Extending Mail Service

The position of “surveyor” was created in December 1772, with Hugh Finlay named “Surveyor of Post roads on the Continent of North America” by the British postmasters general.53 Finlay toured Post Offices from Maine to Georgia to evaluate service and suggest improvements. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed William Goddard surveyor of the United Colonies; he would become the first American surveyor. Goddard established new Post Offices, arranged mail transportation contracts, and settled postmasters’ accounts.

In 1782, the position of surveyor was abolished to save money; Postmasters General and their assistants acted in the capacity of inspector through the 1790s.

By 1801, the title “special agent” was used. In March 1801, a special agent was appointed to investigate delays in moving mail between Washington, D.C., and Kentucky. Six years later, another was hired to secretly investigate mail robberies in Tennessee.

By 1830, an Office of Instruction and of Mail Depredations was created, headed by General Agent Preston S. Loughborough. His duties were to:


investigate, in person, cases of mail robberies and of missing letters; to correspond with district attorneys … to examine mail routes, and the manner in which mail contracts are executed; to examine post offices; the characters and conduct of postmasters …


and to communicate:


the decisions of the Postmaster General on questions … concerning the construction of post office laws and regulations.54


By 1837, the Post Office Depart-ment’s four special agents were paying surprise visits to Post Offices, auditing accounts, and reporting on the general state of affairs. Twelve special agents were employed by 1843, and the Postmaster General attributed a decrease in mail thefts to their “vigilance … in ferreting out and bringing to justice depredators.”55 In the 1840s, special agents also were sent to Texas (1846), Oregon (1847), and California (1848), to superintend the establishment of new service.

In October 1850, the Postmaster General outlined agents’ duties:


Arresting and helping convict mail thieves.


Overseeing mail service.


Occasionally asking local business communities for improvement suggestions.


Keeping a daily journal of activities, to be transcribed twice a month and sent to the Department.56


By 1855, the Post Office Department employed 18 special agents — 3 at large and 15 domiciled across the United States. Twenty-one agents served by 1861, including one assigned solely to the New York City Post Office, which handled more than three times the mail of the next largest Post Office.

The Civil War brought new challenges. Special agents helped deliver mail to Union troops in the South and reestablished service as southern states returned to federal control. Finding individuals willing and able to serve as postmasters in the South was difficult because, until July 1868, all prospective postmasters had to swear that they had not voluntarily aided the Confederacy or Confederate soldiers. The 1865 Official Register of the United States listed 33 special agents, including 5 in charge of specific southern Post Offices.57

The number of agents grew with the Post Office Department and with congressional mandates to protect the mail and to protect the American public from obscenity, fraud, and lotteries conducted through the mail.