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A groundbreaking history of how the US Post made the nineteenth-century American West.

There were five times as many post offices in the United States in 1899 than there are McDonald's restaurants today. During an era of supposedly limited federal government, the United States operated the most expansive national postal system in the world. In this cutting-edge interpretation of the late nineteenth-century United States, Cameron Blevins argues that the US Post wove together two of the era's defining projects: western expansion and the growth of state power. Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, the western United States underwent a truly dramatic reorganization of people, land, capital, and resources. It had taken Anglo-Americans the better part of two hundred years to occupy the eastern half of the continent, yet they occupied the West within a single generation. As millions of settlers moved into the region, they relied on letters and newspapers, magazines and pamphlets, petitions and money orders to stay connected to the wider world. Paper Trails maps the spread of the US Post using a dataset of more than 100,000 post offices, revealing a new picture of the federal government in the West. The western postal network bore little resemblance to the civil service bureaucracies typically associated with government institutions. Instead, the US Post grafted public mail service onto private businesses, contracting with stagecoach companies to carry the mail and paying local merchants to distribute letters from their stores. These arrangements allowed the US Post to rapidly spin out a vast and ephemeral web of postal infrastructure to thousands of distant places.

The postal network's sprawling geography and localized operations forces a reconsideration of the American state, its history, and the ways in which it exercised power.
By:   Cameron Blevins (Associate Professor of History Clinical Teaching Track Associate Professor of History Clinical Teaching Track University of Colorado Denver)
Imprint:   Oxford University Press Inc
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 262mm,  Width: 186mm,  Spine: 21mm
Weight:   704g
ISBN:   9780190053673
ISBN 10:   0190053674
Pages:   248
Publication Date:   17 June 2021
Audience:   Professional and scholarly ,  Undergraduate
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Cameron Blevins is Associate Professor, Clinical Teaching Track, in the History Department at the University of Colorado Denver, and is a respected leader in the field of digital history.

Reviews for Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West

Cameron Blevins's Paper Trails: The U.S. Post and the Making of the American West is a wonderful example of digital history built on information technology and archival research. -- Marc Levinson, Wall Street Journal Paper Trails offers a timely reminder that the post has always been political. [...] One of the most striking aspects of Paper Trails isn't in the book. Mr Blevins is a digital historian, meaning he uses data science to analyse historical trends. He built an accompanying website replete with interactive maps to show readers how, within a generation, the postal service helped colonise a continent. These online dispatches beautifully illustrate the formative power of snail mail. -- The Economist A thoughtful consideration of an overlooked but clearly central aspect of westward expansion. -- Kirkus In the hands of Cameron Blevins, isolated post offices become windows into life in the American West. With great skill, Blevins portrays the expansive growth of the American state in an original, surprising, and persuasive way. -- Edward L. Ayers, winner of the Bancroft Prize With the publication of Paper Trails, Cameron Blevins emerges as a leader in a critically important but under-recognized genre: books in which authors make fully persuasive cases for the great importance of historical subjects that their predecessors barely noticed. With the intensity and range of Blevins's research, the clarity and vigor of his writing style, and, most of all, his distinctive perspective on the relationship between the history of the American West and the history of the federal government, this book gains the status of a fresh appraisal of the arrangements of power and population in the West and in the nation as a whole. -- Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of Legacy of Conquest In this engaging and beautifully written book, Cameron Blevins combines rich archival detail and the insights of spatial analysis to provide a nuanced account of how the federal government shaped the settlement of the US West. Paper Trails will make you see state power in entirely new ways. -- Rachel St. John, University of California, Davis As the human presence of the American state, the postal system diffused office and service across a continental landscape. In teaching this lesson and others, Cameron Blevins has produced a study so methodologically and empirically rich that it sets a model for disciplines beyond history. -- Daniel Carpenter, author of Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790-1870 Paper Trails is a sweeping overview of a major US government agency in the nineteenth-century trans-Mississippi West. By combining modern digital mapping techniques with traditional archival research, Blevins shows how postal policy can help us better understand the rise of the modern American state. -- Richard R. John, author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse


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