The Importance of the Postal Service and America’s Westward Expansion

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Almost every morning of the week, I hear the regular “stop-and-go” of a jeep coming down the street. Once it wears off, I can walk to the end of my driveway and pick up the day’s mail. If I need to send something, I just put it in the box and raise the flag, and it’s gone the next day.

It is very easy to take the simple sending and receiving of mail for granted. It’s also easy to overlook the important role the post office played in the western expansion and settlement of Lenawee County.

America’s Founding Fathers understood the importance of keeping lines of communication open as people moved away from population centers in the east to settle in what was then a wilderness and wild, devoid of towns and villages.

Bob Wessel is Vice President of the Lenawee Historical Society and can be contacted at LenHist51@gmail.com.

The Constitution gave Congress power over the Post. The specific clause (article 1, section 8) states that Congress “shall have the power… to establish post offices and postal routes”.

The federal government constructed and maintained a series of postal routes that crisscrossed the country to connect population centers with central post offices or rail depots that handled mail. Postal routes allowed mail to be transported to peripheral post offices. As communities developed along the postal routes, post offices were established.

When settlers settled in Lenawee County, they often took the postal route through the county. They built churches and cleared land for farms and established businesses, and they asked the federal government for a post office. The county’s first post office was established on July 29, 1824 in Tecumseh when Musgrove Evans was appointed postmaster.

As the county’s population grew and expanded, new villages were founded and additional post offices were established. Today the county has more than 30 modern post offices.

The post offices of the early 19th century differed greatly from the modern post office.

In the first place, a former post office was little more than a corner inside a store or inn. Each was supervised by a postmaster, who was usually the merchant in whose building the post office resided. The postmaster was a political appointment made by the president and the appointment might last only until the next presidential election, as they say, “to the winner belongs the spoils”.

Being a local postmaster didn’t pay well, but it generally worked to the advantage of the postmaster / merchant. There was no door-to-door mail delivery and people had to go to the post office to take care of their postal needs. It was often the merchant’s hope that people coming to send or pick up mail could buy something else while they were in the store.

Postmasters changed frequently. For example, Musgrove Evans served as a postmaster for the village of Tecumseh from 1824 to 1835, but the years from 1835 to the turn of the century saw 19 different postmasters. Evans’ 11 years as a postmaster were extremely unusual.

The Weston Post Office, established in 1857, had 18 postmasters by the turn of the century. Palmyra had 20 postmasters between 1833 and 1903. It was clearly not a career to be sought.

As Cameron Blevins, author of “Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West,” puts it, “Without the extensive US Post network, the pace of colonization would have been slower, its reach more limited, and its more difficult pursuits.

The Post Office is undoubtedly one of the “unsung heroes” of the westward expansion and settlement of Lenawee County. He built roads and allowed settlers to keep in touch with relatives in the east and elsewhere. The post office has made it possible to catalog supplies and products that are not generally available locally.

La Poste also brought the news. Some of the less recognized beneficiaries of the Post Office were the newspapers. Long before there was a Daily Telegram, the people of Lenawee County had to depend on newspapers in the “back east” to keep them up to date with what was going on in the world.

By the way, “Neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness of the night prevents these brave couriers from quickly completing their rounds” is not, and never has been, the motto of the US Post office. La Poste has no official currency. This statement was made about the Persian messengers mounted about 2500 years ago by the Greek historian Herodotus, in his book “The Persian Wars”.

Bob Wessel is vice president of the Lenawee County Historical Society and can be contacted at [email protected]

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