Illustrated Directional Endorsements Show the Way To and From California
Figure 1 (cover image) - An illustration of the mail routes of the mid-1800s. 1850 map in background courtesy of New York Public Library. See the full image online here.
In 1848, the U.S. Post Office Department established a mail route to California and Oregon by steamship via the Isthmus of Panama. This Panama route was used for virtually all transcontinental mail sent by the Post Office until the establishment of the Butterfield Southern Overland Mail Route (Butterfield route) in 1858.
In addition, there was a Central Overland Route, providing service via Salt Lake City, that was not widely used for transcontinental mail because it was slower and less reliable than the Panama route; however, service improved in the late 1850s, and it was used in competition with the Butterfield route. A map (Figure 1) illustrates the Panama (green), Butterfield (red), and Central Overland (blue) routes.
After the establishment of the Butterfield route, the Post Office’s default route remained via Panama. Thus, if someone mailed a letter, without specifying a routing, the Post Office Department would send it via Panama.
By the spring of 1859, merchants in California began printing and selling envelopes with simple text noting overland directional endorsements, according to the book Mails of the Westward Expansion: 1803 to 1861.
Like more modern airmail envelopes with colored borders, these envelopes informed the Post Office that the sender wanted their mail transmitted by a specific route, and we generally assume that these instructions were followed. The text directives were quickly supplemented with illustrated stagecoach designs and railroad propaganda covers.
An example of an illustrated stagecoach cover is shown (Figure 2). The printed directional instruction provides that the letter be sent “Per Overland Mail, via Los Angeles.”
Figure 2. A cover mailed from California to Illinois, which needed only 3 cents in postage because it was sent overland as opposed to the longer route by ship through Panama
Endorsements for mail via Los Angeles indicated carriage by the Butterfield route, while the less common endorsement via Placerville, a city near Sacramento, California, and Salt Lake directed mail to the Central route.
The cover in Figure 2 was mailed from Big Oak Flat, California (near Yosemite National Park) to Polo, Illinois, and is properly franked with a 3-cent dull red Type II 1857 stamp. From April 1855 until the Act of February 27, 1861, the 10-cent transcontinental rate applied to letters sent more than 3,000 miles. Thus, the rate applied to every letter sent via Panama, as the distance by sea from San Francisco to New York was around 5,800 miles. By the Butterfield route, the distance from San Francisco to St. Louis was approximately 2,800 miles, and destinations within 3,000 miles could be paid with a 3-cent stamp. After February 1861, the 10-cent rate applied to any mail that crossed the Rocky Mountains.
In 1859, California held a Railroad Convention and began lobbying the federal government for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Around this time, envelopes illustrated with railroad engines, rather than stagecoaches appeared.
Figure 3. The dramatic X across the wording “via Placerville and Salt Lake” endorsed this cover to be sent via the Butterfield route.
Shown (Figure 3) is an example of a railroad propaganda envelope (also called a “Choo Choo” cover). It was sent from Camptonville, California, on April 8, 1860, to Burnham, Maine, and is franked with a 10-cent green Type V 1857 stamp. The printed endorsement “Per Overland Mail, Via Placerville and Salt Lake, Hurrah! But we must have the ☜” – in overly dramatic type – directed that the letter be sent by the Central Overland route; however, the sender crossed out the “via Placerville and Salt Lake” portion of the endorsement, redirecting the letter to the Butterfield route.
On December 17, 1859, the Post Office issued an order, effective in California on January 23, 1860, changing the default routing of letters to the Butterfield route, according to Mails of the Westward Expansion.
Shortly after this change in default routing, envelopes with printed “Via Panama” directional endorsements, illustrated with a steamship, became available. Prior to this date, “via Panama” endorsements were unnecessary since letters without an endorsement were sent via Panama.
Figure 4. A letter from Timbuctoo, California, circa 1860 or 1861, with a 10-cent 1857 stamp paying the postage to Almont, Michigan. The illustrated steamship endorsement directed the letter to the Panama route.
Shown (Figure 4) is a letter from Timbuctoo, California, dated July 20, circa 1860 or 1861, with a 10-cent green Type V 1857 stamp paying the postage to Almont, Michigan. The illustrated steamship endorsement directed the letter to the Panama route.
With the start of the American Civil War, the Butterfield route was suspended because it went through the Confederate States. The default route shifted back to the Panama route until the establishment of the daily overland mail using the Central Route in July 1861. A few stagecoach covers exist for this route; however, with the central route being the default route, there was no longer a need for directional endorsements.
Walske, Steven C. and Richard C. Frajola. Mails of the Westward Expansion: 1803 to 1861 (Western Cover Society, 2014) p. 163; 166-167.
U.S. PHILATELIC CLASSICS SOCIETY
Articles written by members of the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, an APS affiliate, will appear periodically in upcoming months in The American Philatelist.
The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society is a non-profit association of people interested in the pre-1894 stamps and postal history of the United States. Our goal is to encourage philatelic research and the exchange of information among our members and other philatelic organizations. We welcome anyone interested in the classic era of United States philately to join. More information can be found on the society website at www.uspcs.org.
David D’Alessandris is the president of the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, and a director of the American Revenue Association. He has been an APS member since joining as a junior member in 1985. David is an occasional exhibitor and frequent philatelic author. He collects a variety of areas, including cross-border mail between the United States and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, U.S. transcontinental mails, and U.S. revenue stamps. Professionally, David is an administrative judge on the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869: Its Organization and Operation Over the Southern Route To 1861; Subsequently Over the Central Route to 1866; and Under Wells, Fargo and Company in 1869, by Roscoe P. Conkling and Margaret B. Conkling. (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1947). [G3701 .E968 C752b CLOSED STACKS 1]
The Southern Overland Mail and Stagecoach Line, 1857-1861, by Oscar Osburn Winther. (Santa Fe, NM: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1957). [IP46309].
The First Transmountain Mail Route Contracts over the Central Route, 1850-1869, by Daniel Y. Meschter. (Albuquerque, NM: D.Y. Meschter, 2000. [G3701 .P8576 M578].
The Panama Route, 1848-1869, by John Haskell Kemble. (University of California Publications in History, 1943). [G3701 .S557 K31p 1943].
“The Establishment of the Steamship Route to the Pacific Coast via Panama,” by Theron Wierenga. Stamps, April 1987.
“Heart of the West: San Francisco as a Postal Hub from 1849 to 1869 Part I – Transcontinental Water Routes,” by Steven Walske. Western Express, September 2008.