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How The US Postal Service Forever Changed The West

A new book argues that mail service played a critical role in the U.S. government’s westward expansion and occupation of Native lands. How The US Postal Service Forever Changed The West

In The Postman, the 1997 post-apocalyptic Western starring and directed by Kevin Costner, a supposed emissary of the U.S. Postal Service revives and reunites a smattering of rural settlements that have survived the catastrophic end of the formal United States.

The mail, the movie shows us, is the connective tissue of the nation-state — providing people with not just a means of communication, but also something to look forward to. (“You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket,” a love interest tells the titular postman, in an example of the movie’s amazingly bad dialogue.)

That may be an overly generous description of a film that is rated 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. But it turns out to be a not-entirely-wrong description of the role played by the actual U.S. Postal Service in the actual settlement in the American West.

Instead of giving out hope, though, it gave critical support to the swift occupation and colonization of Native lands in the second half of the 19th century. That (which Costner didn’t touch) is the subject of Paper Trails: The U.S. Post and the Making of the American West, a new book by Cameron Blevins, a professor of U.S. history and digital humanities at the University of Colorado, Denver.

In the book, Blevins shows how the postal service provided critical infrastructure for the rapid expansion of white settler populations across the West, creating physical touch-points for the U.S. government to gain control over what were largely Indigenous lands. The post also shaped and bolstered local economies, as the federal government contracted shopkeepers, stagecoach companies and other private entities to handle and deliver mail up until the early 20th century.

Under that quasi-public model, the postal service was able to swell and contract rapidly with the geography of white settlements, at the same time as the government used violent force to seize land from Native people.

In an interview, Blevins discusses the scholarship behind the book, which includes groundbreaking maps of tens of thousands of 19th-century post office locations, and what it reveals about the modern-day postal service. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s Start With Your Background, Which Is In Digital Humanities. What Is That, And How Does It Define This Work?

Defining any discipline is a fraught question in academia, but basically, digital humanities is using technology and computer methods to study the human experience and humanities disciplines, whether it’s literature, philosophy, or in my case, history.

In my work, I have been thinking about this era of U.S. history, when in just 40 to 50 years the land we now call the United States underwent massive transformation from areas of Native and Indigenous land into a colonized region of capital industrial expansion, extractive industry, and millions of white settlers moving and occupying this region. It’s fundamentally a spatial process, and trying to understand the speed and variety of where that is taking place was one of the aims of this project.

Why Study The Postal Service Specifically?

I was thinking of different institutions I could use to map how the West was changing over time, and thought I could use post offices as a proxy for where changes were taking place and when. The more I looked at it, I realized the post office wasn’t this passive proxy — it was facilitating and accelerating this process of expansion. The big analytical takeaways really rested on the work of stamp collector Richard Helbock, who spent years collecting information on 166,000 post offices in the U.S. and their dates of operation, which go back to the 17th century.

I basically stumbled on that a couple of years into my dissertation research — though Helbock had already died, I was able to buy a CD-ROM for about $80 that contains this incredibly rich spatial historical dataset. Once I was able to geocode as many as I could, I could map out and see in fine-grain detail a lot of these changes in how this network was moving, shifting, and expanding.

An accompanying online project, called Gossamer Network, animates and narrates those maps, which show that between 1848 and 1895, the federal government established approximately 24,000 post offices. They also show how the wildfire-like expansion intersected with the “decline of unceded Native land and the growth of government reservations,” as you write. Tell us how the postal service interacted with and bolstered that project of Western expansion?

The 1850s to the 1890s is a period of rapid change in the West, where millions of people occupy land that is actively being seized from Native peoples. This is taking place across a giant swath of land that is not necessarily the most hospitable place — it’s deserts and mountains and arid plains, yet millions are going.

The post isn’t causing this, but I argue that because it was the most expansive communications system and the most expansive arm of the federal government, its ability to move quickly into really remote places causes it to have an accelerating or facilitating role in this larger regional and national project. Once you understand the geography of the postal system — its massive size and fast-moving speed and ability to spread out — that’s when you understand the role it’s playing at the macro scale.

At the micro scale, the post is central for local communities. Rather than permanent government-owned infrastructure, the government is kind of grafting the postal service onto existing private infrastructure, using short-term and sometimes ephemeral commissions where they would pay a local store owner to distribute letters or a write a contract to throw a bag of letters onto the back of a stagecoach.

So if you are a store owner in a small Western mining town, you really want the post office in your store because it forces the entire town’s residents to come to your store, and they might also buy some tobacco or nails. Similarly, stagecoach companies would really want that contract, because it is additional revenue for minimal added labor. So these larger structures of postal contracts and commissions start to structure local life and get people fighting over contracts, which also ties into the partisan politics of the age.

Positioning the post office in this starring role of the white settlement of the West contradicts the popular idea that this was a job done by cowboys and pioneers. You’re showing that this was a state-backed project. Yet it’s also more nuanced than that, because this contract-based, quasi-public version of the postal service was a far cry from the bureaucracy we have today.

As you write, “postal expansion and postal contraction went hand in hand,” with some 48,000 post office locations closing down, changing names, or moving locations between the 1860s and 1890s, as local communities moved and changed along with them. That’s a lot of flux.

This is the part where the digital mapping really left me surprised, because I’m looking at this data and mapping this stuff, and I was like, how is this possible? There were literally 20-30% of post offices shutting down every year. This wasn’t anything like what I think of when I think of government institutions.

So that was the entry point for understanding how this works and rethinking my assumptions about what government power looked like. Here, it’s not a heavily armed military, or a well-functioning, centralized bureaucracy making rational decisions. The post was pretty chaotic and fast-moving. But it’s because of that that it was able to accelerate this regional expansion.

At What Point Do We Get The Postal Service We Have Today?

Things started to transition in the early 1900s through a couple of different processes: One is the advent of rural free delivery. Up until then, if you didn’t live in a city, you had to pick up your mail and send letters in town. Rural free delivery extended residential delivery, which is the model we have now. That caused large-scale geographic change in the postal system, with thousands of postal offices shutting down and consolidating.

That’s accompanied with a growing bureaucratization of the federal government and the USPS in particular, where there’s a shift towards what we now see as civil servants that have to pass exams starting in the 1930s.

Having said that, there are elements of the old system that survive, like the contracting model. More recently, as the USPS is struggling from a budget standpoint, it’s turning back in some places to what we call a “village post” model, where a general store in a Western town is paid a small amount of money to operate a post office, rather than having a full-time government employee. So there’s a long history there.

You write in your book that the postal service hasn’t been studied very much for its role in facilitating Western expansion, perhaps because it’s barely even noticed at all. It’s this background entity that we take for granted. Did the people who used the postal service in the 19th century see it that way, too? Or were they aware of its tremendous power?

Surprisingly enough, people did take it for granted in much the same way. In the book, I spend a chapter on a family where the guy is in middle-of-nowhere Arizona, exchanging a flurry of letters with his sister in San Diego, hundreds of miles across desert, that get to him in five days. Yet he never remarks on it; it’s just totally taken for granted.

I think there are so many of these things today, like the internet and mobile phones and these thing we rely on without stopping to think about how reliable they are. The post served a similar role, but Americans tended to do the same things we did today — complain about letters being late or getting lost and never really appreciating just how expansive it was.

Are there other lessons buried in the history of the postal service that might inform its future, particularly with its financial challenges and an election where it became intensely politicized?

This might sound strange from a historian, but I think too often history gets used as a cudgel to argue for whatever policy position people want to see. You’ll see this often, with people calling back to how the founders envisioned the postal service to be. To be clear, they did not see it as a private service, they saw it as something that served the public good.

But to me, it’s more important to decide what we want the postal service to be. It’s 2021, we live in a totally different world than we did in 1881. I happen to think the USPS serves a vital role in modern society and should not be run as a self-sufficient business. But that’s got to be a well-informed policy decision, rather than something that hearkens back to its roots or what it should be or its origins.

Updated: 6-29-2021

Workhorse (Maker of Electric Vehicles) Says It Didn’t Get A Fair Shot At Big Postal Van Award

The U.S. Postal Service didn’t give Workhorse Group Inc. a fair shot at a contract worth as much as $6 billion to build mail delivery vans, the maker of electric vehicles said in its challenge of the service’s decision to award the work to Oshkosh Corp.

The Postal Service “put its thumb on the scale against Workhorse” in part by blaming a prototype for driver error, the Loveland, Ohio-based company said in a complaint at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. The complaint was filed under seal June 16, and a redacted version was filed June 28.

The Feb. 23 award to Oshkosh for as many as 165,000 mostly gasoline-powered vehicles drew notice because it bypassed fledgling electric-vehicle specialist Workhorse after President Joe Biden ordered a clean-energy fleet. Supporters of the Postal Service move say it’s urgent to replace older mail vehicles with mounting repair costs.

Oshkosh has said its vehicle can be built to use either electric power or a gasoline engine. House lawmakers in May moved toward spending $8 billion to build more electric vehicles.

Workhorse in its complaint said the Postal Service “ensured it had no fair chance of a contract award.” The agency treated Workhorse more harshly than competitors and didn’t give enough notice of perceived deficiencies of the company’s proposal, according to the complaint.

The USPS misleadingly claimed a flaw in the brake system left a prototype to roll into a ditch, injuring a test track driver, according to the complaint. In fact, the Postal Service worker incorrectly left the prototype in “drive” rather than “park,” Workhorse said in the complaint.

Kimberly Frum, a Postal Service spokeswoman, declined to comment on the litigation.

Preparations are continuing to produce the vehicles, which may appear on mail routes in 2023, Frum said. Many vehicles in the Postal Service fleet have been in service for 30 years or more, Frum said.

Workhorse asked the court to grant it the contract after invalidating the award to Oshkosh, or instruct the Postal Service to make a new award decision.

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