After reading today that the cost of stamps could rise yet again, I was reminded that my third great grandfather, Niels Olsen of Lakeport, Yankton County, South Dakota, once served as a postmaster.
Niels Olsen emigrated from his native Denmark in 1874,1 settling on a farm in what is now southeastern South Dakota. His wife and six children accompanied him on the ocean crossing; his two eldest sons had already left Denmark, paving the way, and another daughter was born the following year.2
In the fall of 1890, Niels would have been sixty-three. With two grown sons and a daughter still at home to assist him and his wife, Juliane, with the farm, Niels may have found himself with some extra time on his hands. Lakeport, an unincorporated village, was the nearest place to buy supplies and receive mail; it even boasted a hotel for weary stagecoach travelers. While the post office did not seem to have a permanent location, as it reportedly bounced between the hotel, the general store, and a grocery store, regular mail deliveries were undoubtedly a major attraction for the Czech and German settlers of the area.3 On 24 October 1890, Niels Olsen signed on as postmaster of Lakeport, a position he held for four years.4
Although Lakeport has all but vanished, due to competition from other trade centers and the rerouting of a major highway,5 in the final decade of the nineteenth century, Niels Olsen would have played an integral role in this village as its postmaster. He may have been attracted to the position as an opportunity to earn extra money, or he may have fallen into it if no one else in the community was interested or eligible. At the very least, it tells us that Niels was literate, an American citizen, and that he may have had a sociable personality. I like to think that Niels would have known all of the latest gossip – after all, who else would have had the opportunity to interact with so many members of the community on a regular basis?
How can you find out if one of your ancestors was a postmaster? Ancestry.com makes this easy with the collection, “U.S., Appointments of U.S. Postmasters, 1832-1971.” If you want to locate this collection, you will find it categorized under “Schools, Directories, and Church Histories.” Then, you can search for an ancestor by their name and/or location. Niels Olsen held his position as postmaster until 18 October 1894; it was just a few years later, in 1901, that the Lakeport post office closed its doors for good.6
1 “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 September 2013), manifest, S.S. Humboldt, Stettin, Germany, to New York, arriving 4 August 1874, Niels Olsen; citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, roll 392, line 149.
2 Harold W. Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” in Ben Van Osdel and Don Binder, editors, History of Yankton County, South Dakota (Yankton, South Dakota: Curtis Media Corporation and the Yankton County Historical Society, 1987), 53.
3 Sister Verena Kaiser, “Lakeport, South Dakota,” in Ben Van Osdel and Don Binder, editors, History of Yankton County, South Dakota (Yankton, South Dakota: Curtis Media Corporation and the Yankton County Historical Society, 1987), 605.
4 “U.S., Appointments of U.S. Postmasters, 1832-1971,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 September 2013), entry for Neils Olsen, Lakeport, Yankton, South Dakota; citing National Archives microfilm publication M841, “Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-1971.”
5 Kaiser, “Lakeport, South Dakota,” 54.
6 “U.S., Appointments of U.S. Postmasters, 1832-1971,” digital images, Ancestry.com, entry for Neils Olsen, Lakeport, Yankton, South Dakota.