There is a particular pleasure in collecting and researching U.S. classic material. We learn so much about so many disciplines through the study of U.S. material. With only a slight change in wording, the theme from the TV show The Big Bang Theory can easily apply to philately: “Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries. . . that are all found in philately.” The study of classic U.S. postal history certainly includes these areas, plus even more — politics, economics, geography, and even immigration relating to our specific history and heritage.
In addition, the cover presented here (Figure 1) — with some digging — perfectly represents the romantic, adventurous and energized era of U.S. westward expansion. Here is a manila cover posted in 1860 with a horizontal pair of vibrant orange 30¢ 1860-issue adhesives — paying a quadruple rate, mind you! Pretty interesting! The adhesives are canceled with two strikes of a red square segmented grid with a matching “Marysville Cal. Oct 25” circular datestamp. Oh, so it originated in California. Very interesting! The cover is addressed to Lyon, France. Exciting! And wait, here is a straight line “OVERLAND” handstamp. How unusual! There is much to be mined from these markings. Such a depth of knowledge to be had from the surface of a cover!
Figure 1. Cover postmarked 25 October 1860. Route: Marysville, Cal. - San Francisco - St.Louis - New York - Queenstown - London - Calais - Paris – Lyon. 60¢ quadruple rate. U.S. retains 12¢ for 4x3¢ inland postage. France due 48¢ of which; GB due 36¢. On the cover: Marysville red cds, red PAID h/s, red m/s 60 rate, OVERLAND straight line h/s, New York 21 Nov. red PAID cds 48 due France, Cunard, Persia, Queenstown 1 Dec., Calais 3 Dec. BR SERV. cds, Paris, Lyon, stamps verso.
This cover’s significance, and the importance of this singular OVERLAND handstamp, can hardly be appreciated without a basic understanding of the difficulties of U.S. coast to coast communication during this era and in 1860 specifically. The United States was pursuing an aggressive policy of westward expansion based on the ideal of “manifest destiny.” Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad had not yet begun — in fact, Abraham Lincoln would not sign the Pacific Railroad Act until almost two years later, on July 1, 1862. Gold had been discovered in California more than a decade before 1860, drawing hundreds of thousands of people across the country in a short period and catapulting California to statehood in 1850.
Still, travel across the country for all those seeking their fortunes in the West was a dangerous six-month trek over rivers, deserts, and mountains, all within territories yet unsettled. An alternative for travelers would be the six-month voyage around Cape Horn, which had its own dangers, including treacherous waters. The only other route also began with a sea-voyage: prospectors from the East coast sailed to Central America then traveled by land across the Isthmus of Panama. Those 40 miles could be traveled by rail on the Panama Canal Railway, which opened in 1855 and today runs parallel to the Panama Canal. Yet travelers still risked contracting deadly diseases from this swampy, mosquito-filled area. Once across, passengers, freight and mail were loaded onto another ship for the last sea journey to California.
The first transcontinental telegraph would not be completed until 1861, so communication at this time across the country was strictly conducted by mail. The designated exchange offices were New York on the east coast and San Francisco on the west coast, and the primary contract mail route - prior to January 23, 1860 — was the weeks-long trip through the Isthmus of Panama.
Thanks to research and reporting by Richard C. Frajola and Michael Perlman in the article “Post Office Overland Mail Directive Handstamps” (Western Cover Society Journal) we know that the San Francisco OVERLAND handstamp had two different and successive meanings. Before the above date, January 23, 1860, OVERLAND indicated that the letter was received too late to make the mail steamer departing for Panama and would instead be sent overland by stagecoach. However, the origin date of this Marysville, CA, cover is October 25, 1860, which is after the primary route had become overland. The OVERLAND handstamp on this cover therefore means that a piece of mail missed one stagecoach and would be held for the next scheduled departure.
1 / 2
Figure 2. A clear San Francisco OVERLAND Type 1 handstamp. Notice the distinctive “R.” Courtesy R. Frajola and M. Perlman census.
2 / 2
Figure 3. The Type 2 San Francisco OVERLAND handstamp with dropped “LAN”, Courtesy R. Frajola and M. Perlman census.
There were also two different types of the San Francisco OVERLAND handstamp. The first, (Type 1), has a smaller “R,” and has been recorded on covers dating from October 1959 (Figure 2). The second (Type 2) has a dropped “LAN” (meaning that those three letters are displayed lower than the others on the handstamp). This type has been recorded on covers dated from September 6, 1860, to October 26, 1860, and is the type shown on this cover (Figure 3).
The scheduled stagecoach departure at that time was October 26. With the letter posted on the 25th at Marysville, it is likely that it missed the next day coach from San Francisco and was marked OVERLAND and held for the October 29 trip. That particular trip took 21 days to cross over 2,700 miles on the Butterfield overland southern route to St. Louis (Figure 4 as depicted in the map in the article's header), arriving on November 19. Then it went by rail, by contrast covering the almost 1,000 miles to New York in two days, just in time to make the Cunard line, Persia, which sailed that very day for Queenstown, Ireland. After a thirteen-day crossing it arrived on December 1. It went to London and entered France at Calais on December 3, traveled by train to Paris the next day, and finally reached its destination, Lyon, on December 5.
The Frajola-Perlman census (available online at www.rfrajola.com) records nine OVERLAND covers that went transatlantic, four Type 1 and five Type 2. When I acquired this cover, it had been recently added to the census, bringing the Type 2 count to six and total count to 10. However, of all of these, only four have intact frankings with stamps. This is the only cover with the 30¢ 1860 issue and the only one of two that went to France.
What a journey… all provided by one piece of U.S. classic material!
Winter, Richard F., Hubbard, Walter. North Atlantic Mail Sailings 1840-1875. (United States Philatelic Classics Society, 1988).
* * *
Editor's Note: The article "A U.S. Classic Travels Overland and Transatlantic to France" was published in the May 2020 issue of The American Philatelist, available exclusively to members of the American Philatelic Society. Click here to view the full issue.