Published: May 18, 2021

This Spring Dr. Cameron Blevins published his first book, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, Oxford University Press. The book explores how the American state expanded its domestic influence through the U.S. Postal Service. Blevins digitally mapped 166,140 post offices constructed between 1639 and 2000, and this allowed him to reinterpret the scope of state power. He shows how post offices “helped accelerate settler A sepia toned cover page with the words "Paper Trails" dominating the top and the words "Cameron Blevins" filling the bottom of the image. In the background is an open, rustic looking envelope with an antique map of the U.S.A. peaking out.colonial occupation in the West, allowing millions of settlers to swarm into remote and otherwise inhospitable areas – confident that they could stay connected to the wider world.”

Blevins developed this new way of seeing the state in graduate school while studying the patterns of colonial settlement throughout the American West. In order to map the establishment of these settlements, he studied the construction of their post offices. He recalls, “The more I dug into the data and the archives, the more I realized that this institution wasn't just a passive proxy but an active accelerant of change in the region.” 

Digital history played a crucial role in Blevins’s methodology as he used Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to build online archives and exhibits. Still, archival sources were equally important in giving him the “big picture.” Fortunately, he had completed most of his research before COVID-19 shut down the nation’s archives.

When reflecting on those who helped along the way, Blevins refutes the stereotype of the solitary historian in a lonely archive. For instance, he notes, “My book would have been impossible without a stamp collector named Richard Helbock, who spent decades of his life collecting this dataset of 166,140 post offices. I stumbled upon his work, and it became the analytical backbone for my book. This is an example of the kind of hidden labor behind almost any history book that you'll read.”