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Because the law said so

Maybe you descend from J.B. Arnold or Miss S.S. Berry or Georgia Dennise or William Murphy or James Parker.

Perhaps you’re researching Seth Cockerilie or Emma Johnson or Josiah Price or Rose Anne Regan or Cole Watkins.

They all had one thing in common, along with 203 other people, in the spring of 1874.

They all got their names published in the newspaper in Dallas, Texas.

And that happened because the Post Office was holding a letter — perhaps even more than one — addressed to each and every one of those 213 people.1

dead letter notice

But why? What was the driving force that caused your ancestor’s name to appear in the newspapers of his or her day in a list from the Post Office of unclaimed letters?

If you’re a regular reader of The Legal Genealogist, you probably have a pretty good idea what the answer’s going to be.

It’s because of the law.

A law in particular.

It was passed in February of 1792, and was called “An Act to establish the Post-Office and Post Roads within the United States.”2 And buried in the middle of six pages of type is this provision:

And be it further enacted, That the deputy postmasters shall, respectively, publish at the expiration of every three months, in one of the newspapers published at, or nearest the place of his residence, for three successive weeks, a list of all the letters then remaining in their respective offices …3

Cool, huh? Because the genealogical implications of a list like this are really good.

First off, it says that somebody had reason to believe that, say, our friend Rose Anne Regan from that list would be in Dallas, Texas, in the weeks before April of 1874. After all, nobody pays the postage and sends out a letter to a location where they don’t expect the person they’re sending it to will be able to retrieve it.4

Second, it says that for some reason, Rose Anne didn’t get that letter. She may have been sick and not able to come to town to collect mail. She may have died. She may have moved on further into the frontier.5

Those are critical clues for us to note in the reasonably exhaustive research we all do to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard.6

Clues that we get because the law said so.

And yes, actually, before you ask, the law also said what happened if a letter did get sent to the dead letter office:

the same shall be opened and inspected ; and if any valuable papers or matter of consequence, shall, be found therein, it shall be the duty of the Postmaster General, to cause a descriptive list thereof to be inserted in one of the newspapers, published at the place most convenient to where the owner may be supposed to reside, if within the United States, and such letter and the contents shall be preserved, to be delivered to the person, to whom the same shall be addressed, upon payment of the postage, and the expense of publication.7

Which means our folks may have been on yet another list… and we’ll have even more clues.

Because the law said so.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “blog post title,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted date).


  1. “List of Letters,” Dallas (Texas) Weekly Herald, p. 2, cols. 7-8; digital images, ( : accessed 8 Jan 2020).
  2. “An Act to establish the Post-Office and Post Roads within the United States,” 1 Stat. 232 (20 February 1792).
  3. Ibid., §18, 1 Stat. 237.
  4. C’mon — even kids sending to “Santa, North Pole” expect Santa to be there at the North Pole. Or at least they hope…
  5. Yes, Dallas was still pretty much frontier in 1874. It only had about 3,000 people in 1870, and only 10,000 by 1880. See Jackie McElhaney and Michael V. Hazel, “Dallas, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association ( : accessed 8 Jan 2020).
  6. See “Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS),” Ethics and Standards, Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 8 Jan 2020).
  7. §18, “An Act to establish the Post-Office and Post Roads within the United States,” 1 Stat. 232, 237.
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