Online postal records

Six hundred and eighty-three rolls of microfilm.

Now digitized, available online, from the National Archives.

And absolutely chock full of goodies for genealogists.

So… The Legal Genealogist had some fun last night, talking about research at the National Archives for the Association of Professional Genealogists. It’s part of a series of webinars in advance of APG’s September 29-October 1 Professional Management Conference in Arlington, Virginia, focusing on research in and around the Washington, D.C. area.1

What I wanted to hone in on was some of the underutilized records that you can only access in person at either Archives I, in downtown Washington D.C., or Archives II, in College Park, Maryland.

One set of records I’ve always found amazing are the records of the Post Office. It’s been part of the scene here in America since colonial times and the records created over the years can be enormously useful to genealogists.

Part of the reason I’m so fond of these records is something I encountered years ago, when I was a student at what’s now called the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (or Gen-Fed). It was a set of reports by postmasters and others on local post offices around the country. They’re on microfilm, at Archives I and many of the regional archives as well.

I’d planned to spend a bit more time than I actually did spend last night on this set of records when I was first thinking about how to present the webinar, except for one thing.

The National Archives has now digitized them. They’re online at Archives.gov.

Here’s part what the Descriptive Pamphlet for Publication M1126 has to say about them:

Before 1837 the Post Office Department had no official mapmaker and purchased its maps from commercial firms or private individuals. On March 13, 1837, Henry A. Burr was appointed the first Topographer of the Post Office. He began preparing maps for the use of postal officials. …

 

These records are chiefly forms on which postmasters furnished data that were used by the Topographer to determine the location of post offices in relation to nearby post offices and transportation routes and facilities. … The reports constituted an important part of the procedure for establishing new post offices. Generally the Appointment Division of the First Assistant Postmaster General’s Office sent a site-location report form to the postmaster nearest the proposed post office for completion. During the latter part of the 19th century, reports on prospective post offices employed forms that included more items of information than appeared on the forms used for reporting changes of site. Sometimes this first site location report shows the names proposed by local citizens for that post office.

 

… Although, over the years, site location reports changed in format, most requested the following information about a post office: (1) county and State (or Territory); (2) land description used by the Federal survey system (range, township, and section), if applicable; (3) mail route number and distance from the post office to the nearest mail route; and (4) the closest rivers, creeks, canals, roads, and railroads. Most reports also include a diagram or sketch map compiled by the postmaster or a printed map annotated by him to show the location of the post office. Some reports also give the name of the contractor for the mail route. The form used in reporting on a prospective post office requested information about the number of families or the number of people that would be served by the new office. …2

The image illustrating this blog post today is one page from the 1899 report on the post office in Centre, Cherokee County, Alabama, where some of my Battles relatives hailed from. (Click on it to enlarge the image.) It’s got the location, the distance from the nearest post offices, the name of the nearest railroad, the fact that the post office wasn’t on the railroad, and more. Pretty cool stuff… and there are different reports for that post office over time.

Some reports have really cool maps, some of them fairly detailed showing nearby businesses, churches, government buildings or even residences. So make sure you look to see what all is included with each report.

In terms of finding particular records, well… that’s not so easy. First off, no, these are not indexed. Not by person, place or time. So there’s no simple way of getting directly to the report for a particular post office at a particular time. The Descriptive Pamphlet explains:

The reports are arranged alphabetically by State (including the District of Columbia) and are followed by reports for the Canal Zone, Guam, Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (in that order) and end with the Philippine Islands. The reports for each State or other entity are arranged alphabetically by major civil division (such as county, parish, or district) and thereunder by name of post office in rough alphabetical order. (The user of this publication is advised to go through the records for the entire county that includes the post office of interest because no attempt has been made to perfect the alphabetical order of the reports below the county level.) When there is more than one report for a particular post office, the reports are usually arranged chronologically with the most recent report first and the oldest report last. Reports for post offices whose names have been changed are normally filed under the most recent name, but sometimes they are filed under the earlier name or names. Boundaries of civil divisions were sometimes changed so that reports for a given post office might have been filed under more than one county or State and thus may appear in more than one place in the records; e.g., post offices in Indian Territory may also be in the records for the State of Oklahoma. Under the District of Columbia are reports for some Maryland and Virginia post offices and some military post offices actually located in those two States.

 

To locate the report or reports for a particular post office, select the roll for the State or other entity that includes the county in which the post office was located. Gazetteers, atlases, and commercially published postal guides (with various titles), all of which are available in most large public libraries, should be consulted to learn the name of the county in which a particular post office was located.3

Even with the headaches, though, you may find just what you need or some little clue that will help.

And whodathunk it… in the records of the Post Office…


SOURCES

  1. If you’re an APG member, the recordings are or will be online in the Members Only section of the APG website. If you’re not an APG member… um… why not?
  2. Descriptive Pamphlet M1126: Post Office Department Reports of Site Locations 1837-1950, PDF; U.S. National Archives, archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 23 Aug 2017).
  3. Ibid.
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