Darkest Hour: Reflections on Leadership and Words

I love going to the movies, but I don’t do it much these days. I feel like I should spend the time with the characters in my head, rather than with someone else’s characters on a screen. But this past weekend, friends and I went to see Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. The basic conflict is between Churchill who wants to fight Nazi Germany to the bitter end and others in the Conservative Party who want to negotiate peace. As the military news grows more dismal, Churchill is torn. He hates the idea of seeking a truce with Hitler, but (despite his famous V sign) he wonders if victory is possible.

Even though we know what happened—how the British army is rescued at Dunkirk—the tension in the movie is gripping. The acting was great and the relationships depicted between the characters realistic. I found myself caught up in the drama as if the fate of the Western World were truly at stake—which it was.

Married Love, statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill located in Kansas City, MO

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill carried the film, but I also enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas in the part of his wife Clementine. The movie portrayed their support of each other throughout his long political career. There is a statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill in Kansas City called “Married Love,” and locals here have often scoffed at the notion of honoring Winston Churchill for his role as a husband, rather than as a politician or author. But after seeing how Oldman and Thomas played the couple in Darkest Hour, I can almost see the reason for the statue.

I also liked the character of Churchill’s secretary, played by Lily James. I assume this is a mostly fictional or composite character, but her role allowed the film to show a human side of Churchill beyond his curmudgeonly, cigar-smoking, alcohol-imbibing persona. I wouldn’t call him charming, but he was compassionate toward her, after his initial blow-up that almost caused her to quit.

I watched this film in part as a study in leadership. While few leaders are as eccentric as Churchill, his power with words and his focus on pursuing right as he defined it (despite failures of his instincts in the past) are aspects of leadership to which every leader should aspire.

Although the film contains one scene of Churchill relating to common Britishers, for the most part it focuses on the political intrigue that complicated his early days as Prime Minister. It was the rivalries within the Conservative Party along with the menace in Germany that caused Britain’s darkest hour—which was most likely Churchill’s personal darkest hour as well.

The movie depicts Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) as the political rival most antagonistic to Churchill. Yet even Halifax has reasons for disagreeing with Churchill. While history proved Halifax’s desire to seek a truce with Hitler wrong, the film makes clear that at the time it was quite possible he would be right. We root for Churchill’s desire to preserve liberty and democratic ideals, but we feel the possibility he might not prevail, and therefore have some sympathy for Halifax.

And at the end, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), who had been booted out as Prime Minister for his appeasement of Hitler, admits that it is a poor leader who cannot change his mind. He finally supports Churchill after scheming against him for months.

The film also depicted the relationship between King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill. Both represented British traditions—the monarchy and Parliament—and they developed from mutual distrust (and even distaste) to respect. Neither man had anyone else with whom confiding was comfortable, yet Great Britain’s future rested on their shoulders. Every leader needs someone to serve as sounding board, and perhaps these men found it in each other.

Darkest Hour also shows another aspect of leadership worth remembering—the importance of leaders telling the truth. Early in the film, Churchill lies in his radio address to the British people about the military situation in Europe. King George reprimands him for this. But Churchill is redeemed when he calls on the British people to overcome the enemy at hand, to fight to the end. And, of course, we know they do.

I had watched Dunkirk a few months ago, which depicted the travails of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue as well as the heroic efforts of the civilian fleet that rescued them. While that film did a good job of showing the horrors of war and in humanizing the bravery of both troops and civilian boatowners, I found Darkest Hour much more compelling. Darkest Hour did a better job of describing the stakes for Britain and the Western World in the early days of World War II. There are viewers who disagree with me and prefer Dunkirk to Darkest Hour. But hearing Churchill’s rhetoric brought tears to my eyes.

There is no question that Churchill was a man of words—written words and spoken words, words that inspired his nation and the world. In fact, Churchill made most of his income from writing books and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His speeches to Parliament are some of the most rousing moments in the movie.

One friend who went to the movie with me decided to read Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which is a four-volume history covering the almost 1900-year period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain to the beginning of the First World War. I’m not that motivated to study British history, but I learned a lot in the two hours I spent watching Darkest Hour. And I appreciated the opportunity to be inspired by a great leader in the midst of desperate circumstances.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

Haunting Books: World War I and Its Aftermath

Today’s “haunting book” post features two historical novels, Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett, and A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Follett’s book is a panorama of Europe and the U.S. from before World War I through that war’s conclusion. Towles’s book is an exquisite cameo of life in Russia after World War I into the 1950s.

While the first book sweeps from Russia to Germany and Austria to England and Wales, then across the Atlantic to the United States, the second novel takes place almost entirely in one Russian hotel after World War I has concluded. I liked Fall of Giants, but I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. And I learned some 20th Century history from both.

I call these books “haunting” because they depict war and deprivations. And because I keep thinking about them weeks and months after I read them.


Fall of Giants is one of Follett’s epic novels, the first in his Century trilogy. It takes place between 1911 and 1934, with an emphasis on the 1914 through 1918 war years. I’d had it on my “to be read” list for a long time, but only got around to reading it this fall, when my book club chose it.

Frankly, the length of the novel daunted me. I’d read Pillars of the Earth, an earlier epic by Follett, and liked it. But I preferred his thrillers like The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. His thrillers are taut and tense, whereas the epics sprawl for almost a thousand pages.

Fall of Giants follows five families, and through them informs the reader about Welsh miners, English aristocrats and suffragettes, German noblemen and diplomats, Russian factory workers and revolutionaries, union workers in several nations, and U.S. Ivy-Leaguers and criminals. From his huge cast of characters, Follett crafts the tale of how the nations of Europe succumbed almost against their will to the temptations to fight a war that engulfed their continent and spread around the world.

I’d read Barbara Tuchman’s nonfiction books, The Guns of August and The Zimmermann Telegram, many years ago, but Follett’s novel was a good refresher on the causes of the war, if on a rudimentary level. My husband read Fall of Giants a few years ago, and called it “comic book history.” I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as he reads, so I found it about the right mix of history and story.

This is a novel drive by world events, not by character, and its plot suffers quite a bit to serve history. Most of the characters were stereotypes to serve a particular group in history. Some of the encounters between the characters in Fall of Giants were so coincidental as to be obvious constructs on the author’s part so he could depict some historical event or development. Also, because there are so many characters, it was often hard to remember who was who and what their role in the story was. Moreover, Follett resorted to telling the reader what to think, instead of letting his reader figure it out. So to that extent, my husband was right to call the story a “comic book.”

Nevertheless, the history was true enough to be educational, even when the story sagged. The opportunity to get an overview of World War I, the English suffragette movement, and the Russian Revolution, while also learning about Welsh mining, international diplomacy and its failures, and the U.S. Prohibition years made reading the novel a satisfactory experience. Call it “Downton Abbey on steroids.” Still, I’m not sure if I want to invest my time in the rest of the Century trilogy.

If reading Fall of Giants is like a 2000-mile road trip through the hell of war, then A Gentleman in Moscow is a quiet evening beside the fire.

I could curl up and be amused at the antics of Count Alexander Rostov during his thirty years of house arrest at the luxurious Metropol hotel in Moscow. He had the run of the hotel, but he could not leave the premises. The Russian authorities attempted to deprive him of all semblance of his aristocratic past, but he built a meaningful life in his ten-foot-square room with the last of his family’s heirlooms.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rostov’s transformation from a pampered aristocrat into a mensch of the first order. Despite his confinement, Rostov managed to build a family from the guests and hotel personnel he encountered, develop a sense of social justice, and outwit the Bolshevik thugs who replaced the former nobility frequenting the hotel.

The plot of A Gentleman in Moscow is not very credible. Even assuming a man would be placed on house arrest in a beautiful hotel and able to retain many amenities from his past noble life, I had a hard time believing he could foster a child and maintain a romance with a famous actress under these circumstances. Still, Rostov’s relationships were so charming and he was such a courtly gentleman, that I willingly suspended my disbelief.

Amor Towles’s writing in A Gentleman in Moscow is erudite and exquisite, unlike Ken Follett’s more clunky prose. Towles’s language illustrates his main character’s education and wit and also contributes to the charm of the book. Reading the novel was akin to having dinner with an amusing raconteur, with rich food and richer conversation. Much like some of the meals in the Metropol hotel that Rostov and his accomplices concocted despite the lousy Stalinist economy.

I read Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, and liked its depiction of New York society in the 1930s. But there was an ugly side to that story that A Gentleman in Moscow avoids. Perhaps that makes Towles’s second novel less realistic, but it also makes it more engaging. Not since Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand have I enjoyed immersing myself in a fictional world so much. Both Count Rostov and Major Pettigrew are true gentlemen, of the type that one no longer finds often in the real world.

What’s the latest good book you’ve read?

Pompeii: A Lesson in Life and Death . . . and History

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was aware from a very young age of the power of volcanoes. Not that I ever experienced one, but we learned about them in geography, and I knew that the mountains all around us were volcanic. Indian legends told of past eruptions, and we knew that many of our most majestic peaks still had the potential to blow.

And then, not long after I moved away, but while my family still lived in Washington State on both sides of the Cascades, Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano’s devastation could be seen first-hand

But the Romans of 1st Century Pompeii did not even have a word for “volcano,” according to an exhibit on Pompeii that I recently attended. Imagine these Romans’ shock on that day in 79 A.D., when rocks and fiery ash rained down, ultimately burying everyone and everything beneath many feet of debris and ash.

Detail from Last Days of Pompeii, painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov, 1830-33

The exhibit is called “Journey Through Time: To the Last Day of the Lost City”, and it is housed at Union Station in Kansas City. It displays nearly 200 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

The volcano that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it, and the items in the exhibit tell the story of the destruction and of the way of life that was destroyed. Pompeii may give us the best depiction of how Romans lived in the 1st Century A.D. that we will ever have.

The volcano had been active for millennia before the eruption in 79 A.D., but it had been dormant for generations, and most ancient Romans were probably not even aware of its potential to erupt. Pompeii had been destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D., and if residents gave the rumblings in the days ahead of the eruption any thought, it was probably to suspect another earthquake.

The eruption began shortly after noon one day and continued through the evening. Most residents of the city of 25,000 probably had only a few hours to evacuate the city. Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness from a neighboring town, described the ash cloud as causing “darkness as if the light had gone out in a room that is locked and sealed.”

When it was over, almost five cubic miles of pumice and ash covering approximately 186 miles of land. People were buried in place, some in their homes, some trying to flee. Over 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Cast of deceased Pompeiian

The ash covered the dead so completely that centuries later we know exactly the position some were in when they died. Their remains have since decayed, but the ash remained firmly in place. Researchers made casts of the spaces in the ash where bodies used to be. The casts are precise enough to show folds in clothing and expressions on faces. Some of those casts were in the Union Station exhibit.

The city was lost for almost 1700 years. Its destruction was so complete that the Romans soon forgot where it had been. It was rediscovered in 1748, and over the last 250 years, we have learned about Roman civilization from its preserved buildings and artifacts.

During the early excavations, the city was crudely plundered, and for decades there was no attempt to record or preserve the site. Later, Italy took control of the best frescoes and artifacts, which are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. In 1997, Pompeii and surrounding sites were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Nevertheless, nature continues to harm the site. It’s been struck by earthquakes, and in 2010 torrential rains destroyed some buildings. In the end, nature will win, and all we will have left of Pompeii is what we can preserve in museums and what has never been excavated. (Approximately one-third of the city is still buried.)

I’ve been to the excavations at Pompeii twice and seen the barren stone streets and buildings. Some frescoes and statues are still in place, but most have been moved. But I’d never seen artifacts as well preserved as those included in the Union Station exhibit.

As I walked the streets of Pompeii, most recently in November 2005, I could get the sense of a bustling city. But the stone shells and the few remaining frescoes do not tell the story of the people who lived there the way the traveling exhibit does. The every-day artifacts in the exhibit, supplemented by the imagination of historians and museum curators fill in the gaps.

We know how the Romans decorated their homes. And what types of jewelry they wore.

We know the armor the gladiators sported. We know how they measured their weights. And what their tweezers looked like. And even how their hydraulic valves worked.

Bust of Agrippina the Elder decorating a home in Pompeii. Notice dye still visible on her hair.

Asp water fountain

Jewelry. I would wear this today.

A gladiator's shin guard

Roman hydraulic valve

Weights from a shop in Pompeii

Bronze tweezers

Cast of dog. Only the bronze studs on his collar remain.

And, of course, we know how they died.

This exhibit depicted how natural forces can both destroy and educate. It showed me how the fear of one generation can provoke awe many centuries later. And it made me wonder what daily artifacts of our lives today will provoke amazement a millennium from now.

I have the same thoughts when I see museum exhibits on the American pioneers, but my marvel at history becomes even greater when I think about our society today sometime becoming so ancient we are known only through archeology.

What have historical exhibits taught you about life in the past?

How Were Wagon Companies to the Oregon Territory Formed?


Wagon train photo, late 19th century (public domain)

I’m writing another book about the emigrants to Oregon in 1847 who traveled in the wagon company I created for Lead Me Home. The protagonists in Lead Me Home came from Boston, Massachusetts, and Arrow Rock, Missouri. And the doctor and his wife were from Illinois. The wagon company was formed in Independence, Missouri—a well-known “jumping off ” point for the Oregon Trail.

My current work-in-progress deals with one family from St. Charles, Missouri, and another family that farmed in Tennessee (so far, I haven’t specified where in Tennessee).

How likely was it that this wagon company would have attracted members from across the United States, as it existed at the time? It’s certainly possible. The real 1848 wagon company that took my Hooker ancestors to Oregon had members from several different counties in Missouri and Illinois.

Wagon captains used many methods to form their companies. Some were made up of neighbors wanting opportunities in the West, so the people all knew each other. Others—like my fictional company—were recruited at a jumping off point or elsewhere. Moreover, the wagon trains were frequently reorganized along the way. As the Oregon Pioneers website, compiled by Stephenie Flora and Nancy Prevost, states:

“The wagon trains of 1847 were in constant transition. Wagons left one train and joined another. Trains joined together, split, and then joined a different train. Each time there was a split another Capt. took over the wagons that split off.”

For example, one train in 1847, initially led by Captain John Bewley, had the following changes:

“Left Independence, MO on May 7, 1847. . . . joined later with the Cornlius Smith train that had left from St. Joseph, MO . . . . Capt. Bewley was elected the permanent Captain after a shakedown period of several days. . . . This train appears to have joined up at some point with the rear company of the Oskaloosa split led by Capt. Kees.”

And two more 1847 examples:

“Capt. Jordan Sawyer . . . left from St. Joseph, MO; party consisted of 27 wagons . . . , making 35 able-bodied men accompanied by their wives and children. . . . At some point this train may have linked with that of Capt. William Vaughn . . . .”

. . .

“Capt. Joel Palmer recruited a large number of people to join his company in 1847. It is believed he had 85 wagons and then was later joined by the Chicago Company led by Thomas Cox that added an additional 14 wagons.”

Thus, the reorganization of two companies after the Kaw River crossing that I depict in Lead Me Home is based on the types of leadership changes that really occurred. And the later splits in the company and change of captains (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened and why) were also plausible historically.

The sizes of the wagon companies varied quite a bit—from about fifteen wagons to over 100. So my fictional company of about twenty to twenty-five wagons (after it reorganized) was on the smaller side, but definitely within the normal range. Even so, I didn’t name all the people who were traveling to Oregon with the wagon train in Lead Me Home, only the families who were characters in the novel. (And readers still tell me they can’t keep all the names straight! Well, one family had eight children, and I couldn’t leave any of them out.)

Some of the issues that I loved exploring as I wrote Lead Me Home—and that I am enjoying as I write my current work-in-progress—were the management of the wagon train and the impact of personality conflicts among the emigrants. The strength of company leaders and the ability of everyone in the company to get along made huge differences in their cohesion and in how successfully they dealt with the hardships they faced.

Any time a group of people is thrown together, these interpersonal issues become critical—whether it is 1847 or 2017. I was able to use personality types I’ve encountered in our times to create the Lead Me Home plot in the 19th century. And these same fictional characters are now letting me write yet another perspective of the same events in my work-in-progress.

When have you seen strangers work together for mutual benefit or argue to their mutual detriment?

History by Non-Historians: First-Hand Accounts by Gold Rush Prospectors

Gold Miners in California, Currier & Ives, c. 1871

Gold Mining in California, Currier & Ives (c. 1871)

Writers of historical fiction look for first-hand accounts of the time to give their stories depth and verisimilitude. I wrote an earlier post about a book purportedly by a Gold Rush prospector, California: Four Months Among the Gold-Finders in California; Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold Districts, by J. Tyrwhitt Brooks, M.D. (1849). Although a riveting story of prospecting life, it was total fiction. Still, as a contemporaneous account of the era, it was useful in its way. But in my historical novels, I much preferred to rely on writings by actual prospectors, even if their stories were not as sensational.

Good first-hand stories by prospectors can be found on the website, “California Gold Rush: True Tales Of The Forty-niners.” Many of the anecdotes I used in Now I’m Found came from this site.

Johann Sutter’s own account of the discovery of gold at his mill is available in an article titled “The Discovery of Gold in California,” by Gen. John A. Sutter, on the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website. There are several accounts by Sutter on this website, which make fascinating reading.

Stories of women pioneers in California can be found in the article “The Foremothers Tell of Olden Times” on this same website. And for another female perspective, there is Jessie Benton Frémont’s book about her arrival in California, which I’ve also mentioned before, A Year of American Travel, by Jessie Benton Frémont (1878). Mrs. Frémont doesn’t describe prospecting, but she does describe storing bags of gold from her husband’s mine in their hotel room, which made me laugh.

Another good book I used that contains first-hand accounts from prospectors is A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, by William Benemann (Editor) (2003). Benemann has compiled excerpts from many early miners’ letters, and the book does an excellent job of depicting San Francisco in the early Gold Rush years.

Most of the letters in the resources I’ve described were written by ordinary people to their families in the East. They had no idea that someday their words would be interesting enough to include in a book or on websites (which they couldn’t even have imagined), nor that novelists would use them for flavor in books about the period. These letter writers were simply describing for their loved ones the experiences they’d had in a strange land, a land where they hoped to better provide for themselves and their families.

Sometimes I wonder whether anything I’ve written will be used for some future author’s research. I suppose the interesting thing about history is that ordinary people often don’t know it when they see it. Yet for all the publicity given to politicians and tycoons and celebrities, what really matters is the impact of their actions on the ordinary people. It is that impact that ultimately determines whether treaties and laws and business decisions, whether arts and entertainment—all the products of the famous—are successes or failures.

What history do you think we are making today?

Transporting Gold in 1850

One of the problems I’ve had to deal with in my soon-to-be-published novel, Now I’m Found, is how gold was transported in California in 1848-50. The gold flakes and nuggets had to get from the mines where they were panned from the water or dug from the ground to the surrounding towns, then ultimately to shipping ports to be sent to the mint.

Here are a few facts and figures:

  • The amount of gold reserves found in California in this era was astounding. From a total gold yield of $890,000 in or before 1847, U.S. gold increased to $10,000,000 in 1848, to $40,000,000 in 1849, to $50,000,000 in 1850. (And that wasn’t the end of the California Gold Rush; it’s just the end of the period covered in my novel.)
  • Despite the incredible riches mined during the Gold Rush, there was no bank in San Francisco until January 1849, and the early banks weren’t much to speak of. Merchants were the only businesses that owned safes, so they became the first bankers. The bankers held deposits of gold in their safes, and shipped gold wherever the owners directed—to local exchanges, to the mint in Philadelphia, or to the miners’ families in the States or elsewhere. The same banking practices were true in Sacramento as in San Francisco.
  • stagecoach11

    No Wells Fargo in 1850

    Wells Fargo was the first express company to operate in California, but it did not begin until 1852. According to the page on the company’s website describing its history, Wells Fargo offered banking services (buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold) and express (rapid delivery of the gold and anything else valuable)
  • Despite these primitive commercial practices, a lot of gold got moved in California. In November 1848, the first large shipment of gold departed by ship from San Francisco to the mint—a shipment of $500,000. In May 1850, another ship left San Francisco with $1.5 million worth of gold. ($500,000 would be worth more than $15,000,000 today, which means that these two shipments alone carried over $60,000,000 in today’s dollars.)
  • Regular steamship service between Sacramento and San Francisco began in August 1849. Before then, boat traffic was chartered or irregular, and the alternative was to make a week-long overland trip around the south end of the bay past San Jose.
  • The transcontinental railroad connecting California to the East was not completed until 1869.

All this research still left me with the question—how did the gold get from the mines to San Francisco?

In my novel, I created a business that began in 1850 to haul gold from the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to Sacramento, and a second business that ferried the gold from Sacramento to San Francisco. I know the ferry route existed down the Sacramento River as early as August 1849, but I don’t know whether it was used to transport gold.

I haven’t found any definitive support for a gold transport business existing in 1850, but it seems reasonable to me to think that some type of enterprise would have been created to handle this transportation. Maybe it’s fiction only, maybe it’s not true. But I like to think it’s at least “truthy.”

Authors, when has your research for your writing been stymied?

The Vagaries of Mail Service During the Early California Gold Rush

Grimes ltr San FranOne of the issues I have dealt with in my novel about the California Gold Rush is long-distance communications in the West between 1848 and 1850. I have characters living in Oregon, others in California, and they have relatives in Missouri and Massachusetts. The only way people could communicate over distance was through letters, but mail delivery was slow and often unreliable.

The difficulties of communications in the mid-19th century provides some interesting plot turns in my novel. In real life, it led to frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty, and the same is true in my story.

From California to either Oregon or the East Coast, the quickest way for a letter to be delivered was by ship. But regular ship schedules were not established until about the same time that news of the Gold Rush reached the East. The Gold Rush caused its own complications in mail delivery.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was founded in New York in April 1848. Its ships were intended to travel north as far as Oregon, but just as the company’s first ships were launched in the spring and summer of 1848, the Gold Rush intervened, and the ships had all they could do in transporting people and goods between Panama and California. Oregon was only an afterthought.

Mail service was overwhelmed by demand after the Forty-Niners invaded California. According to accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999), after a ship docked in San Francisco bringing mail to California, the Post Office closed for two or three days to sort the mail the ship had brought. Think of the difficulty of sorting the mail, when the address might simply be a name and “Sacramento City, Upper California”. One man wrote in February 1850 that the San Francisco Post Office had received 95 bags of mail after a month with no deliveries.

Bidwell ltr Sutters Mill

Once the Post Office reopened, men spent hours in line waiting for their mail. One poor man got in line at 5:00am, with one hundred men in line ahead of him. It took him an hour to get inside the Post Office. Another wrote of 600 men waiting in the A-K line, and 600 more in L-Z. Some men paid others to wait in line for them.

I read one account stating Sacramento didn’t even have a Post Office until around September 1849. Stores and fort trading posts served as mail depositories in the absence of facilities under contract with the U.S. Postmaster General.

And mail service was slow and unreliable. In 1850 a letter sent from the East to California in early March didn’t arrive in San Francisco until mid-May—which was fairly rapid delivery for the times. Sometimes ships wrecked with mail on board. In 1850, the Samuel Roberts, a schooner bound from California to Oregon went down off the mouth of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The Oregon Spectator edition for July 11, 1850, reported problems with mail and paper deliveries in the territory. Mail was supposed to come from Portland to Oregon City twice a week, but there was no contract in place at the time for that route, so the mail was placed on private boats to be forwarded.

us 5c stampToday’s consumers complain about the high cost of postage, but we don’t have it so bad. In the 1840s, U.S. postal rates varied by the distance the letter was sent. In 1845, two mail rates were established in the States, with additional rates for mail sent to the West Coast. Letters sent less than 300 miles cost 5 cents per half-ounce, and letters sent over 300 miles cost 10 cents per half-ounce. Starting in 1847, letters to and from Oregon or elsewhere on the West Coast to the States cost 40 cents per half-ounce. In 1848, another rate for letters between points on the West Coast was set—12.5 cents per half-ounce. Ship fees were added on top.

So emigrants paid 40 cents or more to send a letter back home, in a time when a laborer’s wages in San Francisco were $8/day, with skilled carpenters making $14/day and a blacksmith $20/day. And a man worth $40,000 was considered wealthy.

us 10c stampThe United States issued its first postage stamps in 1847—for 5 cents and 10 cents. Before that time, all domestic mail was “stampless” with the rates, dates and origin of the letter being either written by hand (manuscript) or sometimes in combination with a handstamp device.

Mail service between the coasts didn’t improve substantially until the Pony Express, which cut mail delivery across the continent to ten days. The Pony Express didn’t start until 1860, and it became obsolete with the establishment of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.

With all this, it’s amazing that any communications got through at all between the coasts in the late 1840s. Yet residents of the West longed for these letters from back home. High prices and waiting in line for hours seemed small prices to pay for word from their loved ones.

Based on all these historical variables, I felt justified in allowing letters the characters in my novel sent to arrive or be delayed as my plot required. My rule of thumb was that letters between Oregon to California should take at least a month to deliver. Letters from the East Coast or Missouri to the West would take at least two months after steamship service was established, and could take six or more months before then. One crucial letter never arrived. I could point to some historical occurrence to support any of these delivery decisions.

When have you been frustrated by slow communications?