By 1848, the United States laid claim to territory that stretched from coast to coast. In reality, the western half of the country remained Indigenous land, a vast expanse of territory that the US Government did not actually control. Over the coming decades the West was utterly transformed. The United States waged war against western tribes, forcing them off their land and onto reservations. Millions of Americans swarmed across this plundered territory, building towns and homesteads, mines and mills, dams and railroads. How did this happen so quickly, in the span of a single generation? The answer lies, in part, with an unlikely source: the US Post. Between 1848 and 1895 the federal government wove together a “gossamer network” across the West, a sprawling and fast-moving web of post offices and mail routes that connected the region’s far-flung settlements into a national system of communications. The US Post was the underlying circuitry of western expansion.
The real history of the American West is not a story about rugged cowboys and brave pioneers. It is a story about big government, or “the state.” The most visible way in which the US federal government shaped the region was through coercive power: waging wars to seize Indigenous land and force the survivors onto reservations. You can see the effects of the state’s coercive power by mapping the decline of unceded Native land and the growth of government reservations in a few short decades.
Coercive state power was important, but it wasn’t the whole story in the West. Settlers still had to occupy plundered Native land. As farmers, ranchers, and miners colonized remote corners of the region, they needed to stay connected to the wider world. The speed and success of settler colonization depended on a much less visible kind of state power: the world’s largest communications network. No matter where they went, Americans could depend on the US Post to expand in lockstep alongside them.
The US Post operated a “gossamer network” that was both expansive and fast-moving. Between 1848 and 1895 the federal government established roughly 24,000 western post offices. It was able to rapidly expand into some of the region’s least accessible areas, from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Great Basin to the Northern Rockies.
The US Post’s ability to extend into remote locations kept settlers connected to the wider world, allowing them to exchange letters with friends and family, subscribe to newspapers and magazines, or conduct financial transactions. All of these were made possible by the postal network’s underlying geography - shown here in the year 1877. The US Post operated in more places, by far, than any other government institution.
Even more surprisingly, the western postal infrastructure was highly unstable. Between 1848 and 1895, thousands of post offices either shut down or changed names/locations. Some of these offices operated for just a few years or even months before closing down.
The US Post operated a gossamer network, capable of rapidly spinning out new tendrils to distant places and then melting away at a moment’s notice. This is a new and unfamiliar model of state power, but one that would have profound implications for the nineteenth-century western United States.