Cartographer Derek Watkins has created an elegant little video that traces the western expansion of the United States by mapping when post offices opened and where.
The basic conceit: Post offices rise around freshly settled territory because, of course, people need to send letters, and it was always thus. Think: As soon as a frontiersman staked a claim on a piece of land, he had to be able to write his family and tell them to hop on a wagon and head west. Hell, post offices are probably the best signboards of civilization this side of cemeteries and whorehouses.
Watkins gathered data from the USPS Postmaster Finder and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to chart new post offices established between 1700 and 1900. The result — plotted in dots on a U.S. map, with a handy time line at the bottom — shows everything from development veining along the eastern seaboard after the Revolutionary War to stagnation in the south during the Civil War to the headiness of the California miners’ rush, when new post offices turned up about as often gold nuggets. In short, it’s a 1:17-minute lesson in the watershed moments of early American history.
Glad to see the post office is still good for something.
More about the project, including a few caveats, on Watkins’s website here.