Did you know historical newspapers published a list of names for those with unclaimed letters at the post office? These lists can provide valuable clues when researching your ancestors.
After the founding of the United States, mail generally traveled by river, horseback, or wagons to local post offices (if towns had them). The delivery times could take weeks or longer due to travel conditions.
Individuals had to travel to the post office to inquire if they had a letter waiting for them. If there was, the recipient paid the postage and received it. Many individuals in rural communities went to town once a week or even once a month to check for mail.
At times, unclaimed letters accumulated. When they did, the local Postmaster submitted an advertisement in the local newspaper to notify individuals in the community that a letter was waiting for them. Most of these lists were organized alphabetically, by last name, then first. If a recipient had more than one letter at the post office, a number next to their name indicated how many letters were waiting. Postmasters varied on how long they would hold the letter, but it was typically 30 days to three months. If the letter was still unclaimed after that, the Postmaster sent it to the Dead Letter Office. Letter listings are valuable when researching ancestors and can provide useful information.
Location: The obvious value in finding an ancestor’s name in a letter list indicated that they likely lived in the surrounding area at one time. Searching for their name in local newspapers may yield information or stories about them. Here’s a pro tip – notice how your ancestor’s name appeared in the paper. If the paper used initials or abbreviations, try searching for your ancestor’s name using this same spelling.
If you have determined your ancestor lived in a specific location, other records that could provide additional information include tax and land records, state and federal censuses, and local histories. You can also search probate and cemetery records if your ancestor died in the area.
Female Ancestors: Some letter listings mixed male and female individuals; others separated the names by gender. Letter lists with female ancestors are beneficial as they usually include the woman’s full name, not their husband’s.
International Ties: Some letter lists notated mail arriving from a foreign country. These were denoted by an asterisk next to the name of the recipient. Although not a guarantee, it could indicate the recipient had relatives or ties to individuals living in another country.
Life Hints: If your ancestor’s name was in a list of letters over an extended period, it could hint at certain life events. Illness, traveling, death, or a possible move may have been why a letter was not claimed. If your ancestor lived in a different state after their name appeared in a list of letters, it may indicate where your relative lived before moving.
How to search on Newspapers.com for lists of letters: There are several ways to search for letter lists in the papers. First, you can type “List of Letters” or “Unclaimed Letters” using quotation marks in the Newspapers.com™ search bar. Then, filter your results by location and date. Alternatively, navigate to the state, city, and newspaper you desire to search. In the search field, type “List of Letters” in quotation marks and click the magnifying glass icon. Your search should provide matching results of letter lists for you to review.
If you find your ancestor’s name, don’t forget to search for additional articles about them in that local newspaper.
Try these tips and search for your ancestors in letter lists today on Newspapers.com™.