My great-great grandfather George was one of the first postmasters in the West. This is his story, as told by my great-great Aunt May and recorded by my grandmother Doris into our family history book.
George and my great-great grandmother Karolina landed in New York in 1872. They had emigrated from Wurtemberg, Germany and would soon move on to Chicago, and then St. Paul, before voyaging to the Dakota Territory to take advantage of a land settlement promotion. George and Karolina were the first white settlers in that area of North Dakota (their travel partners quickly returned home, unhappy with the wild land and native Indians). They set up a homestead and George ranched cattle while Karolina raised their two young children. On June 2, 1882 George was appointed as the first Postmaster of McHenry County of Dakota. He had been carrying the mail for several years before his appointment, keeping it in his dresser drawer for neighbors to pick up whenever they stopped by. He named the P.O. “Villard” after a railroad president that he had admired, and continued to carry the mail from Bismarck to Villard for 20 years, serving 37 families. He was also the editor of the Villard Leader, published weekly from 1886 to 1889.
It was a hard life. George would face horse thieves and murderers along his postal route and would often return home with his pipe frozen into his mustache. It was especially hard on Karolina, who had apparently come from a wealthy family in Germany that had spent their fortune and emigrated to America to save face. Sometime between 1894 and 1897 their doctor advised that Karolina could not last another Dakota winter, so they moved to Portland, Oregon where they and all of their children are buried, except for their eldest son Herman (my great grandfather) who returned to North Dakota and raised my grandmother Doris who became postmaster for 34 years, running the operation out of my father’s childhood home in Denbigh, ND until her retirement.
I’m so proud of my family’s role in the legacy of the United States Postal Service. It is an essential and honorable institution that has kept the country connected through its expansion to the reaches of the Far West and beyond. It’s a service envisioned for and carried out by the people that has been around since the nascience of this Republic, and it is imperative that it continues to operate in such a way. As the threats of defunding and privatization linger, its role in the democratic process of the National Presidential Election is more critical than ever. And it’s always been important – check out some brief history below.
When the Founding Fathers were working on the Constitution they gathered support by exchanging newspapers between New York and Philadelphia. The postal service delivered these newspapers for free along with personal letters from city to city. In this way, the laws of the Republic were formed legitimately through public engagement, including the right to dissent. George Washington and the Federalists “wished the public to be possessed of every thing that might be printed on both sides of the question”. The postal service would become instrumental in spreading ideas across distant states. It is one of the few institutions that is named directly in the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to create post roads, elect a Postmaster General, and set penalties for the disruption of service. The subsidization of newspapers by the Post Office created a communications revolution that fostered a robust exchange of ideas, which is at the core of our democracy.
The postal service continued to defend the nation’s freedom of speech through the abolitionist movement and the subsequent Civil War. Abolitionist newspapers that showed the horrors of slavery were distributed by the postal service, even as southern states attempted to suppress abolitionist speech through censorship of their publications. The postal service’s constitutional obligation to deliver all newspapers regardless of content preserved our right to dissent and crystalized our First Amendment rights. As the United States continued to develop and expand, several changes were made to ensure equal access for city-dwellers and rural settlers alike, rich and poor. Congress reduced the cost of postage stamps and authorized “rural free delivery,” which guaranteed free service to distant rural areas across 28 states. This ratification allowed my great-great grandfather and his neighbors to remain connected to each other and informed of the goings on at the capital.
Free service remains in place today and is critical for those living in rural areas. The USPS provides “last mile” connections to remote locations that FedEx, UPS and other private carriers are unable to reach economically. Defunding and privatization of the USPS would require thousands of Americans to drive up to a hundred miles to the nearest post office to collect their packages, register to vote, cast their ballots, and receive medications. The USPS is able to provide its unparalleled service because it is mandated by the Constitution to do so. This administration’s attacks on the USPS supply chain during a global pandemic indicates that their interest does not lie with the well-being of the Republic or the values of our Founders.
The USPS was established by our Founders with the intention of making this nation a global information and communication superpower, with a population whose well-being was indiscriminately served rain or shine, near or far, rich or poor. Throughout history, it has responded flexibly to what we need, unifying and equalizing our nation. This year, we look to one of our oldest and most beloved institutions to carry out essential services that our Founders may never have envisioned, but would certainly advocate for today: voting by mail and bringing us test kits and medicines. It is essential that this institution be defended and preserved, for our freedom and for the livelihood of our democracy.
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