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?

Highland Fling or Irish Jig?

In June 1992, the same month that my kids spent at camp in North Carolina, my parents toured the British Isles. In fact, part of the reason we sent our kids to the June camp session was so they could visit my parents later in the summer, after my parents returned from Europe.

Unfortunately, my mother fell while visiting a church in England and broke her ankle. As I understand it, there was no guard rail on the church steps, and she went off the side when she missed a stair.

Then she experienced the British health care system of the 1990s up close and personal. She was X-rayed and casted with minimal fuss and given a cane to help her navigate.

And off my parents went on their tour. My dad reported later that Mother accompanied him to all the tourist stops after resting her ankle for a day or so. (Though they didn’t do any hiking.) He took this picture of Mother with her cast and cane outside of an inn or pub in Scotland.

I found this photo a few weeks ago while looking for snapshots of my kids to include with other posts. My mother had sent me an envelope of pictures from their trip, and this was one of them. She wrote on the back of the photo,

“Was it too much Highland Fling? Or not enough Irish Jig? Scotland, June 1992”

MFC in Scotland broken ankle June 1992

When I saw the picture again and read what she had written, so many thoughts and images rushed through my head.

How young she looked. (Younger than I am now.)

What a sense of humor she had. (Which she didn’t show much of when I was a child.)

The white owl pin on her sweater (Which I now have.)

How much she changed before she died. (The last pictures of her, taken when her Alzheimer’s was quite advanced, reveal none of the vitality that this snapshot depicts, even when her leg is in a cast.)

And what a sense of history and connectedness I felt imagining her in Scotland.

Her references to Highland Fling and Irish Jig reminded me how proud she was of her Scotch and Irish ancestors. Actually, her father’s family came from England, with some ancestors arriving in Massachusetts before 1700. Later generations of that branch of the family emigrated to Oregon in 1848. But her mother’s father’s family was from Scotland, and her mother’s mother’s family from Ireland. The Irish branch of the family arrived in California in 1849, along with thousands of other Forty-Niners. The Scots came a bit later, in the mid-1880s.

I thought in particular of her maternal grandfather, James Strachan. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated to the United States in 1884 when he was twelve. His wife, my mother’s grandmother, died young, and he was a widower for many years. My mother remembers him visiting her family when she was a child and dancing a jig. (Or maybe it was a fling. She always called it a jig when she told me the story, but as her note on the photograph indicates, jigs were Irish, and flings were Scotch.)

“He was a short little Scotsman and danced a jig with a pillow on his head,” she told me.

I wish I had a picture of him dancing whatever he danced with a pillow on his head. I would pair it with this picture of his granddaughter—disabled, but still dancing. Then I could see life coming full circle across the generations.

What humorous images do you have of your parents or other ancestors?

Nursery School: Singing in the Rain


Photo by George Hodan. This child isn’t me, but it captures how I felt during rainy Corvallis winters.

The Willamette Valley is wet. That’s what I remember most about the winters when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon, between 1959 and 1961. As I am writing my current work-in-progress, I find it easy to write about winters on homesteads near Oregon City—I just think of my preschool days. Wet. Dark. Depressing. It isn’t a heavy rain, but it seems almost constant.

I attended preschool at Oregon State University, where my father was a graduate student. As a four-year-old, I didn’t know the particulars of how the school was organized. I didn’t realize until much later in life that the teachers were students learning about early childhood education and that my preschool (it may have been called a nursery school—I just thought of it as “school”) was a laboratory for these students.

This preschool was my first school experience—my first organized activity of any type. Before that, I had only had my little brother to play with, or an occasional neighbor or friend who visited.

When I got to my last school experience—law school—I discovered that one of my law school classmates had also gone to the OSU preschool about the same time I did. We might have been classmates then, too, although neither of us remembered the other.

I enjoyed preschool. When I started there, my brother was too young to go, so it was something I got to do by myself, because I was a big girl. Later, he went to the school also, but he went on different days and was in a class for younger children. That meant we developed different friends, and we each got some alone time with Mommy.

The preschool curriculum was typical. I learned all the usual songs and dances. I remember Ring around the Rosie, the Hokey Pokey, and Farmer in the Dell. I also remember quiet time, even though we were only there for two or three hours each day—we were supposed to rest, and I think we could look at books.

And every day we had a period of time for outside play. Even when it rained, which was often.

Some days none of the kids wanted to go outside. If all the children agreed, the teachers didn’t have to take us outside. But because outside play was part of the curriculum, if someone wanted to go out, the teachers had to accommodate us.

I have always hated the rain. I was born in the desert of Richland, Washington. That dry climate is still my preference, despite my early years in Oregon and my now 35-plus years in the Midwest. I’d really rather not go outside in the rain.

But one day at preschool, I wanted to be ornery. It was raining hard, and it was cold. Nevertheless, I insisted on going outside. I knew I had the power to make it happen. Maybe I just wanted to follow the rules. I can still be a stickler for rules, but only when I want to be. Now, I also ignore rules I think are stupid. And the rule that kids had to go outside, even in the rain, was really a stupid rule.

None of the other kids wanted to go outside. Sometimes the teachers made everyone go out, but this day, the teachers let the rest of the children stay inside. I and one teacher (a young man) went outside by ourselves. (Think of how unlikely an event that would be today—a teacher is not permitted to be alone with a student, if it can be prevented.)

I bundled up in my coat and mittens, and we went out. I rode a tricycle and I talked to the teacher. It was really a miserable experience being outside in the rain without anyone else to play with. I lasted about fifteen minutes before I agreed to go back inside.

But I had saved face and made my point. Even at four years old, I could make my case and stick to it. Even if I wasn’t very nice about it.

When have you been ornery?

Lloyd Center, Mickey Mouse, and Santa

I’ve written before about the time that Santa came to visit my brother and me at our house. That’s the only time I remember Santa coming to visit me as a child before he dropped off our presents. But I remember one time when we went to visit Santa at the mall.

I was four or five, and my paternal grandparents lived in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Our family visited these grandparents for Thanksgiving in 1960 or ’61.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my parents took my brother and me to Lloyd Center in Portland. Lloyd Center was a large shopping mall. It still exists today, but in 1960 it was brand new, and it was still a novelty in 1961.

I had never been to a shopping mall before. My parents, brother, and I all dressed in our Sunday finest for the expedition. I wore my good tweed coat and my red velvet hat with the white fur pom-pom. I loved that hat, which my mother only let me wear during the winter. But it fit for several years, so I got to enjoy it until I decided it was too babyish.

(I know there is a picture of me in that coat and hat, but I can’t for the life of me find it.)

Not my Santa at the mall, but similar

Not my Santa at the mall, but similar

The stores were overwhelming. I knew about J.C. Penney’s, because those stores were everywhere. I knew of Meier & Frank, the big Portland-based department store, though I’d never been in one before. I’d never heard of most of the other stores. The shopping mall had at least two levels, with an escalator running between them.

I was scared to death of the escalator. I’d seen a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in which Mickey got flattened in an escalator. He went round and round until somehow he popped out, magically three-dimensional again.

It didn’t help that my mother kept telling me, “Hang on! Hang on! Don’t let your shoe get caught.”

Petrified, I let several escalator steps pass me by, until one of my parents grabbed my hand and pulled. I stepped on and rode to the bottom, nervous for the entire flight, scared I wouldn’t know how to get off. That’s what had happened to Mickey. He’d been sucked in at the bottom.

Another jerk of a parental hand, and I stumbled off. Still in one piece.

And off we went to find Santa.

I don’t remember a thing about sitting on Santa’s lap. But I know I wasn’t disappointed on Christmas morning, so it must have been an effective visit.

What are your first memories of a shopping mall?

Three Weeks in Kindergarten

I started kindergarten in Corvallis, Oregon, in September 1961, when I was five-and-a-half. I was so excited to finally be in real school—I had a neighbor friend who was a second-grader, and she told me how wonderful school was. She had lorded it over me, because she went to real school, and I was just in pre-school. Even kindergarten was just for “little kids” she told me.

My kindergarten classroom had a wall of cubbies like these. As I recall, I fought for the lower right-hand cubby.

My kindergarten classroom had a wall of cubbies like these. As I recall, I fought for the lower right-hand cubby.

I remember quite a bit of my kindergarten days that September. We played outside. We played in the classroom. We sat in a circle and learned about Little Red Riding Hood and not talking to strangers.

Another girl and I had identical nap-time rugs—pink, in the shape of a kitty-cat. We fought over which of us got to put her rug in the favorite cubby hole. I don’t remember why we both liked this one particular cubby hole, but we had daily battles to get there first.

In addition to the usual play-time and nap-time of half-day kindergarten in the early 1960s, we were exposed to books each day. The teacher passed out easy readers and picture books, and the kids thumbed through them. When we finished looking at one book, we put it in a stack and took another.

Most of the kindergartners looked at the pictures. But I read the words. It was no big deal—I read much harder books at home.

One day during our third week of school, the teacher noticed I was reading a book. She asked me to read out loud to her. I did. She gave me another book and asked me to read it. I did. And a third.

The next day, she had me read to the principal. That afternoon my mother got a call. They wanted to move me up to first grade.

I was so excited—I would be a big kid! I’d be going to school all day long! The neighbor girl couldn’t lord it over me any more. And maybe in the back of my mind was the realization I wouldn’t have to fight over a cubby hole any longer.

My mother wasn’t as happy about my potential promotion as I was. She and I went to a meeting at the school with my teacher and the principal. They told my mother I would be bored in kindergarten. They said I’d even be ahead of the first-graders, because they couldn’t read either.

I begged and begged, and my parents finally decided I could go to first grade. (I really don’t remember my father being involved much in this discussion, but he must have been.)

The next Monday I marched into the first grade classroom with my mother. The teacher was a very kind young woman whose name was “Mary Theresa” just like mine. (I don’t remember her last name, except that she was a Miss, and was getting married when that school year was over.) She made me feel right at home, and I immediately loved first grade.

I was a superstar in that first grade classroom, because I could read. One boy could read some, but not as well as I could. “Wead to me, Teweesa, wead to me,” one little girl commanded daily, shoving a book into my hands. And I happily read to her.

I wasn’t as good at arithmetic, but I soon caught on to the basic counting and adding and subtracting the class was doing. And I practiced my penmanship, which was far behind my reading skills.

Unfortunately, I only remained in that wonderful first grade class for a few weeks. We moved from Corvallis back to Richland, Washington, in October 1961, because my father had finished his Ph.D. dissertation and was returning to work for General Electric at the Hanford Engineering Works. I remember drawing pumpkins in Corvallis, then we moved to Richland, where my new class drew Pilgrims.

Many years later, I learned why my mother hadn’t wanted me to be moved to first grade. She wanted me to start as a first-grader the following September at Christ the King Catholic School in Richland. Christ the King didn’t have a kindergarten in those days, so all the children started as first graders. However, there were no openings at Christ the King for first-graders in October 1961, so I spent the rest of my first grade year in public school at Jefferson Elementary School in Richland.

More on that next week.

What do you remember about your first experiences in school?

Back to Research: Oregon Land Laws in the 1840s

The reason most settlers went to Oregon was because they could claim free land. In my first Oregon Trail novel, Lead Me Home, all I needed to know about the Oregon land laws was that settlers could file land claims once they got there. But in the sequel I am working on now, which takes place between 1848 and 1850, the nuances of the homesteading laws in Oregon are critical. So I have gone back to my research notes and done additional searching.

When my emigrant characters arrive in Oregon in October 1847, the Organic Act of 1845 was in effect. That law was adopted while the United States and Great Britain still disputed which nation ruled Oregon. The only clear authority in the region was Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered by Great Britain. But the Americans didn’t want to be governed by a British entity, so in 1843 some Oregonians had taken it upon themselves to pass laws, which resulted in the Organic Law of Oregon.

By 1845, the Organic Law of Oregon provided that each person could claim up to 640 acres in a square or oblong form. They had to mark the boundaries of the land they claimed, register the claim within twenty days in Oregon City, make permanent improvements within six months, and occupy the land within a year. If they did not occupy the land, they had to pay a tax of $5.00 per year, or the claim would be deemed abandoned.

My novel required more detailed information, however. I had male characters older than twenty-one, who I assumed were eligible to file claims. But what about men younger than twenty-one? What about African Americans? Could a woman file a claim? What if the man left the land after filing? One of my characters might be widowed and want to keep the claim (I won’t say more, because I don’t want to give anything away!)—can she get the land or not?

I discovered that the Oregon Provisional Legislature specified that

—Only free males over 18 years old could hold land, unless they were married, and then men could hold land if they were under 18 years old

—Blacks could not own land, even free Blacks

—Widows could hold land, but single and married women could not

Oldest legal document in Oregon -- for the purchase of cattle in 1837. The purchaser later died, but there were no laws to determine who got his property.

Oldest legal document in Oregon — for the purchase of cattle in 1837. The purchaser later died, but there were no laws to determine who got his property.

I also learned that there were no inheritance laws in Oregon in the 1840s, so if someone died, what happened to his property was unclear. My poor widow might be out in the cold, or at least might have a legal fight on her hands.

By treaty between the United States and Great Britain, Oregon Territory became part of the United States in 1846. That led to a new Territorial Legislature, which adopted new land laws in 1849. That is important to my story, because the timeline of my novel runs until late 1850.

The new law, called the Donation Land Act, effectively nullified all existing land claims, though most could be refiled without problem. This act gave 320 acres to every white male citizen of the United States over eighteen-years of age who filed a claim.

If a man was married, his wife could also receive 320 acres, upon proof of marriage, which would result in the same 640 acres that had previously been available. The husband and wife each owned half of the total grant in their own name, and this was one of the first laws in the United States to allow married women to own property under their own name.

Men arriving after December 1, 1850, could only claim 160 acres, with an additional 160 acres for their wives. Over the next few years, the land laws in Oregon became less generous. Fewer acres were granted, and some money was required. But those are not relevant to this book. Maybe I’ll need to do more research in the future, but not now. I’m hoping I have enough knowledge now to flesh out the plot in my sequel over the next several months.

When have you struggled to pin down details on a project of yours?

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

I have immersed myself in the nineteenth century over the last few weeks, editing my Oregon Trail novel for what I hope has been the final big push. It still needs some tweaking, but the book is essentially done.

Rinker Buck coverWhile I was spending hours each day deep in my novel, I read each evening from The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck. Mr. Buck and his brother Nick drove a covered wagon powered by three mules from Kansas to Oregon in 2011. Their family background gave them unique skills to tackle this endeavor—their father had taken them on many covered wagon rides in the East when they were growing up. As an adult, Nick was a master mechanic and muleskinner.

Rinker Buck’s book is part memoir, part history, part travelogue, and part social commentary. All parts are enjoyable.

It was a good counterpoint for me as I worked my way through my novel, giving me a foil against which either to confirm what I wrote about my emigrants or to understand why my account differed from what the Bucks experienced.

I had to remind myself as I read that Mr. Buck could recount the entire history of the Oregon Trail, from Lewis and Clark through the 1890s. He includes accounts of the Mormon migration and influence, the Gold Rush years, and the Pony Express. I, on the other hand, have been limited to writing about the trail as it existed in 1847—the year my fictional wagon train heads to Oregon.

So each time I said “Yeah, but . . .” as I read, I re-grounded myself in his purpose and in my purpose, and then went back to Mr. Buck’s story, which was engrossing in every way. And I fixed one error in my manuscript that I caught while reading his book.

Mr. Buck tells his readers up front that his journey was not a reenactment of the Oregon Trail emigrants. They used a nineteenth century wagon designed along the same specifications as the emigrant wagons. They rigged their mule harnesses the same way. But they made many adaptations, such as pulling an extra cart behind their wagon (the ill-fated Trail Pup which hauled extra water and mule feed).

And they didn’t shun modern conveniences and facilities along the way. They traveled part of the route on asphalt roads. When their equipment broke down, they found ranchers to help them with repairs or sent broken gear back East to be fixed. They camped frequently in public parks and corrals or on ranches through which they traveled. At one point, a minivan’s headlights guided them into camp. They bought clothes at Wal-Mart and food in grocery stores. (I had to laugh when Mr. Buck described stopping at a diner for fried chicken. No diners available in 1847.)

But the Bucks faced many of the same problems the nineteenth century emigrants did. They planned their route from water source to water source. They had to chuck belongings along the way to reduce weight. Rinker Buck escaped the discomfort and monotony of the wagon by walking for at least part of the day while his brother drove. And weather turned from pleasant to treacherous in the space of minutes.

I discovered that the emigrants of the nineteenth century had some advantages that the Buck brothers did not. For one, the wagon trains didn’t have to worry about cattle guards.

But more importantly, as Mr. Buck points out, the emigrants could pool their resources—food and water, tools, and the labor that dozens of men and teams could provide. I had intuited the sense of community that wagon trains developed along the trail, but in my novel, their forced togetherness also provides a lot of the conflict in the story.

Despite its lack of authenticity in some respects, Mr. Buck’s book is still an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Oregon Trail. He provides more detail on wagon construction and mule driving than any of the books I previously encountered in my research. (He made an excellent case for mules over oxen, though other wagoneers made equally strong cases for oxen.)

He also provides pictures and drawings that show the particulars of their wagon construction, the harnessing of their mules, and the beauty of the land they traversed. His descriptions of locales in the West jibed with first-hand accounts from the nineteenth century. Moreover, he and his brother encountered many of the same dangers (thunderstorms, steep ascents and descents, lack of water, and runaway mules) that pioneers in the nineteenth century faced.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

I have always been fascinated by the story of Narcissa Whitman, and it seems Rinker Buck was as well. Narcissa was the first white woman to cross the Rockies and settle in Oregon. Her spunk and vitality encouraged me from the time I first visited the Whiman Mission outside Walla Walla, Washington, when I was about eight. Like Mr. Buck, as I learned more about her attitude of white superiority toward the Native Americans she sought to convert, I discovered she was an imperfect heroine. Nevertheless, her story spurred many emigrant women to settle in the West, and it started me on the path to writing about the Oregon Trail.

Mr. Buck expertly weaves personal memoir and public history into his chronology of the journey. As with any meaningful journey experience, he and his brother come out with changed perspectives on life. Mr. Buck generously shares those perspectives with his readers. We end up wondering: Could I survive such a trek? What would it change in me?

I highly recommend The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey as a good read, as well as an informed view on an important period in American history.

What books have immersed you in another time?

P.S. I’m also in the middle of Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as edited and annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. This book provides another glimpse into the nineteenth century. It’s also worth a read, if you don’t mind learning the truth behind some of the tales in the beloved Little House books.