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Gossamer Network: The U.S. Post and State Power in the American West

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant.

Between the 1860s and the 1890s, the western United States underwent one of the most dramatic reorganizations of people, land, capital, and resources in American history. It had taken Anglo-Americans the better part of two centuries to settle the eastern half of the country, yet they occupied the West in less than a single generation. How did this happen so quickly and across such a large and inhospitable area? Why were so many people willing and able to move to such shockingly remote places? How did the American state consolidate its control over a vast western periphery? The answer lies in the unlikely infrastructure of the U.S. Post. Cameron Blevins’s book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West argues that the sprawling spatial circuitry of the U.S. Post provided the spatial circuitry for the American state and its project of western incorporation. The Gossamer Network companion website offers an online, interactive version of one of the book’s chapters using D3.js.

This chapter offers an overarching spatial synthesis of the western United States during the second half of the nineteenth century by mapping large-scale patterns in the spread of post offices into different areas of the region. One of the central challenges of this chapter is how to capture how the U.S. Post operated across a range of spatial scales, from the intimate scale of individual letters to the continental connections made up the larger network. An online interface presents these two narrative scales alongside one another. Visually zooming and panning across a map of thousands of western post offices while simultaneously embedding individual stories within this map imparts a far richer understanding of how the U.S. Post knit together the space of the West.

Principal Investigator
Cameron Blevins, Faculty Alumni, now at University of Colorado Denver

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