really stills having tremendous amount of revenue coming in well into the 1900s. So, I think that that was a surprising piece, for me, especially in relation to the telegraph.

Robert Dalton Harris: This brings up the agency model as people we may think of ourselves as having several agencies, corresponding to each mediation that we employ and so they don't supersede one another necessarily. In the minds of most people, the telegraph that might have been responsible for the annihilation of space and time, but it also it also brought universal access, let's say. And so, the world doesn't you if you're if you're if you're a postal, if you've been postalized the
telegraph is just an added another medium that it doesn't overturn your life and, I imagine, with our proliferation of media, we can think of ourselves as agents in that respect in a variety of different communities according to these media that we employ.

Susan Smith: Right, and the individual that asked that question was thinking about similarities to email, for example, today.

Robert Dalton Harris: Yes, it's a very vital kind of question to be asking, what world are we part of with respect to each of these media.

Susan Smith: And Cameron, did you find any evidence of indigenous use of these post offices in these new postal networks, particularly as a way to subvert or adapt to 'civilization'? How are they

Cameron Blevins: Yes. I should give a shout out to I think one of the most important books that's come out recently on this is Justin Gage, who actually might be on the call right here, recently published a book that everyone should go read, but it's the study of how literacy and the use of the mail in particular by native groups in the West was used as a tool of resistance to colonialism. And I think this is a really, really, really important counterweight to some of the maps that I was showing before of the US post as an accelerant of federal or excuse me settler colonial expansion and native dispossession. And so, what, you know, these maps are showing is that post offices are basically the front lines of dispossession and then, once reservations are established, you can see very clearly on these maps this dense coverage of the US post basically runs dry as soon as it hits the border of an Indian reservation. And so, you're seeing the federal government effectively supplying this really expensive service to white settlers and not extending that to native communities, but, despite that, what Justin Gage's work has shown is that native people are embracing the post and using it for all sorts of things. They're petitioning the federal government for better living conditions. They're using it to connect with families that have been displaced and torn apart, and then they also are using it to spread the ghost dance kind of spiritual and cultural movement during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Susan Smith: And would this be one of those unintended consequences?

Cameron Blevins: I think it's probably safe to say that the federal government was not that definitely didn't have that in mind, as one of its goals, but for sure.

Susan Smith: Oh, further questions in relation to these other transport options. Wells Fargo and all of the companies that eventually merged into Wells Fargo. Is that something else that, I think many people are interested to hear how, if at all, you are going to be expanding these mapping visualizations and what other material, you can add in, such as Wells Fargo.

Cameron Blevins: Sure. So, I can pull it up here.

So, that was a question I had to which was trying to compare what the spatial coverage looks like from a public institution, the US post versus other similar private institutions. In the case of Wells Fargo, it's the largest express company in the West during this period. And, again, express companies you would pay them to carry packages to areas. The US Post not carry parcels above a very small wait until the 1910s and so, up until this point, you would pay private express companies.

What you're seeing on this map is, on the left, is Wells Fargo offices and on the right are us post offices just in these particular western states. And you're showing a much, much, much more expansive coverage for the US postal system, compared to Wells Fargo. I think it speaks to the larger issue that I raised before of a public institution being committed to universal access. Express companies, private profit generating express companies, are not necessarily going to open up an office in some remote tiny mining camp with, you know, 40 people, where the expenses might outweigh the costs. But, like Robert was saying before, that's not the case for the US Post. A lot of these rural areas are way more costly to operate, in terms of revenue they're bringing in. But, because it's a public institution part of the federal government's commitment to serving these areas, this is how you see a much more expansive coverage there.

And then, in terms of overlaying other kinds of data there, I will actually show this. So, as part of the book's release, I also released the underlying data set of 166,000 post offices, based on Richard Helbock's archival work, and you can download that data and use it kind of in any way you want. And so, this is the website here, which I could send out, I believe, on the chat or the Q and A in a second here, but I tried to document the data set and then offer, for those of you that do you want to use it, much more detailed documentation about how you might need to use it, what the different features are, things to keep in mind.
And I've already since I've released this I've already been contacted by, interesting enough, mainly political scientists and economists, who want to use this as a historical data set comparing to other things. So, I'm kind of excited to see what creative ways people take this, in ways that I probably never would have thought, so too to be continued, I guess.

Susan Smith: So, let me mention to those of you still listening that
I can probably add that address, that link, Cameron, to an email that you'll all be receiving tomorrow just as a follow up to this talk.
will automatically be generated for the attendees so I can, I believe, still put that into that email, so you can send me the link and a lot it, as well as the gossamer network site.

I wanted to thank you and Rob so, so much for this fantastic conversation. Thank you for all of the questions, there are a lot more questions in the Q and A; I'm sorry I couldn't get to all of them.

Just to let you all know, we're going to be having, just put this up here
screenshare very quickly as a follow up. Tomorrow evening from five to seven, we are going to be involved, and the National Postal Museum has been working with the class at NYU. For those of you that are particularly interested in postal uniforms and workwear, there will be an event tomorrow from five to seven, you can contact me if you'd like more information about that I can be reached at Again, And in June, the National Museum is going to inaugurate a book club on postal themes. You can find out more information about both of these events, actually, as well on our website. So, again, thank you very much to all of you for coming and to Rob and Cameron.

Cameron best of luck with this book, I would recommend it to everyone is very interesting and you take a look at the website - cutting edge here for digital humanities.

Cameron Blevins: Great. Thank you very much Susan again for organizing this and Robert facilitating, I really appreciate it.

Robert Dalton Harris: Thank you for the stirring read, Cameron.

Susan Smith: Everybody be well.

Cameron Blevins
Photo by Flor Blake

On May 6, 2021, Cameron Blevins discussed his new book, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, in conversation with historian Robert Dalton Harris. 

The size and scope of the modern USPS is awe-inspiring; more than 30,000 post offices servicing 160 million addresses, delivering 142.6 billion individual articles of mail in 2019 alone. And yet, in the late nineteenth century, the postal service staffed double the number of offices, making it the largest business operation in the world.

The postal network's sprawling geography and localized operations force a reconsideration of the American state, its history, and the ways in which it exercised power. In Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West (Oxford University Press | April 2021), Cameron Blevins argues that the US Post wove together two of the nineteenth century’s defining projects: western expansion and the growth of state power. The American postal system was already transmitting billions of pieces of mail each year; whether neatly filed away in the stacks of an archive or haphazardly piled up inside a shoebox in the corner of an attic, the historical record is littered with letters, newspapers, and postcards that traveled through the US Post. What then explains the relative absence of the US Post in the annals of western history, despite its pervasive presence in the historical archive? When something is everywhere, it can start to become invisible.

Cover of Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West 
		By Cameron Blevins
Released by Oxford University Press, April 2021

Paper Trails maps the spread of the US Post using a dataset of more than 100,000 post offices, revealing a new picture of the federal government in the West. The western postal network bore little resemblance to the civil service bureaucracies typically associated with government institutions. Instead, the US Post grafted public mail service onto private businesses, contracting with stagecoach companies to carry the mail and paying local merchants to distribute letters from their stores. These arrangements allowed the US Post to rapidly spin out a vast and ephemeral web of postal infrastructure to thousands of distant places.

Cameron Blevins, PhD is Associate Professor, Clinical Teaching Track, in the History Department at the University of Colorado Denver, and is a respected leader in the field of digital history.

Robert Dalton Harris, PhD is an independent scholar and co-editor of Postal History Journal who has made communications history his vocation and passion for more than three decades.