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.

  • Explore the companion website “Gossamer Network” to see the spread of thousands of post offices across the western United States.
  • Winner of the 2022 Western Heritage Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction
  • Winner of the 2022 National Postal Museum Award for Scholarship in Postal History
  • Read more about the underlying dataset behind the book.
  • Paper Trails is available for purchase through Oxford University Press, Bookshop.org, or Amazon.
  • Contact me if you are interested in scheduling a talk, interview, or conversation about my work.

Reviews

“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

“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

“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

“’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

“Perhaps not since Miracle on 34th Street extolled the United States Postal Service for exonerating Santa Claus has an in-depth examination of post office history been so interesting as Cameron Blevins’s Paper Trails.” — Michael A. Amundson, Environmental History Review

“Of particular note is his use of digital history documentation to compile original and thought-provoking computational models of data….Equally effective is the personalization of the postal narrative through detailed accounts of how the U.S. Post was vital to individuals and families caught up in the complexities and uncertainties of westward expansion.” — Dan K. Utley, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“A product of the relatively new subfield of digital history, this study also draws on extensive data sets, maps, and scores of archival records to create a remarkable textual and visual record based on spatial analysis of an immense and sprawling federal apparatus.” — Keith Egerton, Choice

“Cameron Blevins has crafted a shining masterpiece of interdisciplinary scholarship.” — Robert O’Dell III, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Coverage