James Herrington apparently enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the tavern business, because he was extraordinarily good at it. But not only was he Geneva’s first and most successful early tavern keeper, but was also the person who lobbied successfully for the Kane County village’s first post office.
In fact, the post office was awarded even before the town had settled on its permanent name. Herrington had begun referring to the new settlement as La Fox, and when its first post office was granted March 12, 1836 at his urging, it was named La Fox. Geneva wouldn’t receive its permanent—and modern—name for three more months, and the postal service wouldn’t officially change the post office name until 1850.
John Short built the Bristol House as his home, post office, and stagecoach inn. It was just one of several similar facilities sprinkled along stagecoach routes west of Chicago.
Like Herrington, John Short in Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville here in Kendall County) also operated a combination tavern and post office, as did Levi Hills in Lisbon, and many other tavern-keepers throughout our region of northern Illinois.
Early on, the federal government realized reliable communication within and between regions of the country was vital to the new nation’s growth and to an informed electorate. In those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, that meant total reliance on the mails, either carried privately or by the national postal service.
One of the first things the Federal government did, once it was firmly established, was to create an official definition for the mail. Starting with the first post office department under Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock. Only postmasters were entrusted with a key for this lock; without the key, the postmaster was, simply not a postmaster because he could neither accept nor send the mail.
While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was to be considered part of the official mail (carried in the portmanteau) and what wasn’t.
The arrival of the mail stage was always an exciting event in pioneer communities in northern Illinois since they brought newspapers, letters, and passengers.
With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress began settling that debate. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and, later, the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory. Among the Act of 1792’s most important provisions were:
+++Congress’s assumption of the power to establish post offices and post routes. Previously, the Post Office Department had established post routes on its own. With Congress’s involvement, it was assured the number of post offices would greatly and quickly expand due to constituents’ political pressure;
+++Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to maintain an informed electorate; and
+++Establishing the legal basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies for the delivery of the mail. By the 1830s, the stage companies were virtually quasi-public arms of the federal government. In fact, if a stagecoach company lost the government mail contract, government regulations required all of its rolling stock and horses had to be sold to the new contractor.
Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois.
Two years after the War of 1812 ended and still feeling the war’s effects, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, with the aim of further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery. Among its provisions, the law mandated mail service had to be extended to any county courthouse. Included were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was certain it would receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county seat was.
Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system. It was McLean’s decision to rely on private stage contractors to carry the mail instead of using government equipment and employees. Along with the stage delivery system, McLean perfected and expanded the “hub and spoke” sorting system originally adopted in 1800. The system relied on central distribution offices—hubs—that supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices via the spokes.
While post offices were vital to the growth of the region, sending mail was an expensive proposition in those years. Regular postal rates remained constant from 1825 to 1838, but the rates themselves were high in comparison to the cost of living at that time. A single sheet letter mailed up to 30 miles was six cents. The cost went up to 10 cents if mailed from 30 to 80 miles, 12-1/2 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18-3/4 cents for 150 to 400 miles; and 25 cents for a single sheet mailed more than 400 miles. Two sheet letters cost double to mail, while the postage was tripled for a single sheet that weighed more than an ounce.
A collection of letters in the archives at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego confirms that postal rates continued unchanged for some years, and also suggests how effective the postal service was in maintaining communications between the frontier and the settled areas in the old colonies.
In December 1843, James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego after an 800-mile journey with a wagon train from Smyrna, N.Y. On Dec. 17, he wrote back to his parents describing his journey and his current circumstances. The single sheet letter, datelined Oswego, is marked with 25 cents postage.
James Sheldon Barber’s December 1843 letter home from Oswego to his parents in tiny Smyrna, NY. The creases left behind when Barber folded the letter origami-like into an envelope, complete with triangular flap closed with red sealing wax. (Little White School Museum collections)
From accounts in Carlyle R Buley’s The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978), and elsewhere, it appears the letters Barber sent to New York are typical of the era. Each is written on a single 10×16-inch sheet of good rag paper folded in half to create a folio of four 8×10 inch pages. The text of each letter is written on three of the pages. The fourth page is devoted to the letter’s exterior that, when folded with origami-like complexity, turned it into a compact 2.5 x 5 inch packet complete with an envelope-like triangular flap on the back, which was fixed with red sealing wax.
One of the most remarkable things about Barber’s letters is his certainty they would be transported east from the Illinois frontier and faithfully delivered in a timely manner at his parents’ home in a small hamlet in upstate New York. At the time, Kendall County was just two years old. Oswego Township had been settled for only 10 years and the village had yet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. But even from such a presumably rough and tough frontier region, Barber’s letters made it back to his former home.
Major post roads in the Fox River Valley area of northern Illinois from the mid-1830s through the early 1850s.
By the time Barber was sending his letters home, mail routes throughout northern Illinois were well defined. Mail delivery in what are now the 24 counties of northern Illinois (there are more now than back then) had begun adjacent to the Mississippi River when the first post office was established June 6, 1825 and named Fever River (after the small tributary on which the settlement was located), only to be renamed Galena in 1826. Rock Island, located on the Mississippi itself, got its post office in September of the same year. Both offices became major distribution hubs.
But while the first two post offices in northern Illinois relied heavily on river transport for mail delivery, nine other post offices were established in the region before the next one (Ottawa) that mainly relied on river transport. Clearly, the region’s growing road system was becoming more vital to the delivery of the mail as new roads connected the county seats and other settlements in the growing region. In fact, by following the creation of post offices, a person can fairly easily follow the evolution of the region’s road system linking its major developing towns.
Around Galena, the postal system was gradually expanded, with Apple River granted an office in 1828 and Ogee’s Ferry—later Dixon—getting its office in 1829. Both Dixon and Apple River were branches that relied on the Galena hub.
As an illustration of how quickly the northwest corner of Illinois was developing during that era, and how unimportant the rest of the northern part of the state was, Jo Daviess County boasted seven of the first 11 post offices established in northern Illinois.
Frink, Walker & Company’s general stagecoach office at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Lake Street in Chicago is where many of the mail routes of the 1840s west of Lake Michigan began. Frink and Walker eventually controlled virtually all the stagecoach traffic in the upper Midwest.
In March of 1831, Chicago finally got its post office, following the establishment of Cook County in January of 1831, with mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, then the nearest post office. In 1832, mail delivery was weekly from Detroit via a one-horse wagon. The next year, 1833, a two-horse post wagon delivered the mail. Not until regular four-horse stage service started in 1834 did Chicago’s mail arrive more than once a week.
Chicago remained the only post office in northeast Illinois until Ottawa was granted its post office in December 1832, suggesting growth was outstripping the post office’s ability to establish new offices. LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat of government, had been established in January of 1831, meaning it took nearly two years for the town’s post office to be granted.
Chicago and Ottawa were officially linked by a state road in 1833, although it’s likely mail was carried on horseback from the Chicago office to Ottawa beginning in 1832. In 1833, the post office at Juliet (later renamed Joliet) and the DuPage post office, which was located in the extreme northeast corner of Section 19 of DuPage Township, Will County, were both established as Chicago branches. DuPage was a regular stop on the High Prairie Trail from Ottawa to Chicago. Plainfield didn’t get its post office—another branch—until January of 1834, followed in April by the post office at Holderman’s Grove, also on the High Prairie Trail. The post office at Holderman’s was the first in what would, in 1841, become Kendall County.
As settlers began filling the area between the Fox River and Lake Michigan, more branch post offices were established on the region’s major thoroughfares using the Ottawa and Chicago hubs. Cass post office in Downers Grove Township on the High Prairie Trail, Brush Hill post office on the Galena and Ottawa roads, and Naperville were established in 1834, 1835, and 1836, respectively. Aurora and Oswego both got their post offices in 1837.
Montgomery was reportedly on the list to receive its post office in 1837, but the McCarty brothers, Samuel and Joseph, Aurora’s founders, appropriated the post route to Galena. According to at least one history, Montgomery was in line to get its post office, but Aurora supporters were able to somehow delay the delivery of the official postmaster’s key to the Montgomery postmaster. Without the key, of course, the official portmanteau could not be opened, ergo no mail delivery. Meanwhile, the McCarty brothers used their political connections to expedite the application for their own post office. At the same time, Aurora boosters improved the trail from Naperville to Aurora (today’s Aurora Avenue and East New York Street) by bridging the numerous wetlands that lay between the two settlements in the timber—called the Big Woods—that stretched from one to the other. The McCartys also promised the stagecoach company hauling mail over the route that they’d provide free room and board for the stage driver and would also put the coach’s four-horse team up free of charge. The result was that Montgomery lost its first chance for a post office and their direct access to the Galena Road at the same time.
In 1908, when Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora,” right near the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”
On June 26, 1840, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced updated mail schedules and routes, including the modified Fox River Trail route from Ottawa north to LaFox–now Geneva in this advertisement published in Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, the Illinois Free Trader.
Lisbon, in southern Kendall County, had gotten its post office in 1836, thanks to Levi Hills moving the log post office/tavern from Holderman’s Grove six miles out onto the prairie along the High Prairie Trail. Farther west on the Galena Road, Little Rock post office was established in 1837, followed that same year by the post office at Newark.
Meanwhile, at LaFox (Geneva), Herrington operated the post office in his home/tavern. In 1837, mail to LaFox first came from Naperville, and later that year from Aurora. But then in early June 1840, LaFox got its own mail delivery when it became the terminus of a new route up the west bank of the Fox River from Ottawa via Dayton, Northville, Penfield, Bristol, and Aurora to LaFox every Friday.
But just a couple weeks later, the route changed. On June 26, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced the mail up the Fox River Trail would be delivered three times a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. He also announced a route change, with the addition of Oswego to the list. The mail traveled up the west side of the Fox River to the Oswego ford across the Fox, and then north along the East River Road (today’s Ill. Route 25) through Aurora to LaFox
Interestingly enough, many of those post offices established during the go-go settlement years of the 1830s are still in business, continuing to serve their communities 180 years later. And every time you drop a letter in the mail in Oswego or Aurora or Geneva, you’re participating in a bit of the region’s long and fascinating post office history.