Dakota Datebook


Wednesday, February 27, 2013


In an age of email and cell phones, sometimes postal services are taken for granted. This is unfortunate, as the history of mail is rich. That friendly postman in his or her official blues comes from a great background.

Mail always has been important in helping families stay connected. Little fonts of civilization sprung up around post offices. This was especially true for early settlers of North Dakota. Many were homesteading their land far away from their families, who were often either along the East Coast or in a completely different country.

Getting mail to and from those or other locales maintained part of the connection, proving that they were not so isolated. Historically, the different methods of carrying those beloved epistles echoed historical times and innovations. In fact, “almost anything that moves has been used to carry the mail.” At one time in the southwest, the Army even imported camels to carry mail. Mail delivery methods included the pony express, where men rode non-stop to the point of exhaustion to deliver the few letters they could take with them; mail also was transported by carriage, wagon and steamship, where there was water to traverse, and later, by plane.

Then, of course, there were mail trains. Fast and efficient and girding the country, rail lines moved mail swiftly across the land.

Within this history of the post office, and these different methods of mail-carrying, however, there is also a rich tradition of mail getting lost.

In 1911, some mail en route to Tagus was crushed, shredded, and lost. One of the bags of mail got dragged between the wheels of the train and was torn up into pieces. “The mail was scattered the length of the yards.” The newspaper sack was somewhat intact, and the postmistress spent a “busy afternoon” trying to sort out who got the papers—“or rather, the pieces.” Very few letters survived, though; nothing was found of the mail sack, except for the lock.

As well as regular mail, a package of money intended for the Tagus bank was in that bag. Of the $500 in that sack, a large sum for that year, only $380 was recovered. The rest was likely to be compensated by insurance.

So, today, those years ago, bits of mail and $120 were still “probably roaming about the prairies.”

That wouldn’t be such a bad windfall.


Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker




Nancy A. Pope, National Postal Museum; Smithsonian museum web site. Made May 1, 2006, viewed Feb. 20, 2008. http://www.arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=1&cmd=1&mode=&tid=2032161


Bismarck Daily Tribune, Wednesday, March 1, 1911, p.3


Tagus Mirror, Friday, March 3, 1911, p.1



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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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