My mother was born and raised in Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin and we often went back to her "home stomping grounds" from our home in the northern suburbs of Chicago, just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. In some ways, Milwaukee was like a second home to me, at least in my younger years. I thought it would be fun to see if any of my Mom's family had been entwined with the Milwaukee Post Office. So here is my final entry for my blog posts on the microfilms of the U. S. Postmasters, held in various National Archives repositories across the country (see earlier blog).
In previous posts, I mentioned that a Postmaster may not be listed as such on the Census (U.S. or State); that if your ancestor was a merchant or clerk in a general store, he/she may have also served as a Postmaster, so checking these films for that possibility is a good idea. Note: If your ancestor is listed on a Census as a "postal clerk," that does not mean he/she was a Postmaster - but that ancestor probably did work in a Post Office (as opposed to a general store). But cases are different, depending on perspective as well as official appointment. Even temporarily appointed Postmasters are listed in the microfilms discussed in these blog posts and it is not uncommon, especially in larger cities, to see Postmaster turnover rather often, particularly in years of turmoil (e.g., during the Civil War years there were three different Postmasters at the helm of the main Milwaukee Post Office over the years).
Why frequent turnover in the larger cities? New Post Offices were established as the communities grew and sometimes a Postmaster would be transferred from one location to another (to help train staff, perhaps?). If you are looking in a large city, remember this: your ancestor may be working in a smaller Post Office or one that is associated with the city but located in a "suburb." Wauwatosa is part of Milwaukee (it was incorporated in 1897), but was considered a separate city (as far as Postmaster appointments are concerned) even before 1897. Within Wauwatosa was located the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Northwestern Branch. In 1876, its own Post Office was established (http://www.linkstothepast.com/milwaukee/soldiershome.php); George W. Barber was the appointed Postmaster. But he is not listed on the pages of the Postmasters for the Milwaukee Post Office because that was not his location; the Milwaukee Post Office for that time period encompasses pages 540-541 (Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971, Record Group no. 28, NARA series M841, film no. 143, "Milwaukee County," ca. 1864-1878, Vol. 31) while the National Home is on page 542 - just a scroll of one more page. (Hint: be assertive in searching for your Postmaster relatives and widen your search in the suspected area if he/she is not located where you originally suspected.)
The first Postmaster for Milwaukee was appointed on 16 March 1835. When you combine the history of a town with the activities of mail distribution, you can formulate a unique perspective of how the town grew (or failed to grow). The history of Milwaukee is one of personal rivalry and competition for population growth that encompassed communities on different sides of the Milwaukee River. Explorer Solomon Juneau (from Canada) and Byron Kilbourn (whose family dates back to the Revolutionary War period) along with the less frequently recognized George H. Walker (American trader and politician) were the entities that competed for most favorable village location. But the first to establish a community recognized by the U.S. government, as far as mail delivery is concerned, was Mr. Juneau, who served first as Milwaukee Postmaster (from 1835 until about July 1843, when Josiah Noonan took over). In 1837, Juneau also created The Milwaukee Sentinel (which has remained the primary newspaper for the community to the present day, though name changes have occurred throughout the years). A Notice in the Postal Bulletin of his position appeared on 13 June 1842 (copies can be found in "the Reference Library of the Post Office Department, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives Building" - per Publication Document, Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971, Record Group no. 28, NARA series M841, 1977, p. 2). During his years as Postmaster, Juneau was also a real estate agent, in a manner of speaking, selling parcels of land on his side of the River, beginning in 1835. From 1846 until 1847, Juneau served as Milwaukee's first mayor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Juneau). His was a busy life, to say the least.
Josiah Noonan was Juneau's successor at the Milwaukee Post Office and served in that capacity off and on from 22 July 1843 until mid-1856 (Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971, Record Group no. 28, NARA series M841, film number 143, "Milwaukee County," 1832-1844, Vol 12B, p. 774; ca. 1845-1855, Vol 18, pp. 220-A-221A; ca. 1855-1865, Vol. 20B, p. 204). Between about May 1849 and April 1853, Noonan is not found on the Postmaster listing, but may have been assisting in other offices. He was still living in Milwaukee in 1850 (according to the U.S. Census for that year), working as an insurance agent. He had been born in New York. Who was he and why had he vacated his job for four years?
Josiah Noonan, like his predecessor in the Post Office, was also a newspaperman. He moved to Milwaukee from Madison where he had successfully published a newspaper (he sold the property to C. C. Sholes) and began a new venture on the shore of Lake Michigan: The Milwaukee Courier (formerly the Milwaukee Advertiser), a decidedly Democratic publication. His takeover of the Postmaster position brought that same focus to his new "office" (we may not recognize how powerful a position a Postmaster could take in a community, but this was his approach to this occupation). His influence in (over) Wisconsin spilled over into more the more visible political world when he left the Post Office to manage the campaign of Henry Dodge (contender for Democratic Senator of Wisconsin). It was a successful venture and, as already noted, Noonan returned to his appointment in the Post Office in 1853, continuing his alignment with Dodge. In 1856 (source states 1857, and the actual attempt for reappointment may have occurred then, but he was already out of the P.O. in about July 1856, succeeded by Fitzgerald G. Slocum), when Noonan sought re-appointment to the Postmaster position, he turned to Dodge for help, but the Senator, in poor health, was unsuccessful in securing it for him. Noonan's unofficial Wisconsin "boss" role ended with that turn of events (http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/dictionary/index.asp?action=view&term_id=2538&keyword=sholes). John R. Sharpstein was appointed by the U.S. President to the Postmaster position on 2 April 1857 Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971, Record Group no. 28, NARA series M841, film number 143, "Milwaukee County," 1855-1865, Vol. 20B, p. 204).
In previous examinations of the value of the Postmaster records, we have connected the job of Postmaster to that of a general store clerk (merchant) and lawyer. But here we see the role of Postmaster as being potentially more politically influential in a community and that some Postmasters are also intimately connected with the publication of newspapers. In seeking further information on John R. Sharpstein, I have discovered that, again, politics and law have been comingled with the handling and distribution of the mail. Sharpstein was appointed to the Milwaukee position by President Buchanan in 1857 and, according to some historical accounts, served a term of four years (though the microfilmed records show him serving for only a little more than 14 months) before moving on to publish the Milwaukee Daily News, taking, along the way, some time to assist (unsuccessfully) Stephen A. Douglas in his Presidential Campaign in 1860, serving as a Delegate to the Democratic National Convention in South Carolina (Oscar T. Shuck, Ed., History of the Bench and Bar of California: Being Biographies of Many Remarkable Men, a Store of Humorous and Pathetic Recollections, Accounts of Important Legislation and Extraordinary Cases, Comprehending the Judicial History of the State, Los Angeles: The Commercial Printing House, 1901, p. 554; Viewed on Google Books, 20 September 2011).
The links that tie politics to the Post Office to the people to the community (represented by newspapers, lawyers, and elected politicians) are fascinating to examine. The role the Postmaster can play in the development of a village (to town to city to metropolis) is powerful. To learn more of that phenomenon, check the PDF publication: "The Post Office in Illinois Politics of the 1950's" [sic] by Don H. Fehrenbacher (incomplete manuscript). If your ancestor was a Postmaster, was he/she also a politician? What role did the person play in the running and ruling of the community? It warrants examination. And I'd love to hear what people discover.
This completes my examination of how this valuable microfilm collection can relate to your own family history. Come on in to the National Archives, Pacific Region, Riverside (or other locations where the films are available - see previous blog) and check it out!