Utilizing Unclaimed Letter Lists in the Newspapers

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.

The Delaware Gazette: March 24, 1871

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.

Salt River Journal: October 17, 1840

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.

Wayne County Herald: May 20, 1880. Note the asterisk for foreign letters.

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™.

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21 thoughts on “Utilizing Unclaimed Letter Lists in the Newspapers

  1. I’ve found family members on these letter lists… mostly from dumb luck and hours of searching. It might prove to be easier with the information provided. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, James. Continue to perform searches for your ancestors every month or two. We add between eight to ten million pages of content to Newspapers.com each month. Good luck in the search for your ancestors.

  2. Dear Sir/Madam,
    Do your newspaper lists include Australia & Ireland?
    Thank you in anticipation of a brief reply.
    Ted Fortune.

    1. Ted,

      If you are specifically looking for unclaimed letter lists in Australian newspapers, our Australian collection has over 2,400 unclaimed letter listings. To find those type “Unclaimed Letters” in the Keyword search field (ensure you use quotation marks). In the Location field click the world icon for a drop down of countries. The default is the United States. Click the drop down arrow and choose “Australia,” then click the search button.

  3. Dear Sirs
    Can you please tell me how I can retrieve my correspondence?
    I called at the Honesdale post office, but they were unhelpful and even said they had never heard of a Post Master Smith.
    I thank you for your kind attention to this matter.
    Baidy Rouset
    Nanticoke Penna.

  4. I found this article very insightful and gives me new idea’s on how to search for family members. Looking forward to new article in the future.

    1. Kimberly, I am glad the article sparked some creative ways for you to search for your ancestors. Best of luck to you in that search. Stay tuned for future blog posts.

  5. Yes, I found my grandmother, Miss Mary Kobeski, in the list of letters printed in a 1903 Streator, IL newspaper. Is there any chance they would still have the letter if it was never claimed? Her father left her to be raised in Streator and I can’ find anything about her biological parents.

    1. I live near Streator and know several families who have been there for a long time. If you aren’t close, I’d be happy to try and help you with your search.

    1. My ancestors were McGuire from County Louth, Ireland. Michael b.1835, his children were Edward, Peter, Thomas, Patrick,Mary, and Hugh, 1853 to 1865

  6. I was able to use Unclaimed Letters to date a photograph of my great-grandfather Jesse and his brother George. George was living in NYC and Jesse was in Chicago with their mother. In November 1905, George married in Iowa. The local paper in their father’s Michigan hometown had a letter for George about 2 weeks after his marriage date. So, I knew that he was in the area, probably introducing his new bride first to his mother and siblings in Chicago, then to his father and childhood friends in Michigan, before heading home to New York. The photo would have been around that time, going by their apparent ages in it, so I figure that’s the best exact date for when it was taken.

    1. Kathy,

      Your example of utilizing newspaper articles to narrow the time frame of when a photo was taken is quite creative. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Would like to find any Gottlieb, Fred, and Anne Scheihing letters in New York and Pennsylvania. Late 1800’s to 1961

  8. What ever happened to all of those old unclaimed letters? If they are still sitting around in a box somewhere, is there a way for family to retrieve them?

    1. Tania, Letters that were not claimed and had no return address were sent to the Dead Letter Office. Postal employees at the facility were allowed to break the secrecy of correspondence rule and opened each one in an effort to glean clues regarding who sent them and where the senders resided. If the attempt was unsuccessful the letters were usually destroyed.

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