In 1987, the author published The Gold Rush Mail Agents to California and Their Postal Markings, 1849-1852.1 This work documented the PAN. & SAN. FRAN. S.S. markings, along with other mail agent and despatch agent markings. It uncovered their origin and the names of the mail agents who struck the markings. This discovery came about in part because of research in the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books, currently located in the National Archives. These manuscript journals record payments made to the California mail agents, including their time in San Francisco and on the Isthmus of Panama. With this information one can determine the steamships on which the mail agents traveled. More importantly, the tables can confirm that a manuscript marking on a cover is indeed a mail agent marking. For a more complete understanding of the mail agents’ activities and the trip tables presented here, readers are referred to The Gold Rush Mail Agents to California and Their Postal Markings, 1849-1852.
The author’s United States Incoming Steamship Mail, 1847-1875, published in 2000, updated the current knowledge on the mail agent and despatch agent markings in Chapter XI.2 It presented several new markings and additional dates of use. However, the lengthy mail agent trip tables were not updated.
The mail agent trip tables in The Gold Rush Mail Agents to California and Their Postal Markings, 1849-1852 ran through March 1853. This date was chosen because it was the end of Volume 29 of the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books and it covered the last known use of the PAN. & SAN. FRAN. S.S. marking in June 1852. However, a manuscript mail agent marking on a cover, dated in October 1856, demonstrates that the mail agents were still operating on this date.3 Earlier speculation was that perhaps the mail agents had been dispensed with in 1855 when the Panama Railroad was completed across the Isthmus of Panama. A recent trip to Washington, D.C., and the National Archives, answered this speculation and made completing the trip tables possible. It turns out the mail agents continued to accompany the mail from New York to San Francisco and back until March 1857, at which time Aaron Brown became Postmaster General.
The following two tables were put together from a number of sources, among them the New York Herald, New York Daily Times, New York Daily Tribune, Panama Star, Panama Echo, Alta California, the diary of J. Goldsborough Bruff, the Chapin correspondence and the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books. While most of the data is well documented, this author assigned a few of the trips without complete confidence. These latter items appear with a question mark after the mail agent’s or the steamship’s name. In all cases, the source for each portion of the trip has been documented. The trips have been separated into their westbound and eastbound portions for clarity.
These detailed tables would not have been possible without the data contained in the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books. The first entry that addressed the traveling mail agents was the appointment of McLean and Seymour on November 10, 1849. Many of these first entries are very minimal, giving only the amount of compensation but not including any dates of transit over the Isthmus. During a good portion of 1850 some mail agents did not travel from New York to San Francisco but rather stayed over on the Isthmus, superintending the mails from Chagres to Panama, and then returned with another mail to New York without having been to San Francisco. By the end of 1850, the entries in the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books became more consistent and usually contained four dates. The wording was usually something like “for expenses on the Isthmus between (date) and (date) going and (date) and (date) returning.” These dates bracketed the period the agent was on the Isthmus, the first date approximated when the when the steamship from New York arrived at Chagres, the second date was when the Pacific steamship cleared Panama for San Francisco, the third date was when the Pacific steamship arrived back at Panama, and the fourth date was when the Atlantic steamship cleared Chagres on the return trip.
Preparing these tables required accurate sailing tables for both the United States Mail Steamship Company (USMSSCo.) and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (PMSSCo.). For the latter line, the tables were fairly easy to put together; the arrivals and clearances at San Francisco and Panama are the relevant data, although stops were often made at a number of other ports. In comparison, the USMSSCo. sailing tables required many hundreds of hours of labor and are quite complex. While some of the steamships of this company ran directly between New York and Chagres, others ran from New York to New Orleans via Havana with a second connecting steamship from Havana to Chagres. Later a line direct from New Orleans to Chagres was put in place. In addition, the steamships of this line were often shifted to different branch lines. The arrival and clearance dates at Chagres are the most difficult to find and these account for half the dates in the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books. The dates given in the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books fit the steamship clearing and arrival dates quite well, however this data alone would not be conclusive if it were not supported by data from other independent sources. These sources are, for the most part, found in the newspapers of the day, when it was not unusual to include the mail agent’s name and position in the list of arriving passengers, or in the headlined article that announced the arrival or departure of one of the California steamships. The New York Herald has been the most useful in this respect. The Panama Star also often mentioned the mail agents, although not always in glowing terms. The Alta California was another useful source for mail agent information. After using the Postmaster Generals’ Order Books to produce a set of tables for the mail agents’ trips, the supporting evidence from newspapers invariably confirmed the agent’s name and the steamship name.
Abbreviations used in these tables are: AC-Alta California; BR-Bruff, Gold Rush, Journals;4 NYDT-New York Daily Times; NYDTr-New York Daily Tribune; NYH-New York Herald; P-prior to the date given; PE-Panama Echo; PMGO-Postmaster Generals’ Order Books; PS-Panama Star; NA-Not Applicable.
A date format such as 12/9*/49 means the clearance or arrival of the steamship has been found reported on December 9, 1849 and the day following. This was sometimes the case when a ship arrived in the roads one day and then came to her wharf the following day. The same situation might occur when a steamship departed.
Dates can also be confusing because onboard ship time and land time differed by 12 hours. When a ship left port its chronometer was carefully set to local time. Later, aboard ship, as the sun reached its maximum height in the sky, which was noon at that location, the time was recorded. The difference between this time and the chronometer’s time at noon gives one the difference in longitude. Every hour in difference meant a 15 degrees difference of longitude. The latitude was simply the pole star Polaris’ angle above the horizon. These two values gave the ship location and the ship’s new day started at this time. For example, if the date normally became July 18 just after midnight, on-board ship time did not record the date as July 18 until noon.
Finally, it may be useful to comment on the relationship between the trip tables and the sailing tables in United States Incoming Steamship Mail, 1847-1875. In general, trips found in those sailing tables that are not included in the mail agent trip tables did not carry a regular mail. Dates found in the mail agent trip tables that are not found in or differ from those in Incoming Steamship Mail’s sailing tables should be considered an update to those sailing tables. The column “PMGO on Isthmus” was specifically added for this purpose. Those dates are as accurate as a reference in a newspaper. They are especially valuable because they are often the most difficult dates to find in contemporary newspapers.
A folded letter inscribed “Pacific S. Ship. Way/San Francisco, Feb 2.” The manuscript marking was written by mail agent James B. Devoe onboard the steamship Panama, which departed San Francisco February 1, 1850 and arrived at Panama on February 23. Devoe boarded the Georgia at Chagres, which cleared February 27 and arrived at New York on March 8. The New York post office applied the straightline STEAM/SHIP and manuscript “40” Pacific Coast rate.
A folded letter inscribed “U S M Stmr California/From San Francisco 1 July”. This is the first in a series of five covers and one cover front, all inscribed by Henry D. Beach on his one trip as a mail agent in 1850. Beach departed San Francisco on July 1, 1850 aboard the California, and arrived at Panama on July 20. He crossed the Isthmus of Panama and boarded the Georgia, which cleared Chagres on July 26 and arr