This section of The Chronicle of the U.S. Classic Postal Issues is focused on the interesting and romantic postal history of the American West. In that context, it covers a broad range of topics, starting with the opening of the West in the 1840’s and the gold rush expresses which followed shortly thereafter. San Francisco, which evolved into the “golden gateway” of the West, plays a central role in this section, as it grew to become the hub of most postal routes serving the West. These routes include steamship routes to and from the Eastern U.S. via Central America, and overland routes across the North American continent, such as the transcontinental Pony Express. Additional routes covered by this section include trans-Pacific routes to and from Hawaii, the Far East and British Columbia. Finally, the section includes the very interesting postal history of the Rocky Mountains and the American Southwest.

Articles in this section address many aspects of the Western mails, including special postal markings, the rates of postage, frankings, steamships that carried the mails across the oceans, and the history associated with the development of Western postal routes. A good example of a Western letter is shown below.

The above illustrates a handsome cover that was prepaid 17¢ in Hawaiian 1853 Issue adhesives in Hilo, Hawaii on 13 May 1856, and posted in Honolulu on 24 May 1856. At this time, the 1853 13¢ stamp was being provisionally sold for 12¢. The 17¢ included 10¢ U.S. transcontinental postage and 2¢ ship postage, so the Honolulu postmaster added a U.S. 1851 Issue 12¢ stamp for the U.S. portion of the postage. The sailing ship “Fanny Major” carried the letter from Honolulu to San Francisco on June 16. The San Francisco post office postmarked the letter on the June 20 departure of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company steamship “Sonora”, which arrived in Panama on July 4. After crossing the Isthmus of Panama, it caught the United States Mail Steamship Company steamer “George Law”, which arrived in New York on 14 July 1856. It was then sent on to Boston from New York.

The Western Express journal has published many terrific articles on the American West over the years. The intent of this section is to supplement and enhance the work that they are doing. Hopefully, the articles presented in this section will also expand the knowledge and appreciation of Western postal history in the broader audience addressed by the Chronicle.

Shown above, a letter from fur trader Nathaniel Wyeth datelined two thirds the way across July 14th 1832 and written at the Pierre¹s Hole fur trade rendezvous. He endorsed the letter fav of Mr. Wm. L Sublette. ­ Sublette was a famous fur trader who was returning from the rendezvous to Missouri, so he carried Wyeth¹s letter to St Louis where he posted it unpaid on October 5, 1832. It was rated for 25 cents postage due to Baltimore. This is the earliest known trans-Rocky Mountain letter known.

Shown above, a San Francisco News Letter posted in San Francisco on June 20, 1857 and franked with an 1855 10c type III. It was carried by the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. steamer ‘Golden Age’ to Panama, and then across the Isthmus of Panama to Aspinwall on the east coast of Panama. From there, it was carried by the United States Mail Steamship Co. steamer ‘Star of the West’ to New York on July 13, 1857. This illustrates the via Panama route, which carried the vast majority of trans-continental mail from March 1849 to December 1859.

This cover which originated in San Francisco in July 1854 (no dateline), and was directed to go via Nicaragua (instead of via Panama). It was franked 27 cents in 1851 Issue stamps as a 1c overpayment of the 26c West Coast rate to France. It received the blue marking Stmr. Sierra Nevada via Nicaragua Advance of the Mails and was carried by the Vanderbilt Independent Line steamer ‘Sierra Nevada’ to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. It was then carried across Nicaragua to San Juan del Norte, where it was carried by the Vanderbilt steamer ‘Star of the West’ (later sold to the USMSC) to New York on August 7. It was then carried by the Ocean Line steamer Hermann from New York (August 12) to Southampton, England on August 26. In France, it was rated for 8 decimes postage due for British transit and French inland postage. Vanderbilt started the via Nicaragua route in an effort to compete with the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., which had the US mail contract via Panama. Since he did not have the mail contract, Vanderbilt’s mail could not be posted in San Francisco, but rather was carried privately to New York, where it entered the mails. This cover’s franking was cancelled by the August 12 New York American Packet marking.

Shown above is a letter postmarked in San Francisco on October 19, 1860 and prepaid 3 cents for the less than 3,000 miles to Fort Craig, New Mexico. Per the corner card, it was carried by Butterfield overland mail coach via Los Angeles to New Mexico, where it was discovered that the addressee had returned to Virginia. Fort Craig postmarked it on November 8 and sent it onward with an additional 3 cents forwarding postage due. Had this letter been sent directly to Virginia, the postage would have been 10 cents, so 4 cents was saved by this circuitous route via New Mexico. This cover illustrates the Butterfield overland route, which had the mail contract from September 1858 to June 1861.

The ‘Miro’ cover from Japan via the US to France with 1869 Issue franking. This shows the China & Japan steamship service.­ Letter posted in Yokohama, Japan in June 1869, franked 95 cents in US postage. This overpaid the 65c complicated rate to France via the US. The 10c entire and 1869 10c and 30c pairs received distinctive ‘chop’ cancels applied in Yokohama, and the letter was carried by the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. steamer ‘Japan’, which left Japan on June 30 and arrived in San Francisco on July 20. In SF, it received the magenta ‘China & Japan Steam Service’ oval marking and a July 20 transit postmark. It was then carried on the transcontinental railroad to New York on July 29, and was then carried by the North German Lloyd steamer ‘Rhein’ to England on August 8. It was treated as fully paid in France. This cover illustrates the Far East route through San Francisco.

A June 1866 cover carried from the upper Columbia River gold mine region to Yale, British Columbia by Barnard’s Express. At Yale, it was transferred to Dietz & Nelson’s Express which carried it to Victoria, Vancouver Island and added a pair of the 1860 2½d stamps to cover postage from Yale to Victoria. At Victoria, it was transferred to Wells Fargo, who carried it to San Francisco, after paying 3 pence Colonial postage at Victoria on July 11 with an 1865 British Columbia stamp. All express fees were paid by the triple franked envelope. The necessary 3 cents US postage was paid by the 3c stamped envelope, partially obscured by the 3d stamp. This cover illustrates the mail from British Columbia & Vancouver Island via San Francisco.

An 1850 Grammer Express cover, showing the gold mine expresses.The letter was datelined ‘California Mountains May 14/50’ and carried by Grammer & Co.’s Express from the American River gold mine region to San Francisco, where it entered the mail on July 1, 1850, prepaid the 40 cents transcontinental postage to Illinois. This cover illustrates the California gold mine express mail.

An 1859 Leavenworth & Pikes Peak Express cover from Ohio to Colorado letter posted April 15, 1859 in Stouts, Ohio and prepaid 3 cents for the postage to Kansas Territory. It was carried in the mails to Leavenworth, Kansas where it was transferred to the Leavenworth & Pikes Peak Express Co. for carriage to Cherry Creek (today’s Denver, Colorado). This illustrates the mail route between Missouri and Colorado (which was part of
Kansas Territory at the time).

IOWA HILL – Wells Fargo carried the letter from Iowa Hill to Sacramento.

San Francisco News Letter – Domestic Printed Matter via Panama.

Shasta Express – Cram, Rogers & Company Express.

Los Angeles manuscript – From Los Angeles by coastal steamer Fremont to San Francisco.

Rumrill – Picked up in San Francisco by Wells Fargo and delivered to Rummill in Marysville for delivery.

2 bisects – Accepted by Post office, one by Panama and the other by Nicaragua.

Helpful Links

The Western Cover Society Studies the Postal History of the old west and publishes information in a quarterly journal called Western Express about Western Express covers, territorials, town cancellations, or anything pertaining to the mails of the old west

Richard Frajola Website Features Articles and Internet Presentations, a Board for Philatelists, Opinions and the PhilaMercury Project (an online image & description database for U.S. covers that is free, open-access, and non-commercial)

If you know of other sites, please let us know!