Monday, January 31, 2022

Forever: Sending a Letter

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Today “forever” costs fifty-eight cents. At least that’s what sending a one-ounce letter within the United States in 2021 costs. In October this year, the US Postal Service announced that first class mail may take them a little longer to deliver and for us to expect some letters and packages to arrive days later than in the past.

At this time of year, letters and packages keep the Post Office pretty busy. To appreciate how some things have changed, we invite you to view our current exhibit Going Postal. This exhibit is a fun look at mail service in Chemung County. 

Of course, mail was delivered in the colonies before the United States was a country, it was just delivered by anyone you might convince or pressure into carrying a message for you. As the colonies grew, Great Britain set up a mail system modeled after their own public mail service, one which had operated since the time of Henry VIII. The word post refers to the English mail service being carried from post to post. Each post had a master who would sort out and remove his area’s mail and return the rest to a post boy who then resumed delivery.

B. Franklin, Painting by J. Duplessis, 1778

In 1753, the Crown appointed Benjamin Franklin to serve as Joint Postmaster General for the colonies. During his tenure he established new mail routes, and erected sandstone mile markers known as Franklin Markers, to indicate distances. The changes Franklin made resulted in a faster and more reliable mail service. He even worked remotely as he spent much of the late 1750s in England. He audited postal statements and made decisions through the mail. Under his leadership, the postal service in the colonies turned a profit for the first time.

It was all fine until Franklin was implicated in leaking important letters sent between the British Crown and the British Governor of Massachusetts. Franklin, opposed to British rule, was dismissed from his post in 1774. Without his lead, the system began to fail.

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the United States Post Office. The drafted constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” to promote interstate communication and establish a source of revenue. Franklin was appointed its first Postmaster General. He was quick to rebuild his previous postal system, and it soon outperformed the British version. Franklin served in this position for a little over a year before he was appointed ambassador to France.

The Postal Service Act, signed by President George Washington in 1792 established unification, rules and regulations, and gave the Postmaster General greater powers under the United States Post Office Department. One of these was the ability to create postal routes to ensure that mail delivery would serve existing communities and expand as the new nation grew. It also allowed newspapers to be carried by the postal system at low rates. This helped spread information and improve communication throughout the young nation.

The title Postmaster General comes from the British model. For most of its existence in the United States, the position was part of the presidential cabinet. In 1971, the Post Office Department was reorganized into the United States Postal Service (USPS) by President Nixon. Since then, the Postmaster General is appointed by the Board of Governors and can only be removed by the board. Members are nominated to the board by the US President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The current Board of Governors consists of nine members in addition to the Postmaster General and the Deputy Postmaster General.

The USPS is the only delivery service that reaches every address in the nation, both personal and business. It receives no tax dollars for operating costs relying on postage sales and services to pay for funding. For the past few years, USPS has operated at a loss. Much of the blame for this is misunderstood.

In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was passed to address USPS financial issues. The act requires the USPS to deliver mail six days a week; prohibits increasing postage faster than the rate of inflation; and prepays benefits for all their employees for at least fifty years. The prepaid benefits is something no other organization does, and many think it is to blame for their growing deficit. The Postal Service Reform Act (2021) was introduced last May with bi-partisan support to undo some of the 2006 changes.

The USPS is the nation’s 2nd largest civilian employer and there are 15 Post Office branches in the county to serve us. Our Going Postal exhibit has uniform patches, photographs, stamps, and more fun facts about Chemung County’s mail service and is on display Monday through Saturday 10 am – 5 pm through the spring. Seeing some of the history behind receiving a personal letter or package makes that first class stamp even more of a bargain.


Monday, January 17, 2022

The Terror of the Fugitive Slave Act

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Earlier this month I got the coolest gift for my birthday. And by I, I of course mean the museum, but the donation came on my birthday, so I’m counting it. The gift in question was a letter from Mary and Seymour Fairman of Elmira to Mary’s parents in Fredonia, dated July 8, 1845. In the letter, the Fairmans talked about Elmira’s small, but growing, Black community and the problem of slave catchers.

Mary wrote:

We have for citizens in this place some hundred and fifty or two hundred Negros mostly if not all run-away slaves. They are constantly coming away from the south— Last summer six came here together, two on three weeks ago. Some four or five more came, and yesterday five more from Maryland arrived in search of them. The poor fellows have a good many staunch friends all. And last evening two or three of them went around and told all of them of the arrival of the hunters so they might be on their guard. One of the latest arrived Negros has been in the employ of the first man in the place—not an abolitionist, and when he and his family heard of the arrival of these creatures seeking after the poor negroes that they might drag them back again to slavery, they shed tears. The gentleman has given the negro his rifle to defend himself with—We think the southerners will not be able to take the negroes away if they succeed in finding them.  


Seymour recounted the following:

Those slaveholders are making quite the effort to catch their slaves. Judge Dunn has issued precepts for them and the sheriff is attempting to arrest them. Some three of them were sent by their abolition friends into the country about 6 miles to escape detection but the sheriff heard of them and started in pursuit with five slave holders, but one of the leading abolitionists found out that they discovered the negro retreat and mounting his horse he rode about six miles in 30 minutes to warn them of their danger. He arrived about 20 min before the sheriff. It will be impossible to take them.


With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, slave catchers became an ever-present threat to Blacks throughout the United States. Under the law, slave owners and their agents could snatch any Black person they liked after obtaining a warrant from a judge. Armed with a warrant, slave catchers could search and seize with impunity, even in free states and anyone who harbored a fugitive or tried to interfere with an arrest could be charged and fined $500. The law was wildly unpopular throughout the North and many states passed personal liberty laws designed to nullify or at least blunt the impact. New York, for example, enacted a personal liberty law in 1840 which guaranteed anyone accused of being an escaped slave the right to a jury trial and attorney. Despite various Northern state’s attempts to circumvent the laws, hundreds of Blacks, both free-born and fugitive, were kidnapped and forced into slavery.   

In 1850, the new Fugitive Slave Act made the problem exponentially worse. Slave catchers no longer required a warrant and the right to a trial was explicitly stripped. What’s more, state and federal law enforcement were now required to help slave catchers and could be fined $1,000 for refusing to do so. They also received a bonus for each person captured. The fines for those assisting fugitives was bumped up to $1,000 as well.

The act was hugely unpopular throughout the North. Many fugitives and free-born Blacks fled their homes in the North for the safety of Canada. Riots erupted in Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as angry mobs attempted to prevent slave catchers from kidnapping their targets. One such riot in Christiana, Pennsylvania turned deadly in September 1851. A slave owner by the name of Edward Gorsuch, aided by his son, nephew and a federal marshal, attempted to take four men. The townsfolk defended them in a pitched battle that ended with Gorsuch dead, his son and nephew wounded, and the marshal fled.  

In 1858, a confrontation with a slave owner here in Elmira nearly ended just as badly. An elderly Black man who had fled slavery to settle in Canandaigua was dying and wished to return to the South to be with his family. He wrote to his former master asking him to come and collect him. The pair stopped in Elmira, staying at the Brainard House on the corner of Water and Baldwin. When the town got word of what was happening, a posse of Black and white abolitionists assembled to rescue the man. Local bookseller Frank Hall, attempted to calm the situation declaring, “If this fugitive wishes to return home to his master, he shall go. If he don’t want to go back there is no power on this earth that shall force him from this place for that purpose.”  

Three Black leaders, Sandy Brant, Jefferson Brown, and John W. Jones, spoke with the man to determine his wishes. They explained to the crowd that the fugitive wanted to go, but the mob would not be deterred. A second group headed to the train station to keep them from boarding the train. In the end, Sheriff William Gregg ended up smuggling the man and his master out of the hotel and spiriting the pair away to Southport so they could board the train safely on the far side of the river. 


Both Fugitive Slave Acts were officially repealed in 1864, but their legacy still casts a long shadow.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Posting Blogs

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

What do faces of the depression, a shortage of dictionaries, and Arctic explorer Ross Marvin have in common? If you read our blogs, you can easily answer that question because each showed up in one of our blog posts this year.

Most of CCHS's blogs are written on a rotating basis by our archivist, curator and education director and have published weekly since February 6, 2012. Adding the 48 new blog posts from 2021 brings our grand offering to 514 blogs containing different stories of Chemung County history. The collection has been viewed close to 500,000 times. Send us a suggestion if you have a topic we haven't covered and we always appreciate your comments. Here are the top five viewed blogs of 2021, in order of popularity, see if you remember any of these:

1.     February 8th  Elmira’s First Black Fire Fighter A blog profiling the life and accomplishments of Thomas J. Reid, Jr.  In addition to being the first Black Fire Fighter in Elmira, Reid was also known for his inventions.


2.     February 15th The Neighborhood House and E.O. P. shared the history behind this 143 year old organization and its place in our community.


3.     January 4th Capturing the Local Faces of the Great Depression A little known connection between a Chemung County family and Farm Security Administration photographers documenting rural conditions.


4.     A follow up blog published January 25th The Maki Family of Rumsey Hill, revealed more of the story of one of those families photographed.


5.     March 8th Elmira HistoryForge: Discovering Local Stories written by our HistoryForge coordinator Andrea Renshaw, outlined the launch of this exciting project and how to get involved in documenting local history.

It’s not easy to predict which blogs will be the most popular, and we're often surprised. We choose topics because we’ve uncovered something new, or we want to share what's going on at the museum. Sometimes it may take longer for a blog to be discovered.  Years after being published, relatives of Elmiran Edward Brooks came across a blog written about his life. They traveled to Elmira to visit the museum and share his story with their children. It was a moving experience for them and for us. 

Here are blogs from last year which we think deserve another look:

1.     July 12th L. Libbie Adams and her Youthful Enterprise A blog connecting our Printing exhibit and the story of a young girl printer from the late 19th century who battled odds and made a living from writing, editing, and publishing her work.


2.     June 18th Revisiting Juneteenth, was a revised blog outlining the holiday’s origins and meanings.


3.     July 26th Jury Duty look at role of Jury duty in the United States, and how it has been practiced in the county.


4.     Viewing the Civil War, published last May 31st shared the topics and brief background of our three spring speakers and their contributions.


5.     November 8th’s Veterans Day shared some of the important work being done connecting veterans and local history organized by a local elementary school teacher.

     Of all the blogs we've published since 2012, the one which has been viewed the most was written in 2015 by our former Curator Erin Doane. The Holding Point and POWs published in January of that year shared the history of the WWII military camp located in Horseheads, NY.

 Erin was instrumental in putting together Hidden Lives of Chemung County, a book CCHS published this year. On sale at the museum or online, the book contains a collection of lesser known stories of  some amazing people in Chemung’s history.

Sharing our community’s history through blogs, is something we will continue in 2022. We’re happy when our viewers share too, just be sure to give us credit for our work when you do.