Postal Geography and the Golden West

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about gold, the American West, and the way we narrate history. But first let me explain why I’m telling you this story. I’m in the midst of writing a dissertation about how the U.S. Post shaped development in the West. The project is a work of geography as much as history. It traces where and when the nation’s postal network expanded on its western periphery, and part of these efforts include collaborating on an interactive visualization that maps the opening and closing of more than 14,000 post offices in the West. The visualization reveals the skeleton of a “postal geography” that bound Americans into a vast communications network. It’s a powerful research tool to explore spatial patterns spread across fifty years, thousands of data points, and half of a continent. Visit the site and read more about the visualization. But first, I want to use this tool to tell you a story.

Cameron Blevins and Jason Heppler, Geography of the Post

In the beginning there was gold…

That’s usually how the story of the West starts: with a gold nugget pulled out of a California river in 1848. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills set off a global stampede to California and pulled the edges of American empire to the shores of the Pacific. 

Ensigns & Thayer, “Map of the Gold Regions of California” (1849)
David Rumsey Map Collection

The California Gold Rush casts such a dazzling light across western origin stories that it’s often hard to see past it. But there was more than just gold. Even as miners flocked to the Northern California, farmers were plowing fields up and down Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But whereas gold is exciting, farmers are boring. They’re pushed aside in gilded narratives about the West. When Oregon farmers do appear, they serve as an epilogue to a much more exciting story about covered wagons, dusty trails, and Indian attacks. As soon as overland emigrants traded in their covered wagons for seeds and ploughs they’re pushed to a dimly lit corner of western history. 

Henry Bryan Hall, “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” (1869)
Library of Congress

But these women and men nonetheless left their mark on the geography of the West. Even as they raised their barns and planted their fields they participated in a long-standing American tradition of demanding that the U.S. government bring them their mail. Each new Oregon town came with a new post office, and five years after the discovery of gold in California there were nearly as many post offices in Willamette Valley as there were in the mining region of the Sierras. In most historical accounts the blinding glitter of California gold has rendered these Oregon settlements all but invisible. Our story pulls them out of the shadows.

U.S. Post Offices, 1846-1853

Gold survived in stories about the West long after it ran dry in California’s mines. In May of 1869 a ceremonial golden railroad spike shimmered in the sun at Promontory Point, Utah. It was the “last spike” that would symbolically link the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, completing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony concluded six years of breakneck labor that laid down more than a thousand miles of wood, metal, and stone across the West. The golden spike at Promontory Point proved just as momentous as the gold flakes at Sutter’s Mill two decades before, inaugurating a new era of western settlement. And, just like the gold rush, the dramatic glare of the golden spike blinds us to other stories. 

The Last Spike (1869)
Cantor Arts Center

You can be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the West stood still while workers laid down transcontinental railroad tracks in the late 1860s. That is, after all, how stories of the West are often told. But the West wasn’t standing still. A simultaneous story was taking place in southwestern Montana, where the discovery of gold led to a new rush of Anglo settlement into the region. By 1870 this mineral-fueled migration had transformed western postal geography as much as the transcontinental railroad tracks that snaked through northern Nevada, Utah, and southern Wyoming. As miners and speculators streamed into Montana they dragged the nation’s postal network with them. Whether established at a Montana mining camp or a Nevada railroad depot, the post offices that appeared during these years reflected two stories occurring simultaneously, of a prospector shivering in a cold mountain stream and a railroad worker sweating in the desert sun. Yet we tend to separate their labor when we narrate the history of the West; the miner waits offstage for the railroad worker to finish laying down tracks before he wades into the Montana stream. Anchoring them to a larger spatial network recovers the simultaneity of their stories. 

Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1864-1865
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1869-1870

Blank spaces are foundational for the stories we tell about the West. In the worst of them, white settlers carry the mantle of American civilization into an empty western wilderness. It’s a story that systematically writes out the presence of non-Anglo settlement. Using postal geography to narrate western history runs the risk of parroting this story. After all, post offices on a map resemble nothing so much as pinpricks of light filling in the region’s dark blank spaces. But those blank spaces also have the potential to tell a very different kind of story.

During the late 1860s miners in Montana and railroad workers in Nevada were joined by another migration into the region: soldiers marching into northern Wyoming and southern Montana to battle a coalition of Lakotas, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. After suffering repeated losses, the U.S. Army withdrew from Powder River Country and signed a peace treaty in 1868 that ceded control of the area. Unlike the miners and laborers, these soldiers left no trace on the U.S. postal network: the Powder River Country remained utterly devoid of post offices for the next decade. 

U.S. Post Offices, 1865-1877

Silence speaks volumes in the stories we tell. In our story the blank spaces in the postal network act as narrative silence, laden down with meaning. The map’s negative spaces have as much to tell us as its constellations of post offices. It is a story about the control of space. Post offices were a marker of governance, a kind of lowest common institutional denominator. The absence of a post office signaled the lack of a state presence. In this context, the yawning blank area in northern Wyoming and southern Montana reflected the tenuous position of the U.S. Government in the West. Through the late 1870s vast swathes of the West remained outside the boundaries of American territorial control and solidly within the sphere of native groups. The government’s inability to extend the U.S. Post into this region defined the geographic limits of westward expansion. Anglo-American settlement wasn’t inexorable and it didn’t unfurl in a single unimpeded wave. It occurred in fits and starts, in uneven forays and halting retreats. It’s a narrative whose boundaries were drawn by the supposedly blank spaces of the West and the people who lived in them. 

Our story ends where where it began: with gold. In 1874 an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer marched into the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Their announcement that they discovered gold touched off a frenzied rush into an area that was officially outside the control of the the United States government. Clashes between prospectors and Indians escalated over the following year, eventually erupting into all-out warfare between the U.S. Army and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in early 1876. Despite the 7th Cavalry’s dramatic defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army ultimately prevailed. The end of the campaign in 1877 and the dissolution of the Fort Laramie Treaty unleashed a flood of white emigrants into the gold fields of the Black Hills. A dense pocket of post offices appeared almost overnight to bring the mail to these gold-hungry settlers. 

Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1875-1877
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1878-1880

The image of post offices twinkling into existence in the Black Hills says nothing about the violence that birthed them. Their appearance depended on a military campaign and the ultimate removal of people whose very presence had visibly defined the limits of American territory. But these post offices nevertheless help us to tell a different kind of story about the West. It’s a story that expands our vision to look beyond the glare of the California gold rush and towards the plowed fields of Oregon. It’s a story marked by simultaneity, a story about railroad workers swinging sledgehammers in northern Nevada even as prospectors panned for gold in southwestern Montana. And it’s a story about blank spaces and the people and meanings that filled them, a story about the control of space and the boundaries of western expansion.

Making Numbers Legible

What do you do with numbers? I mean this in the context of writing, not research. How do you incorporate quantitative evidence into your writing in a way that makes it legible for your readers? I’ve been thinking more and more about this as I write my dissertation, which examines the role of the nineteenth-century Post in the American West. Much like today, the Post was massive. Its sheer size was part of what made it so important. And I find myself using the size of the Post to help answer the curmudgeonly “so what?” question that stalks the mental corridors of graduate students. On a very basic level, the Post mattered because so many Americans sent so many letters through such a large network operated by so many people. Answering the “so what?” question means that I have to incorporate numbers into my writing. But numbers are tricky.

Let’s begin with the amount of mail that moved through the U.S. Post. In 1880 Americans sent 1,053,252,876 letters. That number is barely legible for most readers. I mean this in two ways. In a mechanical sense we HATE having to actually read so many digits. A more conceptual problem is that this big of a number doesn’t mean all that much. If I change 1,053,252,876 to 1,253,252,876, would it lead you, the reader, to a fundamentally different conclusion about the size of the U.S. Post? I doubt it, even though the difference of 200 million letters is a pretty substantial one. And if instead of adding 200 million letters I subtract 200 million letters – 1,053,252,876 down to 853,252,876 – the reader’s perception is more likely to change. But this is only because the number shed one of its digits and crossed the magic cognitive threshold from “billion” to “million.” It’s not because of an inherent understanding of what those huge numbers actually mean.

Actual and perceived differences between 853,252,876 vs. 1,053,252,876 vs. 1,253,252,876

One strategy to make a number like 1,053,252,876 legible is by reduction: to turn large numbers into much smaller ones. If we spread out those billion letters across the population over the age of ten, the average American sent roughly twenty-eight letters over the course of 1880, or one every thirteen days. A ten-digit monstrosity turns into something the reader can relate to. After all, it’s easier to picture writing a letter every two weeks than it is to picture a mountain of one billion letters. Numbers, especially big ones, are easier to digest when they’re reduced to a more personal scale.

1,053,252,876 letters / 36,761,607 Americans over the age of ten = 28.65 letters / person

A second way to make numbers legible is by comparison. The most direct corollary to the U.S. Post was the telegraph industry. Put simply, the telegraph is a lot sexier than the Post and both nineteenth-century Americans and modern historians alike lionized the technology. A typical account goes something like this: “News no longer traveled at the excruciatingly slow pace of ships, horses, feet, or trains. It now moved at 670 million miles per hour.” In essence, “the telegraph liberated information.” But the telegraph only liberated information if you could afford to pay for it. In 1880 the cost of sending a telegram through Western Union from San Francisco to New York was $2.50, or 125 times the price to mail a two-cent letter. Not surprisingly, Americans sent roughly 35 times the number of letters than telegrams. The enormous size of the Post was in part a product of how cheap it was to use.

Cost of Telegram vs. Letter, San Francisco to New York (1880)

This points to a third strategy to make numbers legible: visualization. In the above case the chart acts as a rhetorical device. I’m less concerned with the reader being able to precisely measure the difference between $2.50 and $0.02 than I am with driving home the point that the telegraph was really, really expensive and the U.S. Post was really, really cheap. A more substantive comparison can be made by looking at the size of the Post Office Department’s workforce. In 1880 it employed an army of 56,421 postmasters, clerks, and contractors to process and transport the mail. Just how large was this workforce? In fact, the “postal army” was more than twice the size of the actual U.S. Army. Fifteen years removed from the Civil War there were now more postmasters than soldiers in American society. Readers are a lot better at visually comparing different bars than they are at doing mental arithmetic with large, unwieldy numbers.


Almost as important as the sheer size of the U.S. Post was its geographic reach. Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States. A liberal postal policy meant that almost any community could successfully petition the department for a new post office. Wherever people moved, a post office followed close on their heels. This resulted in a sprawling network that stretched from one corner of the country to the other. But what did the nation’s largest spatial network actually look like?


Mapping 43,012 post offices gives the reader an instant sense for both the size and scope of the U.S. Post. The map serves an illustrative purpose rather than an argumentative one. I’m not offering interpretations of the network or even pointing out particular patterns. It’s simply a way for the reader to wrap their minds around the basic geography of such a vast spatial system. But the map is also a useful cautionary tale about visualizing numbers. If anything, the map undersells the size and extent of the Post. It may seem like a whole lot of data, but it’s actually missing around ten thousand post offices, or 22% of the total number that existed in 1880. Some of those offices were so obscure or had such a short existence that I wasn’t able to automatically find their locations. And these missing post offices aren’t evenly distributed: about 99% of Oregon’s post offices appear on the map compared to only 47% of Alabama’s.

Disclaimers aside, compare the map to a sentence I wrote earlier: “Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States.” In that context the specific number 43,012 doesn’t make much of a difference – it could just as well be 38,519 or 51,933 – and therefore doesn’t contribute all that much weight to my broader point that the Post was ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century United States. A map of 43,012 post offices is much more effective at demonstrating my point. The map also has one additional advantage: it beckons the reader to not only appreciate the size and extent of the network, but to ask questions about its clusters and lines and blank spaces.* A map can spark curiosity and act as an invitation to keep reading. This kind of active engagement is a hallmark of good writing and one that’s hard to achieve using numbers alone. The first step is to make numbers legible. The second is to make them interesting.

* Most obviously: what’s going on with Oklahoma? Two things. Mostly it’s a data artifact – the geolocating program I wrote doesn’t handle Oklahoma locations very well, so I was only able to locate 19 out of 95 post offices. I’m planning to fix this problem at some point. But even if every post office appeared on the map, Oklahoma would still look barren compared to its neighbors. This is because Oklahoma was still Indian Territory in 1880. Mail service didn’t necessarily stop at its borders but postal coverage effectively fell off a cliff; in 1880 Indian Territory had fewer post offices than any other state/territory besides Wyoming. The dearth of post offices is especially telling given the ubiquity of the U.S. Post in the rest of the country, showing how the administrative status of the territory and decades of federal Indian policy directly shaped communications geography.

The County Problem in the West

Happy GIS Day! Below is a version of a lightning talk I’m giving today at Stanford’s GIS Day.

Historians of the American West have a county problem. It’s primarily one of geographic size: counties in the West are really, really big. A “List of the Largest Counties in the United States” might as well be titled “Counties in the Western United States (and a few others)” – you have to go all the way to #30 before you find one that falls east of the 100th meridian. The problem this poses to historians is that a lot of historical data was captured at a county level, including the U.S. Census.

San Bernardino County

San Bernardino County is famous for this – the nation’s largest county by geographic area, it includes the densely populated urban sprawl of the greater Los Angeles metropolis along with vast swathes of the uninhabited Mojave Desert. Assigning a single count of anything to San Bernardino county to is to teeter on geographic absurdity. But, for nineteenth-century population counts in the national census, that’s all we’ve got.


Here’s a basic map of population figures from the 1870 census. You can see some general patterns: central California is by far the most heavily populated area, with some moderate settlement around Los Angeles, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Santa Fe. But for anything more detailed, it’s not terribly useful. What if there was a way to get a more fine-grained look at settlement patterns in these gigantic western counties? This is where my work on the postal system comes in. There was a post office in (almost) every nineteenth-century American town. And because the department kept records for all of these offices – the name of the office, its county and state, and the date it was established or discontinued – a post office becomes a useful proxy to study patterns over time and space. I assembled this data for a single year (1871) and then wrote a program to geocode each office, or to identify its location by looking it up in a large database of known place-names. I then supplemented it with the the salaries of postmasters at each office for 1871. From there, I could finally put it all onto a map:


The result is a much more detailed regional geography than that of the U.S. Census. Look at Wyoming in both maps. In 1870, the territory was divided into five giant rectangular counties, all of them containing less than 5,000 people. But its distribution of post offices paints a different picture: rather than vertical units, it consisted largely of a single horizontal stripe along its southern border.

Wyoming_census-02   Wyoming_postoffices-02

Similarly, our view of Utah changes from a population core of Salt Lake City to a line of settlement running down the center of the territory, with a cluster in the southwestern corner completely obscured in the census map.

Utah_census-01   Utah_postoffices-01

Post offices can also reveal transportation patterns: witness the clear skeletal arc of a stage-line that ran from the Oregon/Washington border southeast to Boise, Idaho.


Connections that didn’t mirror the geographic unit of a state or county tended to get lost in the census. One instance of this was the major cross-border corridor running from central Colorado into New Mexico. A map of post offices illustrate its size and shape; the 1870 census map can only gesture vaguely at both.

ColoradoNewMexico_census-02   ColoradoNewMexico_postoffices-02

The following question, of course, should be asked of my (and any) map: what’s missing? Well, for one, a few dozen post offices. This speaks to the challenges of geocoding more than 1,300 historical post offices, many of which might have only been in existence for a single year or two. I used a database of more than 2 million U.S. place-names and wrote a program that tried to account for messy data (spelling variations, altered state or county boundaries, etc.). The program found locations for about 90% of post offices, while the remaining offices I had to locate by hand. Not surprisingly, they were missing from the database for a reason: these post offices were extremely obscure. Finding them entailed searching through county histories, genealogy message boards, and ghost town websites – a process that is simply not scalable beyond a single year. By 1880, the number of post offices in the West had doubled. By 1890, and it doubled again. I could conceivably spend years trying to locate all of these offices. So, what are the implications of incomplete data? Is automated, 90% accuracy “good enough”?

What else is missing? Differentiation. The salary of a postmaster partially addresses this problem, as the department used a formula to determine compensation based partially on the amount of business an office conducted. But it was not perfectly proportional. If it was, the map would be one giant circle covering everything: San Francisco conducted more business than any other office by several orders of magnitude. As it is, the map downplays urban centers while highlighting tiny rural offices. A post office operates in a kind of binary schema: no office, no people (well, at least very few). If there was an office, there were people there. We just don’t know how many. The map isn’t perfect, but it does start to tackle the county problem in the West.

*Note: You can download a CSV file containing post offices, postmaster salaries, and latitude/longitude coordinates here.*

Who Picked Up The Check?

Adventures in Data Exploration

In November 2012 the United States Postal Service reported a staggering deficit of $15.9 billion. For the historian, this begs the question: was it always this bad? Others have penned far more nuanced answers to this question, but my starting point is a lot less sophisticated: a table of yearly expenses and income.

US Postal Department Surplus (Gray) or Deficit (Red) by Year

So, was the postal department always in such terrible fiscal shape? No, not at first. But from the 1840s onward, putting aside the 1990s and early 2000s, deficits were the norm. The next question: What was the geography of deficits? Which states paid more than others? Essentially, who picked up the check?

Every year the Postmaster General issued a report containing a table of receipts and revenues broken down by state. Let’s take a look at 1871:

1871 Annual Report of the Postmaster General – Receipts and Expenditures

Because it’s only one table, I manually transcribed the columns into a spreadsheet. At this point, I could turn to ArcGIS to start analyzing the data, maybe merging the table with a shapefile of state boundaries provided by NHGIS. But ArcGIS is a relatively high-powered tool better geared for sophisticated geospatial analysis. What I’m doing doesn’t require all that much horsepower. And, in fact, quantitative spatial relationships (ex. measurements of distance or area) aren’t all that important for answering the questions I’ve posed. There are a number of different software packages for exploring data, but Tableau provides a quick-and-dirty, drag-and-drop interface. In keeping with the nature of data exploration, I’ve purposefully left the following visualizations rough around the edges. Below is a bar graph, for instance, showing the surplus or deficit of each state, grouped into rough geographic regions:

Postal Surplus or Deficit by State – 1871

Or, in map form:

Postal Surplus (Black) or Deficit (Red) by State – 1871

Between the map and the bar graph, it’s immediately apparent that:
a) Most states ran a deficit in 1871
b) The Northeast was the only region that emerged with a surplus

So who picked up the check? States with large urban, literate populations: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois. Who skipped out on the bill? The South and the West. But these are absolute figures. Maybe Texas and California simply spent more money than Arizona and Idaho because they had more people. So let’s normalize our data by analyzing it on a per-capita basis, using census data from 1870.

Postal Surplus or Deficit per Person by State – 1871

The South and the West may have both skipped out on the bill, but it was the West that ordered prime rib and lobster before it left the table. Relative to the number of its inhabitants, western states bled the system dry. A new question emerges: how? What was causing this extreme imbalance of receipts and expenditures in the West? Were westerners simply not paying into the system?

Postal Receipts and Expenditures per Person by Region – 1871

Actually, no. The story was a bit more complicated. On a per-capita basis, westerners were paying slightly more money into the system than any other region. The problem was that providing service to each of those westerners cost substantially more than in any other region: $38 per person, or roughly 4-5 times the cost of service in the east. For all of its lore of rugged individualism and a mistrust of big government, the West received the most bloated government “hand-out” of any region in the country. This point has been driven home by a generation of “New Western” historians who demonstrated the region’s dependence on the federal government, ranging from massive railroad subsidies to the U.S. Army’s forcible removal of Indians and the opening of their lands to western settlers. Add the postal service to that long list of federal largesse in the West.

But what made mail service in the West so expensive? The original 1871 table further breaks down expenses by category (postmaster salaries, equipment, buildings, etc.). Some more mucking around in the data reveals a particular kind of expense that dominated the western mail system: transportation.

Transportation Expenses per Person by State (State surplus in black, deficit in red) – 1871

High transport costs were partially a function of population density. Many western states like Idaho or Montana consisted of small, isolated communities connected by long mail routes. But there’s more to the story. Beginning in the 1870s, a series of scandals wracked the postal department over its “star” routes (designated as any non-steamboat, non-railroad mail route). A handful of “star” route carriers routinely inflated their contracts and defrauded the government of millions of dollars. These scandals culminated in the criminal trial of high-level postal officials, contractors, and a former United States Senator. In 1881, the New York Times printed a list of the ninety-three routes under investigation for fraud. Every single one of these routes lay west of the Mississippi.

Annual Cost of “Star” Routes Under Investigation for Fraud – 1881 (Locations of Route Start/End Termini)

The rest of the country wasn’t just subsidizing the West. It was subsidizing a regional communications system steeped in fraud and corruption. The original question – “Who picked up the check?” – leads to a final cliffhanger: why did all of these frauds occur in the West?

A Dissertation’s Infancy: The Geography of the Post

A history PhD can be thought of as a collection of overlapping areas: coursework, teaching, qualifying exams, and the dissertation itself. The first three are fairly structured. You have syllabi, reading lists, papers, classes, deadlines. The fourth? Not so much. Once you’re advanced to candidacy there’s a sense of finally being cut loose. Go forth, conquer the archive, and return triumphantly to pen a groundbreaking dissertation. It’s exhilarating, empowering, and also terrifying as hell. I’ve been swimming through the initial research stage of the dissertation for the past several months and thought it would be a good time to articulate what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Note: if you are less interested in American history and more interested in maps and visualizations, I would skip to the end.

The Elevator Speech

I’m studying communications networks in the late nineteenth-century American West by mapping the geography of the U.S. postal system.*

The Elevator-Stuck-Between-Floors Speech

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century the US. Post steadily expanded into a vast communications network that spanned the continent. By the turn of the century the department was one of the largest organizational units in the world. More than 200,000 postmasters, clerks, and carriers were involved in shuttling billions of pounds of material between 75,000 offices at the cost of more than $100 million dollars a year. As a spatial network the post followed a particular geography. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the West, where the region’s miners, ranchers, settlers, and farmers led their lives on the network’s periphery. My dissertation aims to uncover the geography of the post on its western periphery: where it spread, how it operated, and its role in shaping the space and place of the region.

My project rests on the interplay between center and periphery. The postal network hinged on the relationship between its bureaucratic center in Washington, DC and the thousands of communities that constituted the nodes of that network. In the case of the West, this relationship was a contentious one. Departmental bureaucrats found themselves buffeted with demands to reign in ballooning deficits. Yet they were also required by law to provide service to every corner of the country, no matter how expensive. And few regions were costlier than the West, where a sparsely settled population scattered across a huge area was constantly rearranged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the late nineteenth century. From the top-down perspective of the network’s center, providing service in the West was a major headache. From the bottom-up perspective of westerners the post was one of the bedrocks of society. For most, it was the only affordable and accessible form of long-distance communication. In a region marked by transience and instability, local post offices were the main conduits for contact with the wider world. Western communities loudly petitioned their Congressmen and the department for more offices, better post roads, and speedier service. In doing so, they redefined the shape and contours of both the network and the wider geography of the region.

The post offers an important entry point into some of the major forces shaping American society in the late nineteenth century. First, it helped define the role of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, for many Americans the post was the federal government. Articulating the geographic size and scale of the postal system will offer a corrective to persistent caricatures of the nineteenth-century federal government as weak and decentralized. More specifically, a generation of “New Western” historians have articulated the omnipresent role of the state in the West. Analyzing the relationship between center and periphery through the post’s geography provides a means of mapping the reach of federal power in the region. With the postal system as a proxy for state presence, I can begin to answer questions such as: where and how quickly did the state penetrate the West? How closely did it follow on the heels of settler migration, railroad development, or mining industries? Finally, the post was deeply enmeshed in a system of political patronage, with postmasterships disbursed as spoils of office. What was the relationship between a communications network and the geography of regional and national politics?

Second, the post rested on an often contentious marriage between the public and private spheres. Western agrarian groups upheld the post as a model public monopoly. Nevertheless, private hands guided the system’s day-to-day operations on its periphery. Payments to mail-carrying railroad companies became the department’s single largest expenditure, and it doled out millions of dollars each year to private contractors to carry the mail in rural areas. This private/public marriage came with costs – in the early 1880s, for instance, the department was rocked by corruption scandals when it discovered that rural private contractors had paid kickbacks to department officials in exchange for lavish carrying contracts. How did this uneasy alliance of public and private alter the geography of the network? And how did the department’s need to extend service in the rural West reframe wider debates over monopoly, competition, and the nation’s political economy?

Getting Off The History Elevator

That’s the idea, at least. Rather than delve into even greater detail on historiography or sources, I’ll skip to a topic probably more relevant for readers who aren’t U.S. historians: methodology. Digital tools will be the primary way in which I explore the themes outlined above. Most obviously, I’m going to map the postal network. This entails creating a spatial database of post offices, routes, and timetables. Unsurprisingly, that process will be incredibly labor intensive: scanning and georeferencing postal route maps, or transcribing handwritten microfilmed records into a database of thousands of geocoded offices. But once I’ve constructed the database, there are any number of ways to interrogate it.

To demonstrate, I’ll start with lower-hanging fruit. The Postmaster General issues an annual report providing (among other information) data on how many offices were established and discontinued in each state. These numbers are fairly straightforward to put into a table and throw onto a map. Doing so provides a top-down view of the system from the perspective of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. For instance, by looking at the number of post offices discontinued each year it’s possible to see the wrenching reverberations of the Civil War as the postal system struggled to reintegrate southern states into its network in 1867:

Post Offices Discontinued By State, 1867
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1867)

The West, meanwhile, was arguably the system’s most unstable region. As measured by the percentage of its total offices that were either established or discontinued each year, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana were continually building and dismantling new nodes in the network.

Post Offices Established or Discontinued as a Percentage of Total Post Offices in State, 1882
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1882)

Of course, the broad brush strokes of national, year-by-year data only provide a generalized snapshot of the system. I plan on drilling down to far more detail  by charting where and when specific post offices were established and discontinued. This will provide a much more fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) view of how the system evolved. Geographer Derek Watkins has employed exactly this approach:

Screenshot from Derek Watkins, “Posted: U.S. Growth Visualized Through Post Offices” (25 September 2011)

Derek’s map demonstrates the power of data visualization: it is compelling, interactive, and conveys an enormous amount of information far more effectively than text alone. Unfortunately, it also relies on an incomplete dataset. Derek scraped the USPS Postmaster Finder, which the USPS built as a tool for genealogists to look up postmaster ancestors. The USPS historian adds to it on an ad-hoc basis depending on specific requests by genealogists. In a conversation with me, she estimated that it encompasses only 10-15% of post offices, and there is no record of what has been completed and what remains to be done. Derek has, however, created a robust data visualization infrastructure. In a wonderful demonstration of generosity, he has sent me the code behind the visualization. Rather than spending hours duplicating Derek’s design work, I’ll be able to plug my own, more complete, post office data into a beautiful existing interface.

Derek’s generosity brings me back to my ongoing personal commitment to scholarly sharing. I plan on making the dissertation process as open as possible from start to finish. Specifically, the data and information I collect has broad potential for applications beyond my own project. As the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure, the postal system provides rich geographic context for any number of other historical inquiries. Cameron Ormsby, a researcher in Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, has already used post office data I collected as a proxy for measuring community development in order to analyze the impact of land speculation and railroad construction in Fresno and Tulare counties.

To kick things off, I’ve posted the state-level data I referenced above on my website as a series of CSV files. I also used Tableau Public to generate a quick-and-dirty way for people to interact with and explore the data in map form. This is an initial step in sharing data and I hope to refine the process as I go. Similarly, I plan on occasionally blogging about the project as it develops. Rather than narrowly focusing on the history of the U.S. Post, my goal (at least for now) is to use my topic as a launchpad to write about broader themes: research and writing advice, discussions of digital methodology, or data and visualization releases.

*By far the most common response I’ve received so far: “Like the Pony Express?” Interestingly, the Pony Express was a temporary experiment that only existed for about eighteen months in 1860-1861. In terms of mail carried, cost, and time in existence, it was a tiny blip within the postal department’s operations. Yet it has come to occupy a lofty position in America’s historical memory and encapsulates a remarkable number of the contradictions and mythologies of the West.