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?

An Empty InBox

2RZVIMDLQQ laptop coffeeMany years ago, my department at work took the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey to find out what we were best at, as defined by Gallup. At the top of my list was “Input.” That sounded odd to me, but the description of this strength said it meant I liked to collect things.

I’ve never had a collection of anything, but I do amass junk. Or so says my husband. I keep a lot of paper junk, but also a lot of digital junk. Still the Gallup terminology puzzled me. I decided that in my case “Input” meant I liked to collect information. I love to research. I like knowing things. I keep all my paper and digital files because they contain information, which I might need someday. I don’t know when I’ll need it, but I might. Someday.

A month ago, I smiled in amusement at a friend’s posting on Facebook about his project to clean out his email inbox. He had a few hundred messages in the inbox, apparently, and was determined to get the number down to zero.

Hah! I thought to myself, what a waste of time. What difference does it make if his inbox contains lots of messages? He doesn’t have to do anything with them. The emails can just sit there. They aren’t hurting a thing.

But a few weeks later, I involuntarily cleaned out my own inbox. I accidentally deleted everything in it.

I have three email addresses that I use regularly. I probably have been assigned half a dozen other addresses through various alumni organizations and other sources. Those I never look at. But these three I open daily.

One is my “real” email. Only personal friends and professional contacts get that one.

Another is my “writing” email. I use this one to publicize my writing, and I give it out publicly so readers can contact me.

The third is my “junk” email—the one that I use for shopping online and when I want to sign up for free stuff and sales advertised by retailers. This is the address I use to follow newsletters and blogs and just about everything else that doesn’t require my immediate attention when I get the email. I’m interested in lots of things—legal topics, human resources, writing, book marketing and publishing. I’m on a lot of distribution lists.

Thank goodness the “junk” email inbox was the one I deleted, because hardly any of the messages in it are mission-critical.

But a few of the deleted emails might be important. Maybe it wasn’t so good that this was the one I deleted. It would take hours to undo.

This inbox was by far my largest—over 6000 emails in it at the time. (Which is why I chuckled at my friend’s problem with his few hundred messages.) I tend to keep messages I haven’t read yet, or which have some interesting information I might want to pass along in Facebook groups or through Twitter feeds, or which offer a sale of clothes I might want to buy (though I don’t need a thing). The hoarding must be my Input strength coming through.

Like my friend, I’ve periodically made attempts to winnow down my inbox. I’ve trashed everything more than six months old, for example. Or deleted all messages from particular senders whose newsletters I’ve decided aren’t that interesting, or from retailers from which I never buy.

Sometimes I’ll go through an “unsubscribe” mode, in which I unsubscribe from everything I don’t want to read that day. I stop following blogs, delete persistent marketers, and cancel retail sales pushes.

But despite these efforts, as of Involuntary Trash Day, it had been a long time since my “junk” inbox had had fewer than 2000 messages in it.

I’m still not sure what I did that morning, but all of a sudden all 6000 messages were gone. The inbox was empty.

Upon investigation, I discovered that they had all gone into the Trash folder.

Well, heck, I thought, why not leave them there? Then I wouldn’t have to deal with them.

But what if there’s something in there I really should read? my Input gene asked.

So I went through the 200 or so unread messages in the Trash and some of the most current messages to decide what I really should keep. It wasn’t much. I only resurrected about 30 emails. (One was from the library telling me to call or my card would expire next month. Maybe I should let the library have my “real” email address.) The rest of the 6000 I left in the Trash folder, and let the system delete them permanently a day or two later.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the clean slate I’d involuntarily been given. And I vowed to act or delete on every message I received each day.

But I’m back up to 300 messages in that inbox already.

What do you do to control your email? Or do you bother?

California Grows Quickly Despite Slow Communications

Throughout 1848, fortune-seekers streamed into California, even though the U.S. government had not yet acknowledged the discovery of gold. By October 1848, there were 8,000 men mining for gold in California, doubled from the 4,000 in July of that year.

William T. Sherman made his second trip to the gold fields in the fall of 1848, and reached the Stanislaus River, called “Sonora” after the region of Mexico where many of the miners came from. Sherman reported that more and more mines were being discovered every day, both north and south of the Stanislaus.

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Miners poured into California from Oregon. A few brought wagons down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and reached Sacramento in late October 1848. One of these Oregonian miners was Peter Burnett, who later became California’s first governor.

Burnett described the difficulties of the trail to California along the Yuba in his Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. He wrote:

I could hear the wagons coming down that rough, rocky hill until midnight. Some of the people . . . had been without water for nearly two days.”

. . .

“Below, glowing in the hot sunshine and in the narrow valley of this lovely and rapid stream, we saw the canvas tents and the cloth shanties of the miners.

Meanwhile, not only was official acceptance of the gold rush slow to come from Washington, but news from the East Coast also arrived slowly in California. On October 23, 1848, the San Francisco newspaper, The Californian, reported news just received from the east via Monterey:

We have been politely favored with the perusal of a letter from Monterey to a gentleman of this town, from which we gather some highly interesting and important intelligence. Two vessels had arrived at Monterey, by which intelligence had been received from Boston and Washington up to June 29.

. . .

“Martin Van Buren was a self nominated candidate for the Presidency, taking the anti-slavery side of the question. Hale of New Hampshire, was the abolition candidate.

“The election for Presidential electors is to be held on the same day in November throughout the Union.

This last point was significant, because 1848 was the first year in which the presidential election took place on the same date throughout the U.S.—November 7, 1848.

In the 1848 presidential election, the candidates were Martin Van Buren, a former Democrat (and former President) who headed the Free Soil Party, Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party, and Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party. Taylor won, but died in 1850, just sixteen months after taking office.

Of course, residents of California could not vote in the 1848 election, because California was not a state. This newspaper account came just a week before the election took place. It had taken four months—from late June until late October—to reach California. How could California ever become a part of the nation when communications were so slow?

And yet, less than two years later, on September 9, 1850, Congress approved California’s statehood.

When have poor communications caused difficulties for you?

California Gold Rush: Discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill

Most of us who have studied American history are aware of the Forty-Niners—those intrepid souls who in 1849 left their homes to seek their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. But the Gold Rush actually began in early 1848, when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill.

Over the last two years, I have posted about once a month about travel along the Oregon Trail, focusing on events of 1847, the year in which my first historical novel is set. This year, I will post monthly on the California Gold Rush, focusing on the year 1848, before the “rush” to California from the eastern states began. My second novel takes place in part in California during the Gold Rush years.

I hope through the posts I write this year to give readers a sense of the difficulty of communication in the 1840s. Although gold was discovered in late January 1848, it was late in the year before the find became common knowledge in the East.

In many ways, 1848 was a turning point in the settling of the American West. The Mexican-American War was drawing to an end, and the United States acquired the land that would become California and much of the Southwest. The U.S. and Great Britain had peaceably agreed on the border between Oregon and Canada, granting the U.S. what became the states of Oregon and Washington.

James Marshall

James Marshall

As of the start of 1848, Johann Sutter, a Swiss immigrant to Mexican California, owned a large ranch along the American River that he called “New Helvetia” (“New Switzerland), a land grant from the governor of Mexico. He had built Sutter’s Fort to serve as the commercial center of his empire. In 1847, he hired a carpenter, James Marshall, to oversee construction of a sawmill that would become known as “Sutter’s Mill,” near what is now Coloma, California, and as of January 1848, Marshall was beginning work on the mill.

In late January 1848, while California was still technically owned by Mexico, James Marshall found gold. The accepted date of this discovery is January 24, 1848, but Marshall’s account lists the date as between January 18 and 20.

Gold nugget found by James Marshall (now in Smithsonian Institution)

Gold nugget found by James Marshall (now in Smithsonian Institution)

Here is Marshall’s account of this discovery in his own words:

While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night; and about half past seven o’clock on or about the 19th of January–I am not quite certain to the day, but it was between the 18th and the 20th of that month–1848, I went down as usual, and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I DISCOVERED THE GOLD. I was entirely alone at the time. I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this –sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable; I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken. I then collected four or five pieces and went up to Mr. Scott (who was working at the carpenters’ bench making the mill wheel) with the pieces in my hand and said, “I have found it.”

“What is it?” inquired Scott.

“Gold,” I answered.

“Oh! no,” returned Scott, “that can’t be.”

I replied positively, “I know it to be nothing else.”

Perhaps January 24 is the date that Johann Sutter learned of the gold, because Marshall’s account continues:

Four days afterward I went to the Fort for provisions, and carried with me about three ounces of gold, which Capt. Sutter and I tested with nitric acid. I then tried it in Sutter’s presence by taking three silver dollars and balancing them by the dust in the air, then immersed both in water, and the superior weight of the gold satisfied us both of its nature and value.

Both Sutter and Marshall wanted to keep the gold find secret, because they wanted to finish the sawmill and be prepared to make a profit on the prospectors whom they knew would flood the area. But as we all know, word spread quickly—in California, though not to the rest of the world. Sutter’s Mill was never a success, because Marshall’s laborers left to seek gold.

Just days after this discovery, on February 2, 1848, Mexico and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War and ceding California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to the United States for $15 million.

What if Marshall had picked up his nugget a few weeks earlier and the Mexicans had known there was gold in California? What if communications were instantaneous in 1848, as they are today?

How do you think history might have been different, if word of the Californian gold had reached the Mexican or U.S. governments before the war ended?