Postage Costs in the 1840s

I wrote a post last year about the difficulties of mail service during the California Gold Rush years. I was thinking about this issue again recently when I bought first-class stamps at our local Post Office. I typically wait until I’m almost out of stamps (which I was last week), then I buy 100 stamps. I paid $49.00 for my five sheets of twenty stamps, or 49 cents per stamp. These stamps will last me until Christmas time, when I’ll have to stock up again with Christmas stamps.

1850s letter showing 40 cents paid for postage

In 1847, it cost five cents to send a letter less than 300 miles within the United States, ten cents to mail it over 300 miles (but still within the States), and 40 cents to mail it from Oregon or California to the States.

So in the past 170 years, the cost of mailing a letter from the West Coast to the East Coast has increased nine cents. Just think about that the next time you complain about postage costs.

Of course, because of inflation, one dollar in 1847 would be worth $28.14 in 2017. So the forty-cent cost of mailing the letter in 1847 would be equivalent to $11.26 today. In other words, our forty-nine cent price of a first-class stamp is a real bargain.

The fact that we can transport letters in mere days—using airplanes and automated sorting machines—at a price far below the cost our ancestors paid shows the miracle of technology.

Another 1850s letter showing postage paid

And the fact that our pioneer ancestors could transport letters at any cost from a frontier that didn’t even have roads shows the miracle of human tenacity and desire to maintain relationships and communications.

In my novel Lead Me Home, I had one character send a letter from a campsite in what is now Nebraska (Ash Hollow) to his parents in Boston. According to David Dary, author of The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004), in 1846 someone constructed small log cabin at the Ash Hollow spring, and the cabin served as an informal post office until 1850. So I had my character leave his letter in this cabin for someone headed back East to pick up and carry back to the States.

But as I wrote the scene, I was curious about how the emigrants paid postage on the letters. I didn’t think they would leave their letters with coins for postage attached, so I wondered how their correspondence actually reached their loved ones back home.

Then I learned that letters could be mailed “collect,” meaning that postage was due from the recipient when delivered. In some years during our nation’s history, collect letters cost more than those with prepaid postage, but a letter could be mailed with postage due. Prepayment of postage did not become mandatory until 1855.

So now I picture some kind-hearted mountain man on his way back East picking up a packet of letters at Ash Hollow and dropping them at the Post Office in Independence or St. Louis. From an official Post Office, the letters would make their way—just as ours do today—to the appropriate location. But the postman would only deliver the letter to my character’s parents in Boston if they paid the ten cents for delivery from Missouri. Of course, my character came from a wealthy family, so the ten cent cost would not have been a problem for them to pay.

What technological advances in the last 200 years do you think are the most important?

Relocation of Fort Kearny

In a post several years ago, I mentioned that Fort Kearny was relocated from near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska, to a location further west along the Platte River. I described the surveying of the new fort site in Lead Me Home, and I’ve been revisiting that scene in my current work-in-progress.

As migration to Oregon increased in the mid-1840s, the Army decided it needed a fort at the eastern edge of the frontier to protect the western settlers and to provide them with a supply station. The first fort was named after an early explorer, Col. Stephen Kearny, who scouted the area along the Missouri River near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska. He recommended that a fort be built in that place, and the Army constructed the first Fort Kearny in 1846.

Soon after the fort opened, however, the Army realized the location was not suitable. Settlers passed either south of the fort from Westport, Independence, or St. Joseph in Missouri, or north through what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.

But almost all the emigrants to the West followed the Platte River, which became known as the Great Platte River Road. So the Army began scouting for a new location for the fort in September 1847.

Lt. Daniel Woodbury described the site he selected as follows:

“I have located the post opposite a group of wooded islands in the Platte River . . . three hundred seventeen miles from Independence, Missouri, one hundred seventeen miles from Fort Kearny on the Missouri and three miles from the head of the group of islands called Grand Island.”

The timing of the scenes in my novel is not exact, because I have my wagon company encounter the surveyors of the new site in May 1947, several months before they arrived.

Moreover, the replacement fort itself was not built until June 1848, when soldiers from the first fort arrived at the new location. The wooden buildings of the new Fort Kearny were built that summer.

By the summer of 1849, Fort Kearny was a mecca for the western travelers needing more supplies for the journey. On June 2, 1849, Lieutenant Woodbury wrote:

“Four thousand four hundred wagons have already passed by this post—nearly all destined for California. There are four men and ten draft animals to each wagon—very nearly. Many, not included above, have traveled on the other side of the Platte and many more are still to come on this side. The post is at present very poorly prepared to give to the emigrants the assistance which very many have required even at this point so near the beginning of their journey.”

Thus, the fort grew in importance as a supply station. By 1850 regular mail service had begun, along with a stagecoach route from Independence to Salt Lake City.

In the mid-1850s, hostilities between the Native Americans and the emigrants increased. Soldiers from Fort Kearny provided protection to the wagon companies. But by the mid-1860s most of the conflicts were farther west, and with the advent of the transcontinental railroad, there was less need for an Army presence. The Army abandoned Fort Kearny in 1871.

Ft. Kearny reconstruction, photograph by Chris Light, from Creative Commons

Later, the fort buildings were torn down and the land made available for homesteading. What exists at the site now is only a reconstruction of the fort.

As a side note, one of the interesting aspects of writing historical fiction is how the author should spell geographic names. For example, the name Fort Kearny is spelled as I’ve typed it, without a second e. But the town named after the fort is Kearney, with the second e. The reason? The fort was named after an Army officer named Kearny, but a later postmaster consistently misspelled the name as Kearney.

In my work-in-progress, I have recently been writing a chapter that takes place near Scott’s Bluff, Wyoming. The early settlers were divided on whether to spell it with or without the apostrophe. I chose to use the more accurate Scott’s Bluff because the location is named after a man named Scott (not Scotts). However, the National Park Service adopted the name Scotts Bluff. And the nearby town in Wyoming is Scottsbluff—all one word.

I don’t always choose the most historically accurate name. In my novels, I’ve called a more western fort along the Oregon Trail Fort Laramie, though it was called Fort John in 1847 when my fictional wagon company passed through (and had been called Fort William even earlier). But for the convenience of the modern reader, Fort Laramie makes more sense.

I’m sure some of my readers wonder why I’ve chosen the names and spellings I have. There is usually a reason, though sometimes I am just wrong.

When have you been surprised by some aspect of history?

Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?

Back to Square One: My New Work in Progress and Scrivener

NIF front cover 9-2-16After I published Now I’m Found in late September 2016, I found myself at loose ends with my writing. I still had to draft regular posts for this blog and for another blog I author, but for the first time in ten years, I didn’t have a novel that I was in the process of writing.

On each of the three novels I’ve published (the two historical fiction I’ve written under my own name and the contemporary thriller I wrote under a pseudonym), I wrote a draft, put it aside, started another book, put it aside, went back to an earlier book for another edit . . . and the cycle continued until each book felt ready to publish. And finally, all three novels were published.

I learned as I went—how to craft a story arc, how to deepen emotions through dialogue, internal monologues, and even descriptions of the setting, how to foreshadow later developments in the plot. I also learned about self-publishing—how to format both print-on-demand paperbacks and e-books.

But as of October 2016, I was back to square one. A blank page.

I decided to write another book about the Oregon Trail. In fact, I am using some of the minor characters from Lead Me Home as the protagonists in this novel. Mac and Jenny, the protagonists in the earlier two historical novels, are the minor characters in this new story.

This work-in-progress is both easy and difficult. It’s easy, because I know the timeline—the overall plot was set in Lead Me Home, though the focus in this story is much different. And I’ve done most of the historical research that I need for this novel. For the most part, I’m having fun confronting the blank page—I know where I’m going, even if my characters don’t.

But I am seeing the trek to Oregon through an entirely different lens. Actually, I’m seeing it through six lenses. I have (at the moment—this might change) six point-of-view characters. In Lead Me Home, Mac and Jenny were the only POV characters, so this new story is more complicated. Who should have the POV in each scene? Do I have to rotate consistently? Have I forgotten to let one of them have a voice? I’m still working on the answers to these questions, but I had many POV characters in my thriller, so I have some experience with the technique.

scrivener-logoI am also trying to work almost entirely in Scrivener. I’ve drafted my blogs in Scrivener for over two years now, and I used Scrivener to convert Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found into MOBI and EPUB formats for e-books. I know the basics of the program. But I am determined to learn more about Scrivener’s capabilities as I write this new work-in-progress—that’s part of my motivation in taking on a project that doesn’t require a lot of new research.

I want to do a better job of outlining my story arc in this book, rather than having to sculpt the story into an arc after I’ve written a draft or two, as I’ve had to do with my prior novels. Scrivener’s outlining and corkboard features are a big help. I already have the major turning points in the novel set, and I’m filling in each section ahead of my drafting.

Scrivener is also helping with the POV tracking. I can use different colors and labels for scenes in each POV.

I’m also learning a lot about Scrivener’s compile feature, because each week I have to export a chapter from Scrivener into Word to send to my critique partners. I don’t have it down pat yet, mostly because of my carelessness. But my group isn’t complaining too much, and I am at the point where I can compile a decent product to Word with a few clicks. Then I just need a little clean-up before emailing it to my colleagues.

When I get to the point of formatting for print-on-demand, I will probably switch to Word for the detailed work. I know many authors export from Scrivener directly to a PDF for CreateSpace, but I am not confident enough of my formatting knowledge in Scrivener, and I know Word very well.

But then, formatting to publish is a long way down the road—I’ve only drafted the story from Independence, Missouri, to around Grand Island, Nebraska, on the Platte River at this point. That’s about 25% of the book. And I know how far along I am, because so far I’ve stuck to my outline pretty well. I’ve just passed the first turning point in the story.

I guess I have learned something about story arc in the last ten years, if I can recognize a turning point on the first draft.

Writers, do you use Scrivener, and what do you think of it?

Guest Post on A Writer of History

Last Thursday I had a guest post over on A Writer of History, which is an excellent blog on historical fiction written by M.K. Tod. I wrote about how I chose the time and place for my novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found.

A Writer of History has a lot to offer both writers and readers. Writers will find good information on aspects of writing historical fiction. Readers will find reviews of wonderful novels about a variety of historical periods, as well as other guests posts by authors.

Check out my post on A Writer of History here, and I hope you browse a bit more on her blog after reading my post.

awriterofhistory

 

Now I’m Found—Cover Reveal!

A year ago, I showed readers the cover of Lead Me Home, the first book in my Oregon Chronicles series. Today I am ready to reveal the cover of the sequel—Now I’m Found. (I might revise the cover slightly, but this is close to final.)

NIF front cover 9-2-16

I’m working on final edits of this book, and it will be published later this fall, probably sometime in October. I’ll definitely post on this blog when it’s available.

This novel has been a challenge, because the plot is more complex than in the first book, with longer and more intricate time lines. Now I’m Found follows Mac McDougall and Jenny Calhoun over a three year period from 1848 through 1850 in both Oregon and California.

But I’m almost finished!

And I’m very happy with the cover, which is derived from Oregon City on the Willamette River, an oil painting by John Mix Stanley, circa 1850, in the Amon Carter Museum.

To follow my progress toward publication of Now I’m Found and learn more about the book you can

  • Follow this blog on WordPress (click on “Follow” on the bar at the top of this site)
  • Sign up to receive email updates in the box in the right-hand column
  • “Like” my Facebook Page, Theresa Hupp Author
  • “Like” the Facebook Page for Lead Me Home  (I won’t be setting up another Facebook page for Now I’m Found, but will report on both of my novels on the Lead Me Home page).

And if you haven’t read Lead Me Home yet, it’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Then you’ll be ready when the sequel is published.

Many thanks to readers of this blog, who have inspired me to keep writing for close to five years. I couldn’t have done it without your support!