Ship Routes Star in Coast to Coast Mailings
This edition of “The Letter Opener” is the first in a two-part series detailing the carriage of mail from California to the East Coast prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
I think a large part of what makes this era of postal history so interesting is the amount of influence the sender had in determining the route their letter would take. By writing a directive on the outside of their envelope (or even using a pre-printed design), the post office would allow you to select the method of conveyance: via ship for transportation across Central America (this article), or by one of the various overland mail routes across the central United States (next month).
Mails from California can be split into two periods: non-contract mails (to 1848) and contract mails (1848 onward). I will cover the first period very briefly: the earliest mails from California were carried around the tip of Cape Horn, on an established, but lengthy, route used primarily by whaling vessels. Beginning in 1824, a route was established whereby mail would be carried along the west coast of Mexico to Mazatlan, transported overland to Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast, and then again by ship to an American port city. This became the primary route in 1835 until the outbreak of the Mexican American War in 1846.
The disruptions caused by the war forced the development of an alternative mail route, this time via the Panamanian isthmus. Mail would be carried along the Pacific coast to Panama City, then overland to Chagres, then by ship to Kingston or Havana for further carriage to the United States. This route was significantly faster than the Cape Horn or Mexico routes, and was the foundation of the establishment of a contract mail route between the coasts.
On March 3, 1847, Congress passed a law outlining the establishment of a postal route from the East Coast, across Panama, and along the Pacific Coast with stops at Monterey, San Francisco, and Astoria, Oregon. In May of that year, bidding opened for the Pacific segment of the route, and in November the contract was awarded to a group of men who would establish the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The contract, which took effect October 1, 1848, was modified so that service between San Francisco and Astoria could be provided by sailing ship.
The first Pacific Mail Steamship Company ship to depart San Francisco was the Oregon on April 12, 1849. Although early service was somewhat sporadic and unreliable, by mid-1850 the steamship company was conducting twice-monthly sailings to Panama City. The completion of the Panama Railroad in early 1855 made service considerably quicker and more reliable, and the Panama route remained the default service for all transcontinental mail.
The cover in Figure 1 is a typical example of a letter carried via the Panama route during the early years of the contract period. Its red postmark was applied January 15, 1851, indicating this letter was carried by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Unicorn, from San Francisco to Panma City (arriving February 7).
Figure 1. This cover was carried via the Panama route during the early years of the contract period. Its red postmark was applied January 15, 1851, indicating this letter was carried by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company from San Francisco to Panama City. The large "40" in the postmark refers to the rate, 40 cents from California to the East Coast.
After transit across the Panamanian isthmus, the U.S. Mail Steamship Company’s SS Ohio left Chagres on February 10 and reached New York City (via Havana) on February 17. From New York, this letter had a relatively short journey to its destination in Boston.
The contract for the Panama route, with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company operating on the West Coast and the United States Mail Steamship Company on the East Coast, was in effect until September 30, 1859. However, the fate of the Panama route was sealed in September 1858, when the Butterfield Overland Mail Company began carrying mail twice a week across the United States.
On December 17, 1859, the Butterfield Overland route became the default route for transcontinental mail, and although occasional disruptions forced mail to revert back to the Panama route, the writing was on the wall: mail could be carried faster and more reliably via overland routes, and steamship routes were no longer necessary or viable. The introduction of daily overland mail service on July 1, 1861 was the final nail in the coffin.
As it is situated farther to the north, a route across Nicaragua had the potential to be shorter than the Panamanian route. None other than Cornelius Vanderbilt expressed considerable interest in this line, and in August of 1849 his American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company received an exclusive contract to operate across Nicaragua.
This Nicaragua route began operation in July 1851, with westbound service to San Francisco provided in 47 days and eastbound service to New York in just 29 days. Political unrest in Nicaragua resulting from the presidency of William Walker, and his eventual removal at the hands of British- and Vanderbilt-backed Costa Rican forces the following year, forced the discontinuation of this route in 1857.
Mail carried eastbound from San Francisco via the Nicaragua route had to be given directly to the steamship line or to a private letter bag operator, meaning that envelopes typically did not receive a postmark until they entered the mails at New York City. What they often received, however, was a handstamp reading some variation of the words “Via Nicaragua Ahead of the Mails.” These handstamps served as a form of publicity or propaganda, extolling the superiority of Vanderbilt’s line over the contract mail route.
The cover in Figure 2 received an August 9 postmark upon arrival in New York City. Based on sailing dates, we can infer that this cover was mailed in 1853; in that year, the steamer Brother Jonathan departed San Francisco on July 15 for San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
Figure 2. The cover received an August 9 postmark upon arrival in New York City. Based on sailing dates, we can infer that this cover was marked in 1853.
The cover was then carried by the Star of the West from San Juan del Norte to New York City, where it arrived August 9. At New York it entered the regular mail stream and was carried to its destination in Salem, Ohio. Since Nicaragua-bound mail was either handed directly to the steamship in San Francisco or carried by private letter bag operator, it did not receive a postmark until it reached the East Coast.
Following the termination of Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua route, alternate routes across Central America were again explored. In 1858, a route via Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec (which had long attracted interest) was finally established. This route was approximately 2,000 miles shorter than the Panama route and had potential to significantly decrease transit times. Westbound service began in late October 1858, with eastbound service starting the first week of November.
By 1858 there were seven possible transcontinental routes (many of which we will discuss next month), so the post office had to consider the Panama route its “default” route. Mail sent without a directive was carried via Panama; in order to use an alternate route, the sender had to explicitly state their preference. However, the Tehuantepec route proved incredibly unpopular with the public and was discontinued after only a year. Against a government subsidy of $250,000 the route generated just $5,276.68. Fewer than 30 covers survive today that were carried along the route.
Figure 3 shows a cover bearing a bold “Via Tehuantepec” directive at upper left in the hand of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Based on the postmark date, December 20, 1858, this cover traveled on the Pacific Mail Steamship Company steamer J.L. Stephens, arriving in Acapulco on or around December 28. It departed Minatitlan (on the other side of the Tehuantepec isthmus) on January 5, 1859, traveling via Louisiana Tehuantepec Company’s Quaker City and arriving in New Orleans three days later. From New Orleans this letter was transported to Stanton’s wife in Pittsburgh.
So, there you have it. Prior to 1861, someone mailing a letter from San Francisco could have had their mail routed around Cape Horn, across Mexico at Mazatlan, across Panama, across Nicaragua, or across Mexico at the Tehuantepec Isthmus.
From 1851 to 1856, and again from 1858 to 1859, the sender could specify how they wanted their mail carried. In the former period someone could hand a letter directly to one of Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua-bound ships (or a private service allied with his line), and in the latter they could write the words “Via Tehuantepec” to indicate the Mexican route.
Figure 3. A cover bears a bold "Via Tehuantepec" directive at upper left that is in the hand of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Based on the postmark date, December 20, 1858, this cover traveled by ship to Acapulco and by a second ship to New Orleans before making its way to Pittsburgh.
But the ocean routes are only half the story; next month we will look at the various overland mail routes that competed with, and eventually replaced, even the fastest steamships. I look forward to picking up where we left off.
Lastly, I would like to say that this article is indebted to both Letters of Gold by Jesse L. Coburn (available for free from the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society) and Mails of the Westward Expansion by Steve Walske and Richard Frajola (available for free from Richard Frajola). Both are essential texts for anyone interested in the postal history of the western United States.