Let’s face it. When thinking about genealogical research, the post office isn’t exactly the first item on the list of places to search for family information.
However, stop and think about it. People have been writing letters since the beginning of time.
How did the mail get delivered? People worked for various kinds of postal services.
What can be learned from post office records? While it is impossible to read the letters themselves, we can learn quite a bit about our ancestors.
First, we need to think outside the box about what constitutes post office records.
Most of us open our front door six days a week and collect our mail from our mailboxes. It certainly wasn’t always that way. Even I have memories of vacations spent in Maine, where my grandparents’ lakeside cottage had no mail delivery. Once a week, when we went into town either to do laundry or buy food, we’d stop at the post office to ask if we had any mail.
The letters that we did receive were addressed:
Mr. XXXX XXXXX
Gray, Maine (before zip codes!)
WILL CALL was particularly important, especially if the family didn’t live in the area full time, as it let the postmaster know that someone would be coming in person to retrieve the letter.
Let’s jump back in time to the 1800s. Did you know that mail delivery in the United States didn’t begin until the Civil War era? And that it only began in cities where postage income covered all the delivery expenses:
From the USPS history:
Beginning July 1, 1863, free mail delivery was authorized in cities where income from local postage was more than sufficient to pay all expenses of the service.
Therefore, before that date, anyone who thought they might have mail had to visit the post office to collect it. Some folks didn’t come into town very often, so how did they find out they had mail? The newspaper!
Historical newspaper databases like Chronicling America contain lists of persons in the subscription area who have mail waiting.
Samuel W. Scott is one of my husband’s ancestors about whom little is known. He was born 1 January 1797 (thanks to a court record entry) to an unmarried mother who was dead by 1812, and was bound out as an apprentice to learn the trade of draper when he was fifteen years old, in Washington County, Kentucky.
He left Kentucky with other family members and moved to Howard County, Missouri by 1821, when he married there. However, he died intestate before 13 August 1835, when his estate appraisers reported that his books of business were not well kept. That implied that Samuel had at least some education and literacy skills.
I happened to search for his name in early Missouri newspapers, looking for probate notices.
The bottom right hand corner of the page contains a public announcement from Boon Lick, Missouri, dated 31 December 1828:
There is only one entry among mail recipients under the S surnames – Samuel W. Scott – and he had THREE letters waiting.
Given the estate administration comment about his books not being orderly and the fact that Samuel had not one, but 3, letters waiting to be retrieved from the post office, I think this is good evidence that he had at least basic literacy skills.
This post office list might also be a glimpse of a POSSIBLE FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club, although in this case, I don’t recognize any of the other names.
This newspaper notice also documents Samuel W. Scott as a member of the community in between census years. It isn’t likely that someone would spend money on postage to mail a letter to a person who wasn’t planning on living in the area for an extended time.
Where can official post office records be found?
Until recent times, the post office was an official government agency. That meant records were created.
As the amount of mail increased, local post offices were created and local postmasters were appointed – both men and women!
This photo has been passed down in my husband’s family and certainly looks like a post office. My mother-in-law wrote on the back that Dave’s paternal grandmother’s family worked in the post office. The young man on the right is Dave’s great grandfather, Joseph Henry Brasher.
Joe married twice, the first time to Minnie Williams in 1895 and the second time between 1900, when the family lived in Hopkins County, Texas and 1910, when Joe was married to Della Benton and living in Tuttle, Grady, Oklahoma. The 1910 census identified Joe’s occupation as Assistant Postmaster.
Ancestry has a database of postmaster appointments. There are several entries for Joseph H. Brasher:
26 September 1903, Springer, Chickasaw, Indian Territory
13 September 1914, Noble, Cleveland, Oklahoma
13 September 1918, Noble, Cleveland, Oklahoma
Aside from knowing that Joe Brasher married Della Benton c1904, I had no records to document exactly when Joe and Minnie divorced or when Joe left Texas for a new life in Oklahoma and remarried.
The time frame has been narrowed, as the post master appointment on 26 September 1903 in Springer puts him in Indian Territory by that date.
This record is doubly important because it reveals a home I would probably have never found without this record.
It also shows me a likely path that Joe followed from Texas to Noble, Oklahoma, his final home.
Lastly, it confirms Joe’s occupation as a post office worker.
By the way, government publications are not restricted by copyright. If you don’t have access to Ancestry, a general search will bring up some hits.
However, finding a particular ledger for a particular time and place isn’t terribly easy and it doesn’t seem that these records (RG 28) are digitally available on NARA’s website.
My recommendation is to stick with Ancestry.
So, to recap, what have I learned from Post Office records?
- I can place an ancestor in a given community at a given time.
- I might be able to assume some level of literacy, either of the addressee or someone else in the family.
- I can document family moves in between censuses.
- I can confirm an occupation for a given time period.
- Combined with other knowledge of residences, I can add to the timeline of a family’s life.
Now for the big question – where can information about the history of American post offices be found?
In Part 2, I will share links to many online resources.