Paper Trails

About the Book

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West argues that the US Post wove together two of the era’s defining projects: western expansion and the growth of state power. Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, the western United States underwent a dramatic reorganization of people, land, capital, and resources. As millions of settlers moved into the region, they relied on letters and newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, petitions and money orders to stay connected to the wider world. 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.

US Post Offices in the contiguous United States, 1789-2000. Darker points represent exact locations and lighter points are randomly located within their surrounding county.

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 operate what I’ve termed a “gossamer network,” rapidly spinning out a vast and ephemeral web of postal infrastructure to thousands of distant places. The postal network’s sprawling geography and localized operations forces a reconsideration of the American state, its history, and the ways in which it exercised power.


“A wonderful example of digital history built on information technology and archival research.” — Marc Levinson, Wall Street Journal

Paper Trails will make you see state power in entirely new ways.” — Rachel St. John, University of California, Davis

“Cameron Blevins has produced a study so methodologically and empirically rich that it sets a model for disciplines beyond history.” — Daniel Carpenter, author of Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870

“In the hands of Cameron Blevins, isolated post offices become windows into life in the American West. With great skill, Blevins portrays the expansive growth of the American state in an original, surprising, and persuasive way.” — Edward L. Ayers, winner of the Bancroft Prize

“With the intensity and range of Blevins’s research, the clarity and vigor of his writing style, and, most of all, his distinctive perspective on the relationship between the history of the American West and the history of the federal government, this book gains the status of a fresh appraisal of the arrangements of power and population in the West and in the nation as a whole.” — Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of Legacy of Conquest

“’Paper Trails’ offers a timely reminder that the post has always been political….One of the most striking aspects of ‘Paper Trails’ isn’t in the book. Mr Blevins is a digital historian, meaning he uses data science to analyse historical trends. He built an accompanying website replete with interactive maps to show readers how, within a generation, the postal service helped colonise a continent. These online dispatches beautifully illustrate the formative power of snail mail.” — The Economist

“By combining modern digital mapping techniques with traditional archival research, Blevins shows how postal policy can help us better understand the rise of the modern American state.” — Richard R. John, author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse