History of American Mail: Letters of Our Ancestors & the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan explores the history of American mail and shows how the mail system and newspapers have been closely connected—with the postal system delivering newspapers, and newspapers doing the work of the post office by alerting readers to unclaimed mail. These “uncollected mail” lists in old newspapers are a valuable genealogy resource for family history researchers.

The postal system and newspapers—especially lists of uncollected mail—have long been connected in American history, and provide another avenue of research for family history researchers.

Mail in Colonial America

The first organized mail service in colonial America began in 1692, mostly to get mail to and from Europe. The first postmaster was Andrew Hamilton, the governor of New Jersey. Then England purchased the project in 1707 and appointed Andrew’s son John as the Crown’s official postmaster.

England had a long history of interfering in colonial American communications. For example, there was the Stamp Act, the closure of colonial newspapers that seemed to criticize the Crown, and the search and seizure of private papers.

Ever the innovator, Benjamin Franklin instituted the penny post concept. Mail was delivered to the post office and the recipient was to pick it up there. However, for a penny, Franklin would have it delivered to the person’s home or office. However, Franklin was removed from his position as postmaster due to his revolutionary leanings.

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Franklin was also a newspaper man. At that time newspapers were produced as a way for printers to make a little on the side when the press didn’t have any other work. These newspapers were often sent by post to distant locations. Franklin was an advocate of getting the mail (and the news) out on time, and with the best business practices he knew.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers published lists of people who had letters waiting for them in the post office. Checking these lists can help you pin down your ancestor to a place and time.

Letters in the Post-Office at Newport, Newport Mercury newspaper article 15 July 1765

Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 15 July 1765, page 3

History of the American Postal Service

As things heated up between England and the American colonies, mail services became even more challenging. One way to subdue an enemy is to prevent communications between those in charge and the troops on the ground. Since the Crown owned the mail system, they held the advantage in communications.

The Battle of Concord was in April of 1775. The following month the primary business for the Continental Congress was to establish a mail system. Benjamin Franklin was the obvious choice for the first postmaster. Originally, the main purpose of the postal service was to get news and information out for military purposes.

Newspapers of the time, which focused on business and politics, were anxious to get information from other states. Many newspapers lacked much actual news reporting and simply parroted months-old news from other papers. They would subscribe to distant newspapers and would copy the articles word for word into their own paper. The lack of any copyrights allowed this to occur without even an attribution of the original writer or publishing newspaper. In fact, there was rarely an acknowledgement of the author in the original paper. News was published anonymously. (It wasn’t until World War I that the author of each article was regularly listed. This was a military move to ensure that the author was held accountable for the information he or she disseminated that might go against the censorship laws.)

During this time the paper’s printer was also the publisher, editor, and news collector all wrapped into one. Using other newspapers’ articles allowed them to publish more information with limited investment. This early newspaper practice means that you may find information about your ancestor in distant newspapers.

Genealogy Tip: Begin your searches in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives nationwide rather than just selecting one state’s papers to view, since news was published far away in places you wouldn’t expect.

Newspapers not only used the mail service to gather information, but also to disseminate it. Readers could subscribe to a newspaper regardless of where they lived and have it delivered via the postal service. This increased the number of potential readers for a paper, thereby increasing the print load and profits of a newspaper service. This eventually led to the need to hire more staff and to increase the speed of the printing process. The news could become a business in its own right instead of a side job to keep the printing press busy.

This map shows an old trail that was used for “mail and express service” in Missouri.

trail map of Howard County, Missouri, Kansas City Star newspaper article 11 November 1915

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 11 November 1915, page 4

Uncollected Mail

Originally, mail was delivered to the post office and recipients stopped by to collect it. In the city, large companies hired clerks to make the mail run, carting mail to and from the post office multiple times a day. In rural areas, the post office became a place to gather, especially in more isolated areas. Going to get the mail was a big deal. Families dressed up to go to town to collect the mail and spend time socializing with their neighbors. However, not everyone could make it out every month to check for mail. When an item of mail remained uncollected at the post office, an advertisement was run in the local paper to alert the intended recipient. This is a valuable resource for modern-day genealogists.

uncollected mail list, Illinois Weekly State Journal newspaper article 11 March 1842

Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 11 March 1842, page 1

Genealogy Tip: These lists show the names of people (women and men) who lived in the area. This can help a family history researcher establish the location of an ancestor.

This resource is especially beneficial in instances where two or more people who initially appear to be one and the same can now be separated, thanks to these mail lists.  In addition, the appearance of a name over several months can indicate that the person in question may have moved, was ill, was temporarily out of the area, or possibly even dead. This is an alert for the genealogist to do more investigation into their ancestor’s life during the time the name appears. Because women also received mail, their name may be listed. They may even be listed by their own name and not by the more commonly used feminized version of their husband’s name: Mariah Johnson rather than Mrs. Simon Johnson.

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It would be especially helpful to find the name of an ancestor in a list of letters remaining at the post office in the place they had just moved from. For example, if you know Simon Johnson was living in Crawford County, Indiana, after 1845—but you weren’t sure where he moved from—you could search for Simon Johnson’s name in the postal lists. Finding his name in a Randolph County, North Carolina, mail list prior to 1845 would not prove that he came from there. However, it does provide a clue to begin searching for him in the records in that area.

One thing to keep in mind is that the lists were often alphabetized by the last name. This means the name will appear last name first: “Johnson, Mariah.”

Genealogy Tip: Entering a first and last name into GenealogyBank’s search engine will allow for the name to appear in reverse order, so no special search techniques are needed. However, you can narrow the results by entering a keyword such as “letters,” “post office,” or “mail.” Use only one keyword at a time and remember that the word must appear in the article exactly as you typed it.

unclaimed mail list, Salt Lake Daily Telegraph newspaper article 17 May 1866

Salt Lake Daily Telegraph (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 May 1866, page 3

Unfortunately for us, the actual “unclaimed” letters did not appear in the newspapers. Although many letters were republished in newspapers because of their informative nature, that was done by consent and not because they were unclaimed. The unclaimed letters lists were simply lists of people’s names.

Expanding the American Mail Service

The goal of the postal system has always been to reach every person. As the population spread across the newly created country, the mail system improved roads to reach them. As the postal roads became safer and more passable, more people moved to outlying areas. And so a chicken and egg situation was created. Did migration expand the postal system or did the postal system increase migration? The answer is: “yes.”

Newspapers were certainly not the only pieces of mail that went through the postal system. But to give an idea of how many newspapers were being delivered around the country, Richard R. John in Spreading the News claims that the post office delivered 2.7 newspapers per person in 1840!* Outside of the largest urban areas, the news was still delivered weekly at this point. But that is still a lot of mail!

By 1847, stamps were minted and the sender now paid the postage. Building on Franklin’s penny post delivery system, the postal service delivered the mail for two cents. In 1863, urban mail was delivered for free—if the city had adequate sidewalks and street lighting in addition to named streets and house numbers. Sixty-five percent of the American population lived outside of these metropolises in the 1890s when rural mail delivery finally became free.** Mail boxes began in 1912 and were required by 1923.

Here’s subscription information for the Idaho Statesman in 1898, giving terms for delivery by mail or carrier.

subscription rates for the Idaho Statesman, Idaho Statesman newspaper advertisement 10 August 1898

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 10 August 1898, page 2

Lost Mail a.k.a. Dead Letters

Sometimes, mail was lost or became undeliverable. The “dead letter office” began in 1825 to gather all of these documents. The local post office was required to advertise the existence of the mail in the newspaper before forwarding it on to the dead letter office. Once there, any valuables were removed and the rest of the letter was burned. This office has a long and interesting history that can be found in the newspaper archives.

Genealogy Tip: Enter the phrase “dead letter office” into the “Include Keywords” field in the search box to find articles.

Here is a sampling of dead letter office articles.

In 1925 in just one post office, 200 letters had been sent in “absolutely blank envelopes,” 600 parcels had been mislabeled, and an astonishing 20,000 letters in one year had been forwarded to the dead letter office!

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Repository newspaper article 31 May 1925

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 31 May 1925, page 8

Here is an excellent and informative article from 1846.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 29 April 1846

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 29 April 1846, page 1

Here is a picture of a dead letter office from 1985.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Advocate newspaper article 1 November 1985

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 November 1985, page 30

So don’t forget to include mail lists in your searches. These informative lists are another example of how valuable newspapers are to family history research.

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* Richard R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 4.
** The United States Postal Service, An American History 1775-2006 (Washington DC: Government Relations, 2012), p. 22.

Related Articles about Researching Old Letters & Mailings:

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Deadly Duel: Vice President Burr Kills Alexander Hamilton

The remarkable life and brilliant career of one of America’s leading Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was cut short in the early morning hours of 11 July 1804 when he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president of the United States.

portrait of Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull

Portrait: Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Although the men had been bitter political and personal enemies for years, the exact cause of their fatal disagreement—as well as the circumstances of the actual duel—remain vague and uncertain. What is indisputable is that Hamilton was struck in the lower abdomen and died around 2:00 p.m. the next day, robbing America of one of its keenest political and legal minds.

painting of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, by J. Mund

Painting: an imaginative depiction of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, by J. Mund. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)

Hamilton had been the senior aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War; Washington later rewarded his service by appointing Hamilton the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. An economist and philosopher, Hamilton played a leading role in shaping the federal government during its formative years, and later became the leader of the Federalist Party. Other highlights of his career included being elected to the Continental Congress, founding the Bank of New York, and authoring many of the Federalist Papers. As is often the case with powerful and influential men, Hamilton had many admirers and supporters, and more than a few enemies—none more so than Aaron Burr.

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Hamilton vs. Burr

The animosity between the two men began in 1791, when Burr won the Senate seat occupied by Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler. In 1800, Hamilton played a key role in ensuring that the House of Representatives chose Thomas Jefferson as president instead of Burr, who had tied Jefferson in the Electoral College vote. Then, in 1804, Burr—knowing Jefferson would not favor him to continue as vice president—campaigned to become New York governor, but Hamilton again played a key role in his defeat, endorsing Burr’s opponent and the eventual winner, Morgan Lewis. The sense of rivalry and disdain between Hamilton and Burr was sharp and did not need much of a spark to ignite into deadly conflict.

That spark came quickly after the New York election. Burr took offense at some remarks Hamilton allegedly had made during a dinner party and demanded an apology. What those exact remarks were is not certain, and Hamilton said he could not recall them and refused to apologize. Burr “demanded satisfaction” and a duel was arranged for the morning of 11 July 1804.

There were only two witnesses to the fatal duel, and they both turned their backs so that they could honestly say they saw no guns fired, and therefore not be implicated in the incident. Two shots rang out, although who fired first is uncertain. Hamilton had said the night before that he would deliberately miss Burr, and in fact his shot struck a tree above his opponent’s head. Burr, however, did not miss—his bullet cut through Hamilton’s internal organs and smashed into his spine, paralyzing him and leaving little doubt the wound was mortal. After much suffering, he died from the shot the next day.

article about Alexander Hamilton being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, United States’ Gazette newspaper article 12 July 1804

United States’ Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 July 1804, page 2

GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

Related Articles:

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Funeral Sermons: How to Research Funeral Records for Genealogy

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that in earlier times funeral sermons were published and sold—and these documents often provide a wealth of family history information.

You’re probably wondering what’s so exciting about funeral sermons, a rather sobering subject. Until recently I agreed, but then I did some genealogy research using funeral sermons and discovered that there are exciting ancestral details to be culled from them.

In fact, I urge all family historians to find and examine funeral sermons about their ancestors whenever they can.

Funeral Sermons: a Long and Honored Tradition

In earlier days, funeral sermons were often published. Authors (especially ministers) delivered inspirational and memorable sermons, often including personal family details about the deceased. Afterward, friends and bereaved family members requested copies for keepsakes; the funeral sermons were printed and sold to them.

Although published sermons are rare nowadays, the practice is a long and honored tradition.

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Newspaper Advertisements for Funeral Sermons

Early newspapers ran ads announcing the availability of funereal sermons for purchase. In order to entice sales, most of these ads include pertinent genealogical details that we as genealogists can use as proof documents for lineage society applications.

This newspaper advertisement for Hezekiah Huntington’s funeral sermon is typical. Notice that it includes his date of death, where he died, the burial date and the minister’s name.

ad for the sale of the funeral sermon for Hezekiah Huntington, Connecticut Gazette newspaper advertisement 14 May 1773

Connecticut Gazette (New London, Connecticut), 14 May 1773, page 2

By comparison, this obituary for Hezekiah Huntington is a disappointment with its dearth of details—the entire obituary is one simple line:

At New-London, the hon. Hezekiah Huntington, Esq; of Norwich.

obituary for Hezekiah Huntington, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 25 February 1773

Massachusetts Spy (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 February 1773, page 217

Just think: the old newspaper ad for the funeral sermon—let alone the actual funeral sermon itself—provides more details than the obituary!

Where to Find Funeral Sermons

GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives are a good place to find old ads for funeral sermons. Also, the site’s Historical Books collection contains digitized funeral sermons and eulogies.

a screenshot of the search page for GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection

Screenshot: search page for GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection

To find genealogical information in early funeral sermons, try searching both the newspaper archives for historical advertisements about the funeral, as well as the Historical Books collection.

My Own Family History Discovery in a Funeral Sermon

When I decided to look at the funeral sermons in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection, I really wasn’t expecting to find anything about my own family. How wrong I was! While browsing the titles on the search results page, one heading jumped out at me: it named my 6th great grandfather, Joseph Starr, husband of Mary Benedict.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page for funeral sermons

In all my years of genealogy research, I’ve never been able to find an obituary for Joseph Starr—so this 23-page funeral sermon was an exciting find. I already knew several things about my ancestor’s life, such as his occupation as a shoemaker, tanner and farmer, and military service with the 20th Regiment of Cap. Nehemiah Waterman’s Company during the American Revolutionary War.

New Details about My Ancestor Joseph Starr

photo of the cover of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802

Photo: cover of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802. Credit: GenealogyBank’s Historical Books.

This old funeral sermon confirmed some facts I already knew, but also added new details about Joseph Starr’s life. Some of these new research findings include:

  • Various vital record dates, including the year of his birth in 1726, his marriage in 1745, and his death on 3 April 1802.
  • Family details (11 children, 39 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren—74 in all, 66 of whom were alive at the time of his death).
  • The name of the minister, as well as his church (Rev. John Ely, pastor of the 2nd Church of Danbury).
  • Joseph Starr was healthy and attended church. (“As he enjoyed a good state of health he was seldom absent from public worship.”)
  • I also learned about his personality. (“He was affable, benevolent and hospitable; being a man of but few words he was not disposed to meddle with other men’s matters, and consequently he had perhaps as many friends, and as few enemies as most men; He lived beloved, and died greatly lamented.”)
  • The publication had been requested by surviving friends.
  • There were also kind words directed to the widow, her family and attending friends.
photo of part of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802

Photo: part of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802. Credit: GenealogyBank’s Historical Books.

All in all, it was an exciting genealogy research find—and for me, a funeral sermon with so many personal life details trumps an obituary any day.

(For more information about Joseph Starr, see: the History of Danbury; a lengthy genealogy book on the Starr family; and Find A Grave memorials 21148746 and 21148747.)

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Genealogy Tips for Researching Published Sermons

  • The date associated with the sermon will be the publication date, not the date of death.
  • The sermon publication day and month may not be exact, but the year is correct. Many funeral sermons are recorded in the database as January 1, because the exact date of publication is not known. (For example, Joseph Starr died on 3 April 1802, yet his funeral sermon is indexed in the database as 1 January 1802 because the indexers had no way of knowing the actual date of publication.)
  • Look for other items in the publication. In the funeral sermon examples below, a copy of a will, letters, and a transcription of a tombstone were found.
  • Don’t forget to search for the newspaper advertisements that accompanied the sermons.
  • Prominent ancestors are more likely to have had published sermons than lesser known persons.
  • Others who died around the same time may be named in the body of the document, even if not included in the title. (In one of the examples below, Capt. Whittlesey passed away as the result of a hurricane, and the crew members of his ship were also named. In other instances, people who died the same week or month were also mentioned in passing.)

Funeral Sermon Examples

The following examples demonstrate the variety of genealogical and personal family information that can be found when researching published funeral sermons.

  • John Cushing: This 15-page sermon includes information about the widow and orphaned children.
photo of the funeral sermon for John Cushing, 1806

“A sermon, delivered at Ashburnham, May 22, 1806, at the interment of Mr. John Cushing, Jun. who expired at the house of his father. By Seth Payson, A.M. pastor of the church in Rindge. Published by request.”

  • Lydia Fisk: The title reveals that Mrs. Lydia Fisk was the consort of the Rev. Elisha Fisk and shows the Bible passages cited.
photo of the funeral sermon for Lydia Fisk, 1805

“A sermon, preached July 13, 1805. At the funeral of Mrs. Lydia Fisk, late consort of the Rev. Elisha Fisk, Pastor of the First Church in Wrentham. By Nathanial [i.e., Nathanael] Emmons, D.D. pastor of the church in Franklin.”

  • Alexander Hamilton: This funeral discourse includes a copy of his will, one of his papers and several letters.
photo of the funeral sermon for Alexander Hamilton, 1804

“A discourse, delivered in the city of Albany, occasioned by the ever to be lamented death of Gen. Alexander Hamilton, July 29, 1804. By Eliphalet Nott, A.M. pastor of the Presbyterian Church in said city. To which is added, a paper, written by Gen. Hamilton: containing, his motives and reflections on the causes that led to this fatal catastrophe. Also—his will, Bishop Moore’s letter—and a letter by the Rev. Mr. Mason.”

  • Mrs. Harris: On page 20, this document includes information about a family member’s gravestone.
photo of the funeral sermon for Mrs. William Harris, 1801

“A tribute of filial respect, to the memory of his mother, in a discourse, delivered at Dorchester, Feb. 8, 1801, the Lord’s day after her decease: by Thaddeus Mason Harris.”

  • Capt. William Whittlesey: The appendix mentions the tragic details of his death, along with the crew members who accompanied him.

photo of the funeral sermon for William Whittlesey, 1807

“The providence of God universal; a sermon, delivered at East Guilford, Feb. 1807. Occasioned by the death of Capt. William Whittlesey and others. By John Elliott, A.M. pastor of a church in Guilford. Published at the request of the mourners. [Two lines from Isaiah]”

Funeral sermons are an often-overlooked genealogical treasure, providing details about our ancestors’ lives perhaps not found anywhere else. Be sure to include them in your family history searches to discover more about the stories of your ancestors’ lives.

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