Today I want to talk about a type of Post Office Department record that most people probably haven’t considered – Letters Sent by the Postmaster General, 1789-1836. As the series title implies, these are letters that were sent by the Postmaster General. They deal with a lot of different types of activity – the establishment of new post offices, mail contracts, transportation of mail, and legislation and regulations, among others. While this description makes it sound like the records don’t deal with people, that’s not entirely true. Individuals are mentioned by name, but only when they came into contact with the Post Office Department.
A November 28, 1811 circular shows that the Postmaster General was concerned about delays on mail routes. Apparently the mail stage line failed at times – probably due to problems with the roads or the horses – and the mail was held until the next stage. The Postmaster points out that this was “an error which the public interest requires me to correct.” He asks that if this happens again in the future, that any letters “found in the mail stage portmanteau” be combined with the horse mail, and sent on in that manner. This circular was sent to the postmasters along the route from Fredericksburg, VA to Knoxville, TN. Their names are all listed on the bottom of the page.
Some of the most interesting letters are official responses to complaints against the Post Office.
In December of 1811, the Postmaster General (Gideon Granger) wrote this letter to Henry Clay, of the House of Representatives. In it, he states that he allowed mail to be transported on Sundays, believing that it was “a work of necessity.” He felt that it was important to do this, in order to keep the government informed of events in the west in a timely manner, as well as to keep commercial interests operable. The Synod of Presbyters and various Christian denominations objected to this practice, and submitted petitions and complaints to Congress. The above letter is the Post Office Department’s official response.
My favorite section is when the Postmaster General states that he authorized the local postmasters to carry out their work “quietly, without announcing their arrival or departure by the sounding of Horns or Trumpets.” He goes on to say that the postal employees tried not to distract people while they were worshipping. The language is what initially caught my eye, but it’s an interesting section, as it shows that the Postmaster General was clearly aware that the practice of transporting and delivering mail on a Sunday might upset a large section of the population.
The letter ends with the Postmaster General pointing out that the existing law is confusing, and neither he nor his officers knew whether or not they could compel a local postmaster to work on Sunday. He says that the existing law does not give him the authority to relieve the postmasters from official duty, which is what the complainants wanted. This issue wasn’t resolved for several years, but as we all know, the Post Office does not deliver mail on Sundays today.
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to find an ancestor mentioned in these letters, you could learn a great deal about the early history of the Post Office.
These records are part of Record Group 28, Records of the Post Office Department, 1773–1971, and are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M601, Letters Sent by the Postmaster General, 1789-1836. They are arranged chronologically. Each volume has a name index preceding the records. The microfilm is available in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, as well as many of our regional facilities. It has not been digitized, and is not available online. For more information about Post Office records, see our website.