Going postal

Happy anniversary to postal records

Continental Congress Journal, 26 July 1775

It was the only order of business before the Continental Congress that Wednesday, the 26th of July, 237 years ago today. And, the Journals of the Continental Congress report, it was agreed:

That a postmaster General be appointed for the United Colonies, who shall hold his office at Philad(elphia), and shall be allowed a salary of 1000 dollars per an: …

That a line of posts be appointed under the direction of the Postmaster general, from Falmouth in New England to Savannah in Georgia, with as many cross posts as he shall think fit. …

… That it be recommended to the postmaster general to establish a weekly post to South Carolina.1

The first Postmaster General was then elected unanimously: Benjamin Franklin,2 the obvious choice since he had been postmaster of Philadelphia in the 1730s and was joint postmaster general for the colonies under the British Crown from 1753 until 1774 when he was sacked for his pro-colonial views.3

Sigh… and with that one day’s events began records. Loads of records. Decade after decade of records. Wonderful, delightful, add-this-to-your-family-history records.

Because the Post Office was a federal creation (it’s still national in scope even now that it’s been privatized as the U.S. Postal Service), its records are federal records, and that means — by and large — you’re looking at the National Archives. Lots of the records are on microfilm but few are available online.

Did you have a family member who was a postmaster? I did — my great granduncle Napoleon Bonaparte Johnson was the postmaster of Weatherford, Texas.4 His appointment records, and the records of other postmaster appointments, are in two sets of microfilm: M1131, Records of Appointment of Postmasters, Oct. 1789-1832; and M841, Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-Sept. 30, 1971.

Did your family’s address change from one post office to another? Getting copies of records about Post Office locations can help you figure out if they actually moved, or if it was just that a new Post Office opened closer to them. Information about post office locations is in another set of microfilmed records: M1126, Post Office Department Records of Site Locations. (These are fun records, by the way. I got to use them last summer at Archives I in Washington, D.C. — and while some reports have only a little bit of information, they usually have maps, distances to towns and other post offices, and some have much more — even showing specific landmarks like churches or courthouses.)

Did you have a family member who served as a railway postal clerk between 1883 and 1902? There’s another set of microfilmed records for you — M2077, Indexes to Rosters of Railway Postal Clerks, ca. 1883-ca. 1902 — where you just might find your family member’s name and leads to other records.

Did any member of your family serve as a substitute mail carrier between 1885 and 1903? Got another set of microfilmed records for you, then — M2076, Index and Registers of Substitute Mail Carriers in First- and Second-Class Post Offices, 1885-1903. You wouldn’t believe the list of towns included in this set of records, dozens of them ranging from Adams, Massachusetts, to Zanesville, Ohio.

And you never know — maybe an ancestor of yours was discussed in Letters Sent By The Postmaster General, 1789 – 1836, microfilm publication M601.

And that’s just what’s on microfilm. Take a peek at the scope of Post Office records in Record Group 28 at the National Archives — everything from general records to maps and photographs and motion pictures. Just a few of the tantalizing possibilities suggested in the description of Record Group 28:

     • Continental Congress post office department dead letters book, 1777-88
     • Post route atlas of the United States compiled under the direction of David Burr, 1839
     • Records relating to the experimental telegraph line built in 1843
     • Salary journals and receipts of post offices, 1895-1956
     • Correspondence relating to military postal service during the Spanish-American War, 1898-1902
     • Records relating to enforcement of the Espionage Act of 1917
     • Maps of Landing fields and airmail routes, 1918-41
     • Scenic film about Mount Rainier National Park, 1923
     • Ocean mail and airmail contract program and policy files, 1928-34
     • Historical files relating to airmail service, 1935-62
     • Selected records relating to the John F. Kennedy assassination, 1962-68
     • Sound recording, Zip code campaign, featuring Ethel Merman singing the official zip code song, 1966

Thank heavens, there’s a Preliminary Inventory to guide us through the full scope of the records in Record Group 28. Preliminary Inventory No. 168 — the Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Post Office Department, prepared in 1967 — has been revised by Forrest R. Holdcamper, and it’s available as a paperback on Amazon.

Don’t forget: since the Post Office was a federal agency, there are all kinds of goodies sprinkled throughout the federal statutes about the agency, its people and its facilities. In 1792, for example, Congress set a sliding scale for postal rates. Letters carried by land cost anywhere from six cents for up to 30 miles distance to 25 cents for anything sent more than 450 miles. By sea, letters would cost eight cents.5 That same 1792 statute required the local postmasters to publish those wonderful lists we find in the old newspapers of all of the undelivered letters remaining in the post offices each quarter.6 And it said how much postmasters were paid — it wasn’t a salary but rather a commission.7

That and later statutes established the post roads,8 paid for repairs and construction of post office buildings9 and even said what kinds of buildings should be used for post offices. In 1888, for example, Congress directed that a “substantial and commodious building for the use and accommodation of the United States post-office and for other Government uses” be acquired in Buffalo, New York.10

And if that’s not enough, don’t forget that other wonderful source of information on all kinds of federal records: articles appearing in Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives. Some recent articles can even be read in full online:

     • Jean Preer, Esquire v. Walker: The Postmaster General and “The Magazine for Men,” Part 111 and Part 2.12

     • Fred J. Romanski, The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, Part 113 and Part 214

     • Alison M. Gavin, “In the King’s Service”: Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America15

And you thought Congress never did anything to help you…


  1. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1905), 2: 208-209; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 25 Jul 2012).
  2. Ibid., 209.
  3. Benjamin Franklin, First Postmaster General,” USPS, The United States Postal Service – An American History 1775 – 2006 (http://about.usps.com/publications/pub100 : accessed 25 Jul 2012).
  4. See 1880 U.S. census, Parker County, Texas, Justice Precinct 1, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 135, p. 355(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 8, N.B. Johnson, Post Master; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 Jul 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1322; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255322.
  5. Act of 20 February 1792, § 9, 1 Stat. 235 (1792).
  6. Ibid., § 18, 1 Stat. 237.
  7. Ibid., § 23, 1 Stat. 238.
  8. See e.g. Act of 3 March 1805, 2 Stat. 337 (1805).
  9. See e.g. Act of 30 March 1888, 25 Stat. 47 (1888).
  10. Act of 5 April 1888, 25 Stat. 81 (1888).
  11. Jean Preer, “Esquire v. Walker: The Postmaster General and “The Magazine for Men”,” Part 1, Prologue, Spring 1990, vol. 23, no. 1, online edition (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 25 Jul 2012).
  12. Ibid., Part 2.
  13. Fred J. Romanski, “The “Fast Mail”: A History of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, Part 1,” Prologue, Fall 2005, vol. 37, no. 3, online edition (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 25 Jul 2012).
  14. Ibid., “Part 2.”
  15. Alison M. Gavin, “In the King’s Service”: Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America, Prologue, Summer 2009, vol. 41, no. 2, online edition (http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 25 Jul 2012).
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11 Responses to Going postal

  1. Charles Hansen says:

    Nothing on Postal Forwarding Addresses? The Spokane library has about 200 books on postal forwarding addresses from about 1907 to 1935 where the post office took apart city directories added 5 pages of lined paper and rebound the books in about an inch thick, on the lined paper they listed the name and address of where they forwarded mail and a date and a code (which we have no clue what the code means). So if John Smith moved to Seattle it may just list Seattle, Wn or sometimes a street address also.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      What a wonderful resource Spokane has! Nope, nothing like that on a national scale that I know of.

  2. Wonderful post! Great resources for a few books, too, if one were so inclined. Are individual ‘change of address’ forms on microfilm for the 1930-40s, by any chance? Thanks, so much, for sharing this great postal information! ;-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Look at the comment by Charles Hansen, Bill — he says the Spokane library has that as a created resource for 1907-1935. I sure don’t know of any nationwde resource for change of address forms!

  3. Blanche M. Wallace says:

    My great-grandfather was a rural route mail carrier in Cobb County, Ga. until about 1940 and received a pension. Do you have suggestions on where to locate his pension file? Thank you. Love your blog – have learned so much from it!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Blanche! As far as I know, civilian pension records would still be with the US Office of Personnel Management (http://www.opm.gov/) but I’d definitely check that with the National Archives folks.

  4. Kathy Nitsch says:

    This certainly won’t uncover everything that’s available at NARA, but I’ve found ancestors in books published by the post office that are available online. The Internet Archive (http://archive.org) has digitized almost 100 volumes published by the U.S. Post Office. The list of volumes available at Internet Archives can be found at http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22United%20States%20Post%20Office%20Dept%22&page=1. There’s even a report to Congress (1901) about the feasibility of using a pneumatic tube service (!) in some major U.S. cities.

    Especially helpful for genealogists are the volumes titled “United States official postal guide: Table of post offices in the United States…” or “Lists (or Tables) of Post Offices in the United States.” These volumes not only identify the location of all post offices, but also name the current postmaster. Unfortunately, the year of publication isn’t always easy to determine from the Internet Archives catalog entry. Sometimes you need to “view the book” using the “read online” option to determine the year.

    Although it’s slightly easier to gather all of the related books into a list at a single url using the Internet Archives collection, there are advantages to checking at Google Books as well. Many of the same volumes are also available at Google Books and sometimes it’s easier to find the publication date here. But the real bonus is that a name search across all of the digitized books is so easy to do (http://books.google.com/). I found two ancestors listed as postmasters through a name search at Google Books even though I had no inkling that they might have worked for the Post Office.

    And anyone who’s comfortable using the U.S. Congressional Documents at the American Memory: Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation website (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html) can probably track down the information on a postmaster/ancestor’s appointment and confirmation. But the most interesting reading in these volumes from the Serial Set might be the petitions from states explaining why a new post office or new postal route is warranted. I learned about how frequently (or infrequently) the mail arrived at some remote locations where my ancestors lived.

  5. Emily Garber says:

    You might be interested (if you don’t already listen to their program) in the most recent BackStory Radio show about the Postal Service with the American History guys. http://backstoryradio.org/

  6. Blanche says:

    Many thanks to all for the suggestions. I have a lot of work to do!

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