I have great hopes for the recovery of the U.S. Postal Service now that a new administration occupies the White House. The undisguised attempt to hamstring the Post Office during the last election demonstrates how we must work to safeguard the agency which did more than any other to unify and define our nation. It was the touchstone for American nationhood.
And the Post Office was just as important to Arkansas.
The U.S. Postal Service goes back well before we had a country. The first official colonial postmaster was named in 1639 when Richard Fairbanks, a Boston tavern owner, was directed to care for and transmit "all letters which are brought from beyond the seas, or are to be sent thither." Boston was not yet 10 years old.
The British authorities in the American colonies faced many challenges in establishing a postal system to serve the entire eastern seaboard. Outside the cities and towns, the English colonies had very few roads. But America did have Benjamin Franklin.
In 1737, Franklin, a rapidly rising printer and newspaperman, was appointed the Crown's postmaster for Philadelphia, followed in 1753 as "joint" postmaster general for all the North American colonies.
Franklin managed to cut the delivery time for a letter from Philadelphia to New York from four or five days to 24 hours by putting mail riders out on the roads at night. He commissioned swift packet ships to transport mail along the seaboard and set up a home-delivery system in larger cities.
By 1760, the colonial postal service was making a profit. Still, it was an embryonic system, having only 75 post offices in 1790, and the 1,875 miles of "post roads" were mostly found in a narrow band along the Atlantic coast.
Fortunately for the fledgling service, Pres. George Washington was a consistent supporter. He realized that holding the new nation together demanded bold action, and proposed that every town and village in America should have a post office for "diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government."
Thus, the new country came to be a land of post offices, and by the time Arkansas Territory was established in 1819, settlers fully expected service of some sort.
The first post office established in Arkansas was built on a bend in the Black River in what is today Randolph County at the village of Davidsonville. In 1815, Davidsonville was designated by the Missouri territorial legislature as the seat of Lawrence County, and a post office soon followed. The village was also home to Arkansas' first courthouse.
Davidsonville--a promising and beautifully situated little hamlet--disappeared after 1829 when the county seat was moved. I urge you to visit Davidsonville Historic State Park this spring. My impression is that few Arkansans outside northeast Arkansas know this area, much less the park. Ghost structures have been built to give visitors a feel for the dimensions of the post office, courthouse, and other structures.
It is interesting that Davidsonville received a post office prior to Arkansas Post, the ancient French post on the lower Arkansas which would become the territorial capital in four years. The post office at Arkansas Post, established in July 1817, was known simply as "Arkansas," but in 1831 the named officially changed to Arkansas Post.
It was no accident that Davidsonville and Arkansas Post were river towns. Early settlers congregated along the waterways because rivers were the highways of that day. The U.S. Post Office used commercial steamboats to carry the mail and contracted for small "mail packet" steamers to bring the mail from Memphis to Little Rock, and onward to Fort Smith and beyond.
The arrivals of steamboats and mail packets were especially good news for the early newspaper editors in Little Rock, for the steamboat often brought eastern newspapers. Both the Arkansas Gazette editor William E. Woodruff and his competitor Charles Bertrand at the Arkansas Advocate quoted extensively from other newspapers.
The rivalry between the two Little Rock editors grew more heated in October 1831 when Woodruff was named acting postmaster of Little Rock. Bertrand first accused Woodruff of discarding or delaying delivery of "exchange newspapers" addressed to the Advocate, which the Gazette editor not only denied but, in the words of Gazette historian Margaret Ross, he advised his competitor "... to improve his paper to make other editors willing to exchange."
Bertrand also accused Woodruff of using his postmaster position to support a local candidate for public office. Again, Woodruff denied the accusation, but it no doubt caused concern.
While Woodruff was happy to relinquish his temporary postal duties after a few months, other prominent men throughout the new territory were accepting postmaster positions as new offices were opened at a rapid rate.
The aging Antoine Barraque, a veteran of Napoleon's army and founder of New Gascony in Jefferson County, became postmaster in 1833. In March of that year, Joseph H. Brearley became postmaster at a new settlement on the Arkansas River named Dardanelle. Brearley, whose father opened the first store in what would become Dardanelle, platted the town in 1847.
From the beginning, Arkansas representatives in Washington lobbied steadily for new post offices. Ambrose H. Sevier, the non-voting delegate representing Arkansas Territory in Congress, was prone to announcing new post offices in groups of five to 10. He was also a promoter of "post roads," a designation for roads on which the U.S. Post Office was required to provide postal service.
In 1833, Arkansas had 1,989 miles of post roads, over which 193,076 pieces of mail were transported. The statistics would grow dramatically with time.
This story will continue as I look into how Arkansans used the U.S. Post Office to communicate, to build businesses, and to participate in the national debates which have shaped our democracy.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]