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

A new book argues that mail service played a critical role in the U.S. government’s westward expansion and occupation of Native lands.

A fanciful scene of a mail coach under attack in the 1860s, from “American Pictures Drawn With Pen And Pencil” by Rev. Samuel Manning. 

A fanciful scene of a mail coach under attack in the 1860s, from “American Pictures Drawn With Pen And Pencil” by Rev. Samuel Manning. 

Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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.