Figure 1. This 1¢ postal card, addressed to Estella Williamson from ‘Mama,’ is the only known item mailed from Tolfree Post Office, and the first recorded item mailed from the Grand Canon. The reverse reads, “My dear Estella: We are now at the camp ready to see the Grand Canon . . .”: just what you might expect of a tourist’s postcard back home.
This 1¢ postal card from my Grand Canyon collection (Figure 1), the only known item from the Tolfree Post Office and the first recorded piece of mail from the Grand Canyon, was addressed to Miss Estella Williamson, University P.O., Los Angeles Co., Cal. The message was brief.
My Dear Estella,
We are now at the camp ready to see the Grand Canon. We arrived here at 9 P.M. yesterday. We are enjoying the trip immensely. Everything has been perfect and the trip not so hard as anticipated so far. Love to you all. Papa, Lillie, Virginia, yourself and Edward.
Lovingly, Your Mama.
The writer also added, “Gran Canon, Ariz., June 9, ’95 Sunday A.M.” Canon was a common way to refer to the Canyon at the time.
The short answer to the query, “Who wrote the first piece of mail recorded from the South Rim?” is, of course, Estella Williamson’s mama. But who was mama? Why was she traveling alone at the Grand Canyon?
Figure 2. Martha Burton Williamson, or ‘Mama,’ was a well-respected naturalist and author.
A search of the 1880 and 1900 census for Estella Williamson quickly led to her family’s information. Charles W. Williamson was her father. Estella was the youngest of three sisters; the elders were Virginia and Lillian. Her mother, Martha Burton Woodhead Williamson, was better known as Mrs. M. Burton Williamson (Figure 2).
Born in England, Martha Woodhead came at the age of one to America with her parents and lived in the Midwest. Well educated, she became a newspaper reporter and eventually in 1882 was named the associate editor of the Enterprise in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In 1887, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Martha became deeply involved in education, natural science, history and the rights of women. A prolific writer, she was a member of the Southern California Press Club (a press club composed of male and female members) and served as its second president. Her involvement with this organization led her to the Grand Canyon. The Southern California Press Club held its summer 1895 meeting in Flagstaff. As part of the activities, the group spent a couple of days at the Canyon. In addition to the brief missive to Estella, Martha penned in 1899 “A Visit To The Grand Canyon” in the Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register.
On a visit to the South Rim, six years before the railroad would facilitate the trip, Martha wrote, “On a day in June in 1895, a large party of Californians started from Flagstaff to the canyon. We occupied three large stages, some of the party being on the outside with the driver. A stage ride that occupies something like twelve or thirteen hours, may seem a tedious journey, but such did not prove the case.” She wrote about the beautiful scenery and the relays where fresh horses were picked up and passengers had a chance to stretch and rest.
At their lunch stop, a half-way house, their hostess — a trifecta of cook, waitress and pot washer — also was observant and helped to keep Martha safe:
. . . amid all her hurry of serving a party of almost twenty-five, including the three drivers, the hostess had noticed a bunch of green pods, spotted with brown, that was fastened in lieu of a bouquet in front of my jacket. These pods, gathered because they looked good along the wayside, she declared were the ‘locoweed’ (Astragalus) considered ‘dangerous for man or beast, especially horses, to eat,’ so in a few moments I had thrown the decorative pods into the stove.
Figure 3. John Hance’s camp, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, provided tents and accommodations to tourists as they traversed the dangerous terrain. Photo scan courtesy of Charles Tolfree.
The journey continued and by twilight they finally reached Hance’s Camp near the edge of the South Rim (Figure 3). Martha recorded, “At nine o’clock as a lower grade was reached the Hotel with its many lights suddenly appeared. The hotel comprised a group of white tents, seventeen in number, including one long dining tent and a little log cabin, where we all stopped to register, formed a romantic picture nestled in a little pine covered glen between the hills. Below these hills, not more than three hundred feet away was the Grand Canyon.”
The morning after Martha had written and sent the note to Estella, her group descended into the Canyon to the Colorado River. She wrote in her article about eating an early breakfast and meeting up with the trail guide, Hance, and his mules, ready for the day’s journey.
Civil War veteran John Hance, an early and passionate promoter of the Grand Canyon, had perfected a vertical marketing formula to accommodate tourists interested in seeing this natural wonder. After arriving in Flagstaff, the tourists needed transportation to the South Rim; he ran wagons and then a stage service there. Upon reaching the Canyon, the tourists needed accommodations; Hance offered tents and meals. If they wanted to go below the rim, he led guided tours for 12 dollars a day, plus a one dollar tariff for using his trail, known today as the Old Hance Trail.
By the time the Southern California Press Group met Hance, he had sold his camp and trail operations to Tolfree, Thurber and a third partner. James Thurber was running the stage from Flagstaff to the Rim. Tolfree and his family were in charge of the accommodations and had hired a first-rate chef to cook for their guests. So Hance was left to his favorite pastimes: guiding and telling tales bigger than the Canyon itself.
Because it was a long (14 miles round-trip) and dangerous trip, only a few of the Canyon’s visitors were willing to leave the rim. Martha recalled, “Of our party of 23 who started down only 12 made the descent to the river and ten of these were gentlemen.” They finally made it to the Colorado where she observed:
To one accustomed to the Father of Waters, the Colorado River appears but a narrow stream. It is not red, but muddy enough to compare favorably with the Missouri in its muddiest passages. The thought of navigators going down the stream through the canyon makes one tremble, for it is so rocky, so turbulent, so shut in by one canyon after another that the wonder grows how anyone could navigate its waters and live to tell the tale.
They washed their hands and faces in the river, took a rest, and had lunch, before starting the trip back to the top of the Canyon. The steep ascent was a combination of hiking and riding the mules.
Having ridden a mule in and out of the Canyon, I can identify with Martha’s description of her experience (Figure 4):
Figure 4. Author Marjory Sente can relate to Martha’s experiences navigating the Grand Canyon by donkey, and so, it appears, can Donald Duck. This stamp (Grenada Grenadines Scott 753) was issued on May 22, 1986, for Ameripex 1986, the World’s Fair of Stamps.
Stephen, the gray mule, would forage for food, sage brush (artemisia) and bunch grass, in the most hazardous parts of the incline trail, often as he turned a sharp corner down and out would go his head, but where his hind feet could find a resting place no one could tell, fear suggested that it might be at the bottom of the canyon, but the sure-footed beast never lost the beat of the trail.
From the South Rim the group traveled back to Flagstaff by stage, took the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad west to Ashford, transferred to the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix line and then traveled south to Phoenix, passing through Prescott twice. According to the Arizona Weekly Journal Miner, the Prescott Brass Band welcomed the visitors on their trip south.
The trip to the Grand Canyon was only one of Martha’s adventures. After arriving in California in 1887, she assembled a collection of nearly 3,000 seashells that was donated to the Los Angeles Museum of History Science and Art in 1912. Martha’s studies of seashells and mollusks in the Los Angeles Bay led to her writing “An Annotated list of the shells of San Pedro Bay and vicinity” which was published in 1892 by the United States National Museum, now the Smithsonian Institution.
Despite being born in the Victorian Era, Martha led an unconventional life. She was a woman ahead of her time. The scientific and postal history worlds are wealthier because of her trailblazing.
Grand Canyon. . .Who was Nelly?
Figure 5. Addressed to Mr. V. T. Price and pen-canceled by hand by postmaster Martin Buggeln, this piece of mail is the first known item mailed from the Grand Canyon Post Office. It was mailed only three days after the post office’s opening, on April 18, 1902.
On September 17, 1901, the first train arrived at the Canyon with thirty passengers, a bundle of mail, and three water cars. The trip from Williams, AZ, had taken three hours, compared to a day-long stage ride, and the price was right: a round-trip train ticket cost $6.50, while the price for the stage was $20. Soon, daily service was established between Williams and the South Rim, with the train leaving Williams at 7 PM and arriving at the Rim three hours later. The southbound train from the Rim left at 9 PM, arriving in Williams at 11:50 PM. By July 16, 1902, the train was carrying mail between the Canyon and Williams at least six times a week.
In the spring of 1902, what is now known as Grand Canyon Village, located at the South Rim of the Canyon, was a beehive of activity. People came by stage, train, and car. James Thurber had sold the Bright Angel Hotel to Martin Buggeln the prior summer. Buggeln, a Williams businessman, quickly cast his lot with the Santa Fe Rail Road by providing services for its passengers during their visit to the South Rim. Until the El Tovar Hotel opened in 1905, the Bright Angel Hotel and Camp were the primary accommodations for tourists on the South Rim.
Figure 6. Records from the Grand Canyon Post Office note that the first shipment of stamps did not arrive until April 21, 1902. Therefore, the 2¢ stamp affixed to the cover (left) must have been brought ‘from home’ by the sender. Grand Canyon Post Office record books courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.
The Grand Canyon Post Office was established on March 14, 1902, but did not open for business until April 15, 1902. Located at the Bright Angel Hotel, it was operated by Buggeln, the first postmaster. The earliest recorded piece of mail from this post office is dated April 18, 1902 (Figure 5). Lacking a canceling device, Postmaster Buggeln instead
used a pen to cancel the stamp and write “Grand Canyon Ariz PO Apr 18, 1902.” The stamp used on this cover had been brought to the Grand Canyon, because this post office did not receive its first shipment of stamps until April 21, according to the official record book for the Grand Canyon Post Office (Figure 6).
As this is the earliest cover and the only recorded manuscript cancel recorded for the Grand Canyon Post Office, I have been curious about the identity of the person who visited the Canyon and wrote a descriptive letter about her visit. Three clues provided leads: 1) the letter, signed Nelly; 2) the return address: 219 N. Soto St., Los Angeles, CA; and 3) the addressee: V.T. Price, Elkader, Iowa.
I set out to find the answer to my question: who was Nelly?
Nelly, the writer of the enclosed letter, described the Bright Angel facilities. “The hotel — which is a board affair, inside and out — part of it is log — is crowded, and a number of tents are occupied.” In describing the Canyon, she noted “It certainly is grand. But the hotel accommodations are nothing to brag about.” She talked about taking a carriage ride along the rim and expecting to go part way down the trail on horseback, but not the whole way to the river (Figure 7). The trail for horses was yet to be completed and one had to walk the last part of the way. She also mentioned taking her young son Peery’s walker so he could trot around in it.
The letter is beautifully composed with correct grammar and spelling. Presumably, Nelly was well educated and affluent to be traveling in 1902 to this remote outpost. I thought I would quickly find the answer in the 1896 — 1904 Bright Angel Hotel guest registers in the Museum of Northern Arizona’s archive. While filled with a trove of information regarding the Canyon’s early tourists, the first register ended in November 1901 and the other began on July 4, 1902. The seven-month gap kept the mystery of Nelly’s identity alive.
The return address was 219 N. Soto St., Los Angeles, CA. I used Heritage Quest to search the 1902 Los Angeles City Directory and learned that one J. W. Hendrick resided there.
Figure 7. Carriage rides along the Grand Canyon’s rim were a popular way for tourists to experience the sights. This Fred Harvey 1907 post card depicts the beginning of such a journey.
The 1900 United States Federal Census confirmed that James W. Hendrick, his wife Anna H., and three children indeed lived at 219 N. Soto Street. This census listed “capitalist” as Mr. Hendrick’s occupation. The 1910 census referred to him as an attorney. With the information from the 1900 census, I used elephind.com to search microfilm newspaper archives on Chronicling America to learn more about the Hendricks, but found no mention of trips to the Grand Canyon. Another dead end.
The addressee on the cover was Mr. V. T. Price, Elkader, Iowa. I searched “Price Elkader” online and, in Google Books, discovered the History of Clayton County, Iowa, edited by R.E. Price. Mr. Price generously detailed his ancestors as well as his family. On page 333, I found the answer to my query. “Valmah Tupelo Price, son of Realto Exzeque and Sarah Filetta Stewart, was married to Miss Nelly Peery, a daughter of Judge Stephen and Mrs. Emma Peery, May 31st 1894, at San Diego, Cal.” They had three children: a daughter who died as a child; a son, Herbert Peery Price, born in July of 1901; and another son born in 1910.
Figure 8. Nelly Peery Price, as depicted in “Portias of the Prairie: Early Women Graduates of the University Law Department,” by Teresa Opheim. Nelly graduated in 1893. Courtesy Iowa Research Online.
I had my answer. Nelly Peery Price had written and sent the first letter recorded from the Grand Canyon Post Office. She was traveling with her son Peery and had written to her
husband (Figure 8).
A Google Scholar search of “Nelly Peery Price” led me to the January 1, 1986, issue of The Palimpsest and the article “Portias of the Prairie: Early Women Graduates of the University Law Department” by Teresa Opheim. Nelly Peery Price (1893) was an early female graduate of the Iowa Law School, State University of Iowa. A year later she married another law school graduate, V. T. Price (1891).
Their local Clayton County newspaper the Elkader Argus dated February 5, 1902, reported that “V.T. Price and wife left Saturday noon for the southwest. Mrs. Price was going to spend the remainder of the winter with her folks in Phoenix, Arizona, and Mr. Price was accompanying her as far as Joplin, Mo.”
Searching Chronicling America, I learned Nelly was in Phoenix in March of 1902 and hosted a Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O.) Sisterhood meeting for all the members in the city. She was staying at 520 North Second Avenue, according to the Arizona Republican, March 9, 1902.
A letter from Valmah to Nelly that I bought on Etsy confirmed the Phoenix street address. Dated March 4, 1902, the letter was addressed to Nelly at 520 N. Second Street, Phoenix, Ariz. (Figure 9). In the letter, Valmah wrote about Peery: “Am mighty glad to learn that baby is better. Even though the improvement be slight. Keep him out of doors as much as possible. Use him pretty rough so as to toughen his muscles and build him up.”
From Nelly’s father’s obituary in the San Francisco Call on February 1, 1896, I discovered that her parents were living in Phoenix at the time of his death. Judge Peery had invested $250,000 in Phoenix real estate with nephew J.W. Walker acting as his agent.
Figure 9. A final piece of the puzzle of who was Nelly? This cover, addressed to Mrs. Nelly Peery Price in Phoenix, Arizona, confirms that Nelly was indeed staying in Phoenix with her son.
Although the Walkers were living in Phoenix, Nelly and Peery stayed with Charles W. and Addie L. Pugh at 520 N. Second Street. Charles, who was editor of Southwestern Stockman, went to prison in 1902 for defrauding the government when he was a special census officer in 1900, according to the Graham Guardian on May 10, 1902.
Therefore, my conclusion: Nelly was an affluent mother spending the winter in Phoenix to benefit the health of her son.
Although I now knew about Nelly, I was still puzzled about the return address, 219 N. Soto St., Los Angeles, CA, on the cover. Judge Peery’s obituary also noted that he was the brother-in-law of Judge E. W. Endrick. Was Judge Endrick actually J. W. Hendrick? A search of Ancestry.com told me that Emma Hendrick Peery — Nelly’s mother — and James W. Hendrick were siblings. A different Hendrick sister had married William Walker, and one of their five children was James Wesley Walker of Phoenix.
Likely after visiting relatives in Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, Nelly and Peery were headed to California to visit her uncle and his family in Los Angeles. Indeed, The Register, another Elkader newspaper, reported in the August 7, 1902, issue that Mrs. V.T. Price and little son reached home from California, adding that Mrs. V.T. and the little boy are in the best of health.
By tapping into the wealth of information available through the Internet’s online resources, most of which were open sources or free through my membership at the local public library, I succeeded in identifying the writers of the first recorded mail from the Tolfree and Grand Canyon post offices.
The line between postal history and social history is very fine. These are key items in my Grand Canyon postal history collection — and would be fascinating merely for their place in postal history. However, by making the postal card, the cover, and letter talk, I learned about two women, extraordinary in their own rights, who were early visitors to the Canyon. In addition to the postal narrative, these artifacts lead to compelling and interesting human stories.
Further Reading and Resources — The Grand Canyon
Gerber, Rudy J. The Railroad and the Canyon, (1995).
Lee, II, Paul R. Parks, Postmarks and Postmasters, Post Offices within the National Park System, (2014).
Meyer, Jewell L. Meyer, edited by Gene E. Pitzer, Arizona Territorial Postmark Catalog, (2011).
Sente, Marjory J., “No Fries ‘Til Mail: How Tourism Brought Mail Service to the Grand Canyon,” in A Rendezvous of Grand Canyon Historians, (2013).
Theobald, John and Lillian, Arizona Territory Post Offices & Postmasters, (1961).
Editor's Note: The “Visiting the Grand Canyon: Two Covers, One Inquisitive Mind and the Nexus of Social and Postal History” article was published in the March 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - stay tuned for more columns and articles from 2020, and read the full March issue here. Happy Women's History Month!