One great thing about having an ancestor who held a government job such as postmaster is that it creates a paper trail. A postmaster (which is the correct term for both males and females) has to be appointed to that position. That appointment needs to be recorded somewhere. For the period from 1832 to 1971, that “somewhere” was the Post Office Department. Those records were sent to the National Archives and Records Administration and are available in the U.S., Appointments of U.S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 collection on Ancestry.com.
Postmaster is an interesting occupation to have in the family tree. Besides being a job with records associated with it, it spans both urban and rural ancestors. (If there’s a post office, it needs a postmaster.) Also, beginning during the Civil War, there are a large number of women who were postmasters. It’s a rare glimpse into work outside the home for females of the time. It is estimated that 10 per cent of the postmasters in the U.S. at the close of the 19th century were female.
During the Civil War, the position of postmaster was a political appointment that was sometimes given to the widow of a Civil War soldier. These appointments were given both as a token of recognition of his service, but also to provide income for the widow and any children. After the war, many post offices in the former Confederate states had female postmasters due to the requirement that federal appointees not have voluntarily taken up arms against the United States. (In other words, Confederate veterans need not apply.)
Be sure the look at the image of the actual record. Some records contain notes. Also, you will be able to estimate how long a person was the postmaster by comparing their appointment date with that of the next postmaster. (The actual time in the position would have been shorter, as the appointment process itself took some time.) Keep in mind that the U.S. Post Office did not maintain the post offices in the southern states during the Civil War; therefore, there will be a gap in the postmaster appointments in those states.
You can also learn a lot by browsing by location. The records are arranged by state and then by county. If you browse through a county, you can see when post offices were discontinued or when a name changed. Browsing through Emmet County, Michigan, we see that sometime after 4 June 1877, the Little Traverse post office was renamed Harbor Springs and that the Mossville post office was discontinued 4 March 1878.
- “10 Fascinating Facts on the Postal Services’ 239th Birthday” by the National Constitution Center
- “Women Postmasters” by the USPS (Note: this is a PDF.)
About Amy Johnson Crow
Amy Johnson Crow is a Community Manager for Ancestry.com. She's a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and No Story Too Small.