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Gossamer Network

By 1848, the United States laid claim to territory that stretched from coast to coast. In reality, the western half of the country remained Indigenous land, a vast expanse of territory that the US Government did not actually control. Over the coming decades the West was utterly transformed. The United States waged war against western tribes, forcing them off their land and onto reservations. Millions of Americans swarmed across this plundered territory, building towns and homesteads, mines and mills, dams and railroads. How did this happen so quickly, in the span of a single generation? The answer lies, in part, with an unlikely source: the US Post. Between 1848 and 1895 the federal government wove together a “gossamer network” across the West, a sprawling and fast-moving web of post offices and mail routes that connected the region’s far-flung settlements into a national system of communications. The US Post was the underlying circuitry of western expansion. Read on to learn more about the spread of this network and the ways in which it wove the region together.

Year:

Year: 1848

The real history of the American West is not a story about rugged cowboys and brave pioneers. It is a story about big government, or “the state.” The most visible way in which the US federal government shaped the region was through coercive power: waging wars to seize Indigenous land and force the survivors onto reservations. You can see the effects of the state’s coercive power by mapping the decline of unceded Native land and the growth of government reservations in a few short decades.

Toggle the switch to compare1848 1877.

Data from Invasion of America project.

Coercive state power was important, but it wasn’t the whole story in the West. Settlers still had to occupy plundered Native land. As farmers, ranchers, and miners colonized remote corners of the region, they needed to stay connected to the wider world. The speed and success of settler colonization depended on a much less visible kind of state power: the world’s largest communications network. No matter where they went, Americans could depend on the US Post to expand in lockstep alongside them.

You can see the spread of this network using a dataset based on the work of postal historian and philatelist Richard Helbock. Each pink dot represents one post office existing, or operating, during that particular time period. Clicking on an individual post office will reveal more information about its name, location, and dates of operation.

Use the buttons below to see the growth of the western postal system over three time periods:

The US Post operated a “gossamer network” that was both expansive and fast-moving. Between 1848 and 1895 the federal government established roughly 24,000 western post offices. It was able to rapidly expand into some of the region’s least accessible areas, from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Great Basin to the Northern Rockies.

Each blue dot shows newly established post offices between 1848 and 1895.

The US Post’s ability to extend into remote locations kept settlers connected to the wider world, allowing them to exchange letters with friends and family, subscribe to newspapers and magazines, or conduct financial transactions. All of these were made possible by the postal network’s underlying geography - shown here in the year 1877. The US Post operated in more places, by far, than any other government institution.

Compare the US Post’s spatial coverage to that of four other major federal entities in the American West:




Even more surprisingly, the western postal infrastructure was highly unstable. Between 1848 and 1895, thousands of post offices either shut down or changed names/locations. Some of these offices operated for just a few years or even months before closing down. These discontinued post offices are shown as empty red circles on the map: .

Sprawling. Fast-moving. Ephemeral. The US Post operated a gossamer network, capable of rapidly spinning out new tendrils to distant places and then melting away at a moment’s notice. This is a new and unfamiliar model of state power, but one that would have profound implications for the nineteenth-century western United States.

How did the postal system work? In most places, the federal government did not own or operate its own infrastructure. Instead, it paid local merchants to distribute letters from their stores or contracted with stagecoach companies to carry bags of mail alongside their passengers. These temporary and part-time arrangements explain how the US Post was able to expand so quickly, into so many different places - and why its network was so unstable. The government grafted mail service onto an existing private infrastructure, creating a sprawling, decentralized system whose operations were tied to the fortunes of local businesses and communities.

Historical data comes with limitations, and this project is no different. Its first limitation is imprecise data, as shown in this map of 1877. The Invasion of America project generously provided data about Native land cessions that were reconstructed from federal treaties, executive orders, and government maps. These documents were intentionally vague, making it difficult to precisely delineate between unceded Native land, government reservations, and colonized territory. To take one example: large swathes of land in the Southwest may not have been officially ceded by Native groups, but by 1877 thousands of settlers, ranchers, and miners had nevertheless occupied this area. The second limitation is missing data.t Thousands of post offices from Richard Helbock’s dataset - approximately one out of every three offices - could not be located and therefore do not appear on the maps.

The following narrative maps where and how the US Post’s gossamer network expanded, beginning with the United States laying claim to new western territory in 1848 and ending in 1895 with the region’s effective integration into the nation. The narrative is broken into eight chapters, each of which covers a different six-year chunk and summarizes some of the major spatial patterns from that period. Within each of these chapters, you can click the Play button in the upper left corner of the screen to see new post offices appear on a year-by-year basis.

You can read each chapter sequentially or use the Table of Contents to jump to a specific chapter. Together, these chapters reveal the hidden channel through which the American state consolidated its hold over the western United States.

1848-1853: FORAYS

Gold and conquest marked the beginning of 1848. On January 24th, James Marshall discovered gold outside of Sacramento, California. Nine days later, the United States seized roughly half a million square miles of territory from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in exchange for ending the American invasion of its southern neighbor. This land would later become parts of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and California.

The discovery of gold and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo touched off a global stampede to the American West, unleashing a wave of settlement over freshly conquered territory. That, at least, is how the story goes. In reality, the vast majority of the West was not yet controlled by the United States. It was Native land, from groups of Apache in the Southwest and Utes in the Colorado Plateau, to the Blackfeet on the northern plains. Native power effectively blocked American expansion; between 1848 and 1853, the US Post made only limited forays into the region.

Postal growth in this period was concentrated along the Pacific, as the Gold Rush brought a boom of new postal infrastructure in Northern California between San Francisco and the gold fields of the Sierras that shuttled correspondence between remote mining camps and an eastern populace hungry for news. To the north, a second pocket of post offices appeared in Oregon, snaking south down the Willamette Valley alongside new farms and towns.
California was home to the most diverse collection of Native cultures and languages in North America, including the Miwok, Nisenan, Washoe, and scores of other groups. Over the 1850s, American settlers embarked on a brutal campaign of extermination, enslavement, and land theft and dispossession that paved the way for the state's postal expansion.

Two small clusters of post offices sprouted up in the western interior. The first centered on Salt Lake to serve new Mormon communities that laid down roots in newly created Utah Territory. The second came in New Mexico Territory, connecting the largely Hispanic settlements that clustered around Santa Fe.

The largest postal expansion came in eastern Texas, where thousands of planters had snatched up land following Texas’s secession from Mexico and annexation by the United States. Statehood in 1845 brought a flurry of new post offices that tied together the state’s cotton and slave economy.

Outside of these areas, the dominant pattern from 1848-1853 was the sheer quantity of western land without any post offices whatsoever. The inability of the US Post to expand shows the difference between claiming and controlling territory, as most of the West remained Indigenous land.

1854-1859: EDGES

The United States had laid claim to the West. Now what was to become of it? During the 1850s, Americans debated the future of the region. No issue proved more divisive than the question of slavery and its expansion into western states and territories. Would the West be a region of slavery or free labor?

Even as politicians debated the future of the West, the bulk of its land remained effectively off-limits to slaveholders and free laborers alike. Native peoples continued to block permanent white settlement in the western interior and confined growth to the edges of the region.

On the eastern edge of the West, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 unleashed both pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers across the Missouri River eager to determine the future of these two new territories. As they clashed during so-called “Bleeding Kansas,” these new arrivals brought a wave of new post offices with them. Even after five years of expansion, however, postal infrastructure was still confined to the eastern prairies.

Postal growth in Texas was similarly constrained. Among other factors, the presence of the Comanche and Kiowa in western Texas limited the US Post, as it largely filled in existing eastern areas of settlement rather than pushing farther westward across the state.

During the 1850s the western interior remained an area for Americans to pass through rather than permanently settle. Tens of thousands of people traveled over a handful of major trails, including the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails to the north and the Santa Fe and Butterfield trails to the south. These transportation routes helped spur new post offices at the terminus of the Mormon trail in Utah and Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico . But outside of these areas Native peoples continued to occupy large swathes of territory, effectively blocking postal growth in the interior. Even in the heavily trafficked Central Plains, for instance, southern Cheyenne and Arapaho kept American settlers hemmed along the trail corridor through the end of the decade.

Even in areas where the US Government did manage to establish legal title over Native land, its on-the-ground presence remained tenuous. In the Pacific Northwest, the government may have extracted a series of territorial concessions during the 1850s but its authority over this land was uneven at best. Near the coast, the federal government was able to establish post offices on land taken from the Umpqua and Kalapuya, the Chasta, Scoton, and Grave Creek, Kalapuya, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squaxin, S'Homamish, Stehchass, T'Peeksin, Squiaitl, and Sahehwamish, Quinault and Quileute, Klallam, and Duwamish and Suquamish. In the more rugged interior, the US Government failed to establish a civilian infrastructure, despite seizing land from the Yakama, Confederated Tribes of Middle Oregon, Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Flathood, Kootenai, Upper Pend d’Oreile.

Postal growth was strongest on the western edge of the West. Spurred by gold discoveries on both sides of the California/Oregon border, new post offices filled in the corridor between Oregon’s Willamette Valley and northern California. By the end of the 1850s, postal expansion in Washington Territory and southern California had extended a continuous, albeit uneven archipelago of post offices stretching from Puget Sound to San Diego.

Even as the federal government solidified its foothold on the Pacific Coast, it was approaching a crisis point in the eastern United States. By the end of the 1850s the slavery issue had fractured the nation along sectional lines, as Northerners spoke darkly of a “slave power” and Southerners began openly debating secession. When Americans filed to the polls in 1860 to cast their votes for President, the very future of the country - not just the West - was in question.

1860-1865: Artillery Shells

If American history is a drama, the Civil War is the narrative climax before intermission, the moment in which the United States teetered on the brink of dissolution. Typically this drama has been told from the perspective of the eastern United States, on battlefields like Antietam, Shiloh, or Gettysburg or in the halls of the nation’s capitol. In this standard historical narrative, the western half of the country waits quietly off-stage, out of sight. But the American West didn’t stand still during the Civil War.

By 1860 the US Post had managed to carve out a Pacific foothold and a few scattered archipelagos of post offices in the West, but was otherwise blocked from vast expanses of the region’s interior. That pattern changed over the following years. Even as the United States was putting down the Confederate rebellion in the South, it was simultaneously taking aim at Native sovereignty in the West. Between 1860-1865, the federal government seized millions of acres of Native land, helping pave the way for a new era of settler expansion.

Gold and silver drove much of the war-time American expansion in the West. Historian Elliott West has described mining camps as “artillery shells” lobbed far ahead of more permanent kinds of settlement. It’s an apt image to describe the clusters of post offices that exploded across the western interior during this period.

The largest barrage rained down in Colorado Territory, where the discovery of gold in 1859 touched off a stampede of prospectors into the Rockies. Despite the fact that these mining camps were tucked away in mountainous terrain, the Post Office Department managed to open up dozens of new post offices up and down the Front Range. This burst of new post offices was made possible by violent conflict, most notoriously the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. As prospectors and soldiers clashed with the area’s Arapaho and Cheyenne inhabitants, the US Government pressured these groups into land cessions under a murky treaty that paved the way for additional growth.

Colorado wasn’t alone. In Nevada, the discovery of silver in 1859 near the border of California led to a flurry of new post offices as prospectors staked out claims in what would become known as the Comstock Lode. Smaller silver discoveries in central Nevada produced two more concentrated bursts of post offices, while gold strikes in Idaho and eastern Oregon set off a scattershot of new settlements. As in Colorado, all of this mineral wealth was largely located on Native land that the US government had taken through contested treaties conducted under the threat of violence from theWashoe,Shoshone, and Nez Perce.

Older areas of Anglo-American settlement continued to expand. Dozens of new post offices sprouted up in Northern California, Willamette Valley, and Puget Sound during the Civil War. In the interior, Mormon farming and ranching communities continued to fill in a sweeping arc down the heart of Utah Territory, many of them located on Uintah Ute land seized in 1861 through an executive order.

Finally, on the eastern edge of the western United States settlers inched westward across the eastern prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, establishing dozens of new post offices in their wake. Despite the artillery shells of post offices that had peppered the West, in 1865 much of the interior remained under Native control.

The Civil War years laid the groundwork for future growth in the West. The forced removal of thousands of Native people onto reservations and the seizure of their land allowed legislators to pass a series of new laws promoting settlement and investment in the western United States. Much of this legislation centered on the distribution of plundered Native land: to individual settlers (the Homestead Act), state colleges (the Morrill Act), and railroad companies (the Pacific Railway Acts). The effects of this war-time legislation would reverberate across the West for years to come.

1866-1871: CORRIDORS

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a bloodied nation turned westward. During these years the Republican Party’s seeds for a government-backed expansion project began to bloom, most famously with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Made possible by huge grants of public land to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, the transcontinental embodied a major pattern of expansion during this period: corridors.

In the wake of the Civil War, the US Army pivoted from fighting southern Confederates to western tribes. Through warfare, coerced treaties, and executive orders, the United States seized tens of millions of acres of Native land during these years. The US Post then helped the federal government consolidate its hold on conquered western territory, opening some 2,000 new post offices in the West between 1866 and 1871.

Recently seized Native land paved the way for the construction of the first transcontinental railroad corridor, including from the Arapaho and Cheyenne in 1861, the Shoshone in 1863, the Washoe in 1865, and the Shoshone and Bannock in 1868. As workers laid down nearly 1,700 miles of railroad tracks through this corridor, the US Post extended a string of post offices alongside them.

The impact of the transcontinental railroad reverberated on either end of the route. In the west, California’s postal system surged in the immediate aftermath of the transcontinental railroad, much of it along a web of new railroad spokes snaked out from Sacramento and the Bay Area.

In the east, a wave of settlers flooded the prairies of southeastern Nebraska and eastern Kansas, many of them forming communities alongside existing and planned railroad lines. They brought the nation’s postal system with them: by 1870-1871, Kansas was adding more new post offices than any other state in the country.

Other sorts of corridors crystalized during the late 1860s. A number of transportation routes began to radiate out from Denver, Colorado, establishing the young city as the central hub of the Mountain West. New mail routes and post offices unfurled along railroad branch lines and the recently completed Kansas Pacific Railroad. Farther south, a band of post offices swept down the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Santa Fe, New Mexico before following the Rio Grande River artery to El Paso, Texas, and the Mexican border.

Western corridors were often sites of conflict and resistance. In northern Texas and Indian Territory, for instance, groups of Kiowa and Comanche continued to launch intermittent attacks on wagon trains and railroad construction crews through the 1860s and early 1870s, while Choctaw, Cherokee, and other tribal leaders used petitions, delegations, and lawsuits to try and block new railroad construction through their land.

Elsewhere, Americans hungry for gold and silver ventured into remote areas of the western interior. These mining ventures produced a familiar artillery-shell pattern of postal infrastructure, the largest of which rained down in western Montana, where the discovery of gold led to the establishment of some eighty new post offices between 1866-1871. Compared to earlier mineral rushes in California and Colorado, this mining boom has received comparatively little attention, but postal growth shows just how quickly it transformed the southwestern corner of Montana. In Nevada, silver prospectors and mining companies fanned out across the state and dragged the nation’s postal network with them, establishing ninety new offices in the span of six years.

Despite the best efforts of the US Government, large pockets of the West continued to remain off-limits to American colonization through the end of the 1860s. The most extreme example came in the Powder River Country of northern Wyoming, southern Montana, and western Dakota territories. There, an alliance led by seven Lakota tribes had effectively repelled the US Army and extracted sweeping concessions from the federal government, including the expulsion of troops and settlers from the area. The lack of postal infrastructure across this huge tract of land tells a less familiar story about the persistence of Indigenous power and the geographical limits of settler expansion. That story was about to change.

1872-1877: COLONIZATION

During the 1870s the US Army mobilized to break down many of the remaining walls of Native sovereignty in the western interior. But dispossession took place through less obvious channels as well. The US Post’s ability to rapidly expand into new places greased the wheels for settlers to quickly colonize conquered Native land.

The most notorious episode of dispossession unfolded in Black Hills, a sacred area of land under Lakota dominion known as in Páhá Sapa or He Sapa. During the mid-1870s, prospectors illegally encroached into this area in search of recently discovered gold. When a group of Lakota and their allies moved to protect their land, the U.S. Army used it as a pretext for war in 1876.

By early 1877, the Lakotas were facing starvation and defeat. In February, 1877, Congress officially annexed 7.3 million acres of Lakota land, and within a matter of months a dozen new post offices were up and running in the sacred site of Páhá Sapa. The rapid succession of warfare, annexation, and expansion created a colonized landscape of settlements, mining claims, and post offices.

Again and again, American settlers were able to mobilize the nation’s flexible and fast-moving postal network to help them colonize plundered Native land. In the southwestern corner of Colorado, white settlers had been banned from the San Juan Mountains as part of an 1868 agreement with Ute leaders. Almost immediately, prospectors started making illegal forays in search of gold and silver. In the spring of 1874 government officials negotiated the cession of 3.7 million acres of Ute land. Miners and settlers immediately swarmed into this otherwise remote area, confident that the US Post’s connective infrastructure would expand alongside them.
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In the Pacific Northwest, a cluster of new post offices sprouted up in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, extending across territory that the US Government had seized from the Methow and Okanagan and Cour d’Alene groups. A similar pattern unfolded in northern California and southern Oregon, over land that had recently been taken from the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin band of Snake Indians in the 1860s. In 1872-1873, the U.S. Army put down a Modoc insurgency, paving the way for accelerated postal expansion in the area.

The U.S. Government forced surviving Modocs from the 1872-1873 war to relocate to Indian Territory, an area set aside in the 1830s to contain Indigenous people who the US Government had forced off their land. By the late 1870s, the American state had confined some two-dozen groups within a patchwork of government-run reservations in Indian Territory. Many suffered from a chronic lack of food, supplies, and other government-provided resources. This included postal infrastructure, as the otherwise dense postal coverage in surrounding states all but ground to a halt at the borders of Indian Territory. In a pattern that continues to this day, white settlers could rely on an expansive government service while Native people could not.

Despite a national depression that began in 1873, colonizers and post offices continued to expand in familiar patterns. Mining ventures set off bursts of postal growth in Idaho and Montana, Nevada, and Arizona. Postal corridors sprouted up alongside railroad lines like the Southern Pacific in California or the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in Kansas and Colorado. And on the eastern edge of the region, thousands of farmers and ranchers established new towns and post offices as they pushed westward across the Great Plains into drier and drier climates. By 1877, the region stood poised to turn the page on a new era of development.

1878-1883: Churn

The period 1878-1883 was a hinge moment for the western United States. The prior three decades had revolved around the conquest and occupation of territory. Violence and dispossession would continue, but by the late 1870s the US Government had largely broken wide-scale armed Indigenous resistance in the West. Increasingly, it turned towards integrating this plundered territory into the nation. The US Post was the quiet government channel that facilitated this process.

Western land, minerals, crops, and livestock fed the engines of a rapidly industrializing nation. But the region’s dependence on extractive industries and eastern capital made for a volatile economy. In fact, no other region has become so synonymous with a “boom-and-bust” economy, as periods of spectacular growth - mining strikes, cattle rushes, real-estate bubbles - were followed by ecological and financial collapse. The late 1870s witnessed a classic western boom. As the nation recovered from an economic depression, people and capital surged westward between 1878-1883. So, too, did the US Post, establishing more than 5,000 new post offices to serve the region’s new farms, mines, ranches, and railroads.

"Boom-and-bust" is a sequential model: first the bender, then the hangover. But a closer look at the western postal network in 1878-1883 shows a different sort of pattern. Postal growth and postal failure were simultaneous, not sequential. Instead of a distinctive “boom” phase followed by a “bust” phase, both post office openings and post office closings rocketed upwards in tandem from 1878 to 1883. Instead of boom then bust it was boom with bust. In a word: churn. The unique ability of the US Post to contract as well as expand was on full display during these years, helping fuel an unstable pattern of western expansion.

On the central and southern plains, aspiring homesteaders and a “ranch rush” of cattle and sheep moved into drier and drier environments. The US Post moved with them, continuing to thicken its network in central Texas and western Kansas. As aridity increased, so did instability. Much of this expansion followed the “churn” model of growth, as more than one thousand post offices in these two states either shut down or changed names or locations during this six-year period.

Unstable as it may have been, the US Post’s infrastructure provided settlers with a useful public service - one that continued to wither away at the the borders of Indian Territory. Post offices stood in sharp contrast to exploitative railroad construction. During this period companies increasingly tried to build railroad lines across Indian Territory, often without tribal consent. This prompted Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw leaders file legal suits against both Congress and railroad companies to maintain control over their land.

To the north, the late 1870s kicked off a frenzied rush of settlers across the northern plains known as the “Great Dakota Boom,” leading the number of post offices in Dakota Territoryto more than triple over 1878-1883. Railroads like the Northern Pacific fueled some of this growth. So, too, did Native dispossession. In 1879, President Rutherford Hayes issued an executive order opening up land that had been reserved for the Lakota. The following year, officials forced additional cessions from the Arikara, Gros Ventre, and Mandan. In both cases, the US Post's gossamer network immediately extended across recently seized Indigenous land.

Conquest and colonization continued in western Colorado, where a splinter group of White River Utes launched an insurgency against local officials in 1879. The federal government used this as a pretext to expel not only the White River Utes, but also the Uncompahgre and Southern Utes, and simultaneously force the cession of some six million combined acres of territory. Congress opened up this land to non-Native settlement in 1882, and over the next eighteen months dozens of new post offices sprouted up. The US Post once again helped the American state transform Indigenous territory into a colonized landscape.
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The churning, unstable brand of colonization facilitated by the US Post’s gossamer network reached its peak in the Mountain West. Silver mining proliferated in Colorado and Arizona, spurred in part by the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 that required the US Treasury to buy, mint, and circulate silver currency. Other post offices opened alongside new railroad lines and branches in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Much of this new postal infrastructure proved remarkably ephemeral; nearly four hundred post offices either closed or changed names/locations in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah between 1878-1883, and of these roughly half had been in operation for less than two years.

Industrial expansion similarly shaped postal growth in the northern Mountain West, where by 1883 new railroads were carrying gold, silver, lead, timber, and livestock. A burst of new postal infrastructure helped connect otherwise remote mining camps, sawmills, and ranching communities. Once again, growth went hand-in-hand with failure: more than two hundred post offices shut down in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming during this six-year-period.

1884-1889: Divergence

The churning growth of the 1870s and 1880s brought fantastic wealth to particular groups of financiers and industrialists even as the majority of westerners struggled to cope with the region’s volatile economy. This gap would become even more pronounced in the coming years. Between 1884-1889, the western postal network continued to grease the wheels of industrial development and settler colonization. However, this period was marked by growing divergence: some parts of the West accelerated while others slowed to a crawl.

During the late 1880s the engine of postal growth migrated outwards from interior to the edges of the region: along the Pacific coast, across a northern band, and in the plains and prairies.

The same mountain states and territories that had driven postal expansion during 1878-1883 experienced a major slowdown between 1884-1889. Industrial growth in this area - especially in mining and railroads - decelerated in the second half of the 1880s, triggered in part by a broader dip in the national economy. The area’s postal infrastructure responded in kind, as the number of newly opened post offices in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah cratered compared to the preceding six-year-period.

Compare established post offices in
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In the north, ongoing construction of the Great Northern Railroad and branch lines of the Northern Pacific Railroad connected new lumber mills and mines - all of which fueled the growth of a larger postal corridor across northern Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington territories.

To the west, postal growth along the Pacific accelerated even more dramatically. California, in particular, experienced a surge of new post offices during this period. Southern California was at the epicenter of this growth, driven by a wave of real estate speculation that enveloped Los Angeles and San Diego and peaked in 1887-1888. Although some of these post offices quickly shut down, much of this growth proved surprisingly stable: 70% of new California post offices would survive for at least ten years.

Stability was in much shorter supply on the Central Plains, where the churning pattern of postal growth reached new heights in the late 1880s. Following railroad lines, thousands of settlers filed for land patents that brought them steadily into drier and drier climates in western Kansas and Nebraska. But twin disasters struck in 1886-1887: a crippling drought followed by one of the worst winters in living memory. Farming and ranching ventures cratered and over this period, causing hundreds of communities and post offices to dissolve across the Central Plains.

The pattern of divergence crystallized at the borders of Indian Territory. As unstable as Kansas’s postal infrastructure may have been, its residents could still rely on an expansive communications infrastructure. Those living in Indian Territory could not. This disparity came into even starker relief in early 1889, when the federal government negotiated a large land cession from the Muscogee that opened up so-called “Unassigned Lands” to settlers. When the dust cleared, thousands of settlers had claimed nearly two million acres of land in one of the most famous land rushes in American history. Within a matter of months, the Post Office Department established a dozen new post offices in an area that it had previously ignored. Despite the US Post’s limited coverage within the borders of Indian reservations, Indigenous peoples nevertheless actively used the mail during this decade to petition government officials, stay connected to friends and family on other reservations, and even exchange letters that helped spread the pan-tribal Ghost Dance movement in 1889.
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1890-1895: Integration

Over the preceding decades of warfare and land seizure, mass migration and settler colonization, and the breakneck expansion of industry and capital, the western United States had been utterly transformed. By the 1890s, a once remote region had been conquered, occupied, and integrated into the nation.

In just eight months spanning November 1889 to July 1890, Congress admitted six new western states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. Political integration went hand-in-hand with economic integration, as western minerals, timber, crops, and livestock traveled across a growing regional railway network to eastern cities and factories. And the US Post continued to knit together a national system of information, establishing some five thousand new western post offices between 1890-1895.

The admission of Washington, Idaho, and Montana as new states and the completion of the Great Northern Railway in 1893 - the nineteenth century’s last transcontinental railroad - led to a surge of new post offices in the Northwest. In Washington alone, the number of newly established post offices between 1890-1895 nearly doubled from the preceding six-year period.

Compare established post offices in:
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Political integration further eroded the land claims of Native people living in the Great Sioux Reservation. On February 22, 1889, Congress voted to divide Dakota Territory in half and admit North and South Dakota as two new states. Eight days later, those same Congressmen voted to split apart the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller agencies and open up nine million acres of land to white settlers. As soon as this legislation went into effect in early 1890, a string of new post offices started to carve a corridor through this seized land.

Western integration galloped onwards in the Central Plains with the incorporation of Oklahoma Territory. But Oklahoma wasn’t conjured out of thin air; it was cleaved off from Indian Territory in 1890. Settlers occupied the area in a series of government-managed land rushes, the largest of which came on September 16, 1893 when the so-called “Cherokee Outlet” was opened to non-Native settlers. Within a matter of hours, tens of thousands of people had swarmed over this land. And within a matter of months, the US Post was bringing them their mail across a dense new network of post offices. As it had for decades, Native dispossession and postal expansion went hand-in-hand.

Immediately to the north, Kansas and Nebraska experienced the downsides of economic integration. Farmers faced a deflationary economy, crippling drought, and, beginning in 1893, one of the worst economic depressions in American history. Postal growth nosedived and Kansas and Nebraska’s postal coverage started to steadily shrink. What had once been an engine for the West’s roiling growth had turned into an area littered with failed communities. This landscape of postal collapse was the backdrop for the concurrent rise of the People’s Party, an agrarian insurgency that originated on the Central Plains and swept across the western United States during the early 1890s.
Established post offices in vs.

The colonization and integration of the western United States represented one of the most dramatic transformations of people, land, and resources in American history. Different processes drove these changes, but underlying them all was the infrastructure of the US Post. The federal government’s ability to rapidly extend its postal network into otherwise remote places provided American settlers with vital lines of communication to the wider world. It didn’t have to be this way. The US Post could have operated a more constrained and stable network. The project of western expansion would have proceeded regardless, but its pace would have been slower, its reach more limited, and its prosecution more difficult. Instead, the US Post’s sprawling gossamer network helped to accelerate the shift from into a .

Reference

About

This is a companion website to Cameron Blevins, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West (Oxford University Press, 2021). Yan Wu built and designed the visualization, Cameron Blevins wrote the content, and Steven Braun provided consultation on its layout. It was completed over 2018-2019 with support from the NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks, Northeastern University's Digital Scholarship Group, and the Northeastern University History Department. Many thanks to Benjamin Hoy and Alessandra Link for providing feedback on earlier drafts.

We relied on several sources of data. The main dataset is US Post Offices, a dataset made by Cameron Blevins and based on historical research by Richard W. Helbock. Historical boundaries of US states and territories came from the Newberry Library's Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Claudio Saunt generously provided spatial data for unceded Native land and government reservations, from the Invasion of America. Other sources of data are documented in the references for that section.