With support from the University of Richmond

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How the U.S. Postal Service Forever Changed the West

In The Postman, the 1997 post-apocalyptic Western starring and directed by Kevin Costner, a supposed emissary of the U.S. Postal Service revives and reunites a smattering of rural settlements that have survived the catastrophic end of the formal United States. The mail, the movie shows us, is the connective tissue of the nation-state — providing people with not just a means of communication, but also something to look forward to. (“You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket,” a love interest tells the titular postman, in an example of the movie’s amazingly bad dialogue.)

That may be an overly generous description of a film that is rated 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. But it turns out to be a not-entirely-wrong description of the role played by the actual U.S. Postal Service in the actual settlement in the American West. Instead of giving out hope, though, it gave critical support to the swift occupation and colonization of Native lands in the second half of the 19th century. That (which Costner didn’t touch) is the subject of Paper Trails: The U.S. Post and the Making of the American West, a new book by Cameron Blevins, a professor of U.S. history and digital humanities at the University of Colorado, Denver. 

In the book, Blevins shows how the postal service provided critical infrastructure for the rapid expansion of white settler populations across the West, creating physical touch-points for the U.S. government to gain control over what were largely Indigenous lands. The post also shaped and bolstered local economies, as the federal government contracted shopkeepers, stagecoach companies and other private entities to handle and deliver mail up until the early 20th century. Under that quasi-public model, the postal service was able to swell and contract rapidly with the geography of white settlements, at the same time as the government used violent force to seize land from Native people. 

In an interview, Blevins discusses the scholarship behind the book, which includes groundbreaking maps of tens of thousands of 19th-century post office locations, and what it reveals about the modern-day postal service. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Let’s start with your background, which is in digital humanities. What is that, and how does it define this work?

Defining any discipline is a fraught question in academia, but basically, digital humanities is using technology and computer methods to study the human experience and humanities disciplines, whether it’s literature, philosophy, or in my case, history.

In my work, I have been thinking about this era of U.S. history, when in just 40 to 50 years the land we now call the United States underwent massive transformation from areas of Native and Indigenous land into a colonized region of capital industrial expansion, extractive industry, and millions of white settlers moving and occupying this region. It’s fundamentally a spatial process, and trying to understand the speed and variety of where that is taking place was one of the aims of this project. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab