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October 2003 Feature

Little Town in the National Archives:
Post Office Records for De Smet, SD

top of Post Office appiclation for De Smet

On February 24, 1880, George H. Bryan requested a post office for De Smet in Dakota Territory, the town that figures in four "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Detail, Record Group 28)

When genealogists come to the National Archives, they'll find that the new National Archives Building Research Center makes it easier to do their work-by bringing together in one place many research services formerly housed elsewhere in the building and by adding some new services.

They'll also find that the National Archives has a variety of Federal records they can use to trace family histories. The U.S. census records are among the most frequently used genealogical sources; however, records of other Federal activities also provide information for genealogists. Those activities include giving pensions to veterans of national wars, distributing Federal lands, and establishing post offices.

Postal records, for example, document much about the storied town of De Smet, Dakota Territory (later South Dakota), which figures in four of the popular "Little House" book by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In 1879 and 1880 the Chicago and North Western Railroad extended its Dakota Central Branch from Tracy, MN, to Pierre, Dakota Territory. The Ingalls family moved to a small railroad camp in the area so that Laura's father, Charles Ingalls, could work for the railroad as the storekeeper, bookkeeper, and timekeeper for $50 a month. The town of De Smet, a typical railroad town in Dakota Territory, grew out of that small camp. Ingalls describes the budding little town:

Suddenly, there on the brown prairie where nothing had been before, was the town. In two weeks, all along Main Street the unpainted new buildings pushed up their thin false fronts, two stories high and square on top. Behind the false fronts the buildings squatted under their partly shingled, sloping roofs. Strangers were already living there; smoke blew gray from the stovepipes, and glass windows glinted in the sunshine. (By the Shores of Silver Lake, p. 242)

After the railroads were built, many people moved into the area to homestead. Among the needed services were post offices. A town applied to the Post Office Department, submitting forms and letters describing why they wanted a post office and where it would be located. These records are found in Post Office Department Reports of Site Locations (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1126). Using these records, one can trace the growth of this small railroad town surrounded by public lands in the early 1880s.

On February 24, 1880, George H. Bryan's request described De Smet as a railroad town on a plateau. Although Bryan noted that there were only 50 people in the town, he wrote that the post office would serve 500. The 1880 census describes Mr. Bryan as a builder. Less than a month later, on March 15, 1880, he submitted another request for a post office. By now, he noted, 300 people were living in the town.

size of town Feb 24

size of town Mar 15
Between February 24 and March 15, 1880, the reported size of the town grew from 50 to 300. (Detail, Record Group 28)

On the back of the site report, the applicant had to indicate where a post office would be located as well as notable roads, streams, or rivers. The Topography Office used these reports to compile postal route maps. The diagrams do not show the exact locations of post offices or include information about the buildings in which post offices were housed or operated. A researcher today can use the site location reports to study the growth of towns and the expansion of transportation in an area from roads to railroads to highways to waterway shipping to air.

diagram on back of site report
The back of the site report submitted on March 15, 1880, notes the location of De Smet on a standard grid. (Detail, Record Group 28)

By the summer of 1884, Laura

had quite forgotten that she had ever disliked the town. It was bright and brisk this morning. . . . In the two blocks there were only two vacant lots on the west side of the street now, and some of the stores were painted, white or gray. . . . . Everywhere was the stir and bustle of morning. . . . Doors slammed; hens cackled, and horses whinnied in the stables." (These Happy Golden Years, p. 37)

The post office was most likely one of those busy places on that busy morning.

Federal records such as these may exist for your family and the town or city where they lived. The microfilmed Post Office records are available at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and at National Archives regional facilities.

Constance Potter
Staff Archivist


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