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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

U.S. Postmasters - continued - Keeping it in the Family

Sometimes families maintain a "family business" throughout several generations. This is common for trades such as farming, carpentry, shoemaking, and others (especially craftsmanship types of occupations where children learn from their parents). It is also common when the region in which a family lives supports a particular industry, such as mining or lumbering. I have found a family, the Clintons in Green County, Wisconsin, where the family "business" including working as Postmasters for the United States Post Office.

In 1860, on the Decatur, Green County, Population Schedule of the Federal Census, H. P. Clinton is listed as a 32-year-old lawyer with a wife, Ella (age 31), and children, Don J. (age 8) and Ella J. (age 6). On that same Census we find Chas. Clinton (of Decatur), a 25-year-old merchant. (Note: on the Census it clearly identifies Brodhead as being the location of the Post Office service for Decatur.)

On 1 June 1860, Chas. W. Clinton was appointed Postmaster of the Brodhead, Green County, Wisconsin Post Office (most likely located in the store in which he worked as a merchant). But not even a year later (on 19 March 1861), Henry P. (H. P.) Clinton was appointed to that same Post Office (you know, the common occupation of lawyer/postmaster). According to the "books," he remained in that position for almost exactly two years, but just because there is not a newly appointed person on the Postmaster Records, do not assume that the same individual remained in the role (someone else may have substituted for him if he had to be absent for a period of time).

On 6 March 1863, Eleanor H. Clinton of Brodhead was appointed Postmaster for that community. On the 1870 Federal Census for that area, Elanor [someone has corrected the spelling to "Eleanor"] Clinton is listed as head of the household and her occupation as "Postmistress" (the government uses the same, masculine, form for all people in the position of Postmaster, though Eleanor apparently wanted it to be listed as clearly identifying her gender).

Is Eleanor H. Clinton that same "Ella J. Clinton," wife of H. P. on the 1860 Census? It would appear that the task of Postmaster, at least in the Clinton family, was passed on from one member of the clan to another, even if the next in line is a woman. (Many occupations, traditionally held by men, were turned over to the ladies during the Civil War . . . some of those women may have been reluctant to release their roles back to the guys once the veterans came home. Did H. P. go to war? Indeed, he was a Quartermaster in the Wisconsin 7th Infantry, Field and Staff and enlisted on 15 August 1861 and resigned on 11 November 1862 so in his absence from the P.O., someone must have filled in - perhaps his wife? She isn't officially in the role until 1863, but he would likely have been back by then since he left the Army in late 1862. The question remains: What happened to Henry - H.P. - Clinton; lawyer, Postmaster, and veteran?)

There is no indication of Don J. ever taking over for his mother; the next postmaster for Brodhead was appointed on 8 May 1871: Burr Sprague. Burr is listed, on the 1870 Census, as a 34-year-old book merchant from New York with a 30-year-old wife, Vina; the family living in Brodhead. According to the Postmaster listing, he was "Reappointed - by the President and the Senate (noted by 'P & S' on the document, see image above) - on 18 December 1871," no doubt making his appointment official. Or possibly in conjunction with his new profession, lawyer: on the 1880 Census, that is his occupation (we seem to have come full circle).

Part of using these Postmaster Records is to help fill in blanks. Even when a discovery of a family or a person from your line leads to this set of records, do not stop there. Let's check into the history of the Brodhead Post Office. I started that on the website for the Brodhead Historical Society and learned that, initially aligned with Brodhead were the communities of Clarence and Decatur (where the Clintons had lived, though in his military enlistment, H. P. had declared his hometown to be Brodhead, Wisconsin). According to the Historical Society, the communities of Clarence and Old Decatur were in competition for "Most Prosperous Village in the Brodhead Area."

B. J. Tenney established a small store in early Brodhead and, in his home, created the Post Office. At that time (the date is not provided on the website, but here is where our NARA records come into play) the hamlet was called "Tenneyville" but was soon renamed "Clarence." Abijah D. Tenney (appointed 8 February 1849) was the first Postmaster for this make-shift facility. It seems he remained in that position until 2 May 1854 when Alexander S. Dye took over for a short while before 4 October 1854, when the torch was passed to John B. Sawyer. After a few more changes of the guard, the Post Office was discontinued on 13 July 1855.

 (Note how Decatur's last date of operation was in 1859, but if we look directly above that date, the dates of the Postmaster positions for Clarence and Dayton are in 1855 . . . each Post Office has listings for its own personnel and one should not expect to find dates corresponding vertically. Below is the continuation for Clarence, going into 1858):

Decatur's original name was "Centreville," but was renamed in the 1840s. Its first homesteader was Ohioan John Moore in 1839 and in 1841-42 he became the first Postmaster. This statement from the Historical Society's website is confirmed by the Postmaster records, stating John Moore as the first Postmaster in Decatur, appointed 16 July 1842. Eventually, on 18 February 1854, James W. Banker was at the helm, but it survived longer than its adversary township, being discontinued on 23 July 1859 with the same man serving as Postmaster. By that time, John B. Sawyer (from the Clarence P.O.) was established as the Postmaster in Brodhead (being their first in that position, beginning on 11 May 1957). The next Postmaster was Edward A. McNair (appointed 19 November 1857) and then the position was taken over by Mr. Clinton, as noted above, in 1860.

Why did the Post Offices in Clarence and Decatur cease operation? Well, let's look at the United States in the late 1850s. The community of Brodhead was overtaking the little townships and soon both Clarence and Decatur were left in the wake of a town that owed its prosperity to the railroad. And at the head of the drive for placing Brodhead on the rail line: E. A. Clinton. So here we see where the Clintons came into the picture and became movers and shakers in this town. Life in Brodhead centered around different elements (store, band-shell, etc.) depending on the time of day. In the evening, when the train arrived, people would meet it, but not so much as to see who was disembarking as to greet the evening mail delivery and follow it to the Post Office where it would be sorted and distributed. By this time, the Post Offices in Decatur and Clarence had closed up shop so people living in those communities would have about a five-mile buggy or horse ride to collect their communications from the outside world.

OK, so what does this have to do with us, as genealogists? Savvy researchers look to town histories to learn how their ancestors lived, whether they had positions of responsibility (or residence in the local hoosegow), etc. Besides learning why the little communities just seemed to shrink from thriving to struggling, we can trace family members. Did your ancestor live in a little village and then seem to just disappear (like H. P. Clinton)? Perhaps his/her village ceased to provide a living. Checking the history of the area might shed light on this and, along with the Postmaster Records, provide information about when villages became consolidated, subsumed, or just extinct. It can also provide ideas for further research about relatives (what happened to the Clintons when Eleanor left the post . . . did she die? retire? become ill? move to wherever her husband was?). OK, so maybe you will end up with more questions, but if you have access to the films of the Record of Appointment of Postmasters at your local NARA facility, check them out (see previous blogs for information on learning where these films are housed across the U.S.).

As you can see by the images above, the filmed pages are not arranged in an easy-to-follow method (e.g., column one being one set of years, column two being the next set, etc.): the lines are filled out consecutively as the Postmasters changed, but if one Postmaster stays in the position for a couple of decades while the community listed just above or below may find its Postmaster job constantly refilled, you will find the 1850s blending into the next decade quite rapidly. There are divisions between the sections to at least help keep the pages from covering too many years in a single line:

However, when each new section begins, the last Postmaster (from the previous section) is listed again, with appointment date, so that the succeeding and preceding names and dates are not misinterpreted (see the first two images above, listing Eleanor Clinton at the end of the first image or section and again at the beginning of the next section, from 1865-1875).

If you decide to check out the Postmaster records, I'd love to hear from you, especially if you have success!

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