Bird’s Eye View of the Golden Gate and San Francisco

(looking East from the Pacific Ocean).

HISTORY – In February 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, near Sacramento, north of San Francisco.  At the time of discovery, San Francisco was a very small town with a population of only a few hundred people.  Initially the news was disbelieved but by 1849 people from all over the globe converged upon the tiny town by the thousands, consumed with "gold fever".  Mail service from San Francisco commenced right in the middle of this chaos when the SF Post Office (SFPO) began mail service in March 1849.  At that time the mail contract route was via Panama and the official mail contract was held by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (PMSC).  But gold fever was great and many other companies began competing for the lucrative trade of transporting passengers and gold dust, and even carrying the mails.  Indeed, as shown in this exhibit, for a short period in 1850 the SF postmaster dispatched the mails via non-contract steamers (if letters were specifically endorsed to such vessels) in an attempt to appease the masses who were steadily complaining of the poor and infrequent mail service (ultimately this practice was  disallowed by the Postmaster General in late 1850 as it was a breach of the mail contract). In these cases manuscript and/or straightline directives were applied by senders to identity the (non-contract) vessel intended to carry the mail. Competition continued to increase in the 1850’s, with independent lines even carrying mail outside of the SFPO, ultimately for deposit into the post offices in the East (primarily New York).  These lines often advertised "ahead of the mails" as they were an alternate and faster service to the contract mail route.

Displayed below are covers bearing the names of several steamships which regularly sailed to/from San Francisco (SF) and which also carried the mails during the height of the California gold rush.  Examples of attempts to enhance mail delivery service and frequency by using non-contract steamers and routes (independent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company who held the US mail contract) are also included. Only covers bearing a specific vessel name are shown, no generic "per steamer" items are included.

Pacific Mail Steamship (PMSS)
Steamers California, Oregon & Panama
The original three contract mail steamers

Endorsed "via Panama p California"
June 20, 1849 unpaid 40¢ rate cover to New York
First-day use of SF straightline postmark

Datelined April 30, 1849, June 20 manuscript postmark.  PMSS California actually departed May 1, the PMSS Panama left on June 20.  Sender intended to catch departure of the California but was apparently too late.  The next opportunity for contract mailing was 7 weeks later on June 20.
Earliest found example of any steamer name on cover sent from SFPO

Illustration of Pacific Mail Steamship (PMSS) California, the first vessel to arrive in San Francisco authorized to carry the contract mails.

Endorsed "pr Oregon March 1, 1850" postmarked the day prior.  Carried by PMSS Oregon, departed March 1, 1850.  Unpaid 40¢ rate cover to Maine.

Endorsed "Per Steamer Panama" carried by PMSS Panama, departed August 1, 1850.  Unpaid 40¢ rate cover to Massachusetts.

The Opposition – George Law's Pacific Line

Steamer Isthmus

The Isthmus, en route to SF to inaugurate service

Endorsed "per Steamer Istmus" [sic]
Letter written in Valparaiso by passenger on way to SF and delivered to the ship’s mate. Isthmus arrived at Panama on March 28, 1850  where letter entered the mails.
30¢ half ounce rate from Panama to U.S.  "STEAM SHIP" and "30" applied in New York
.  The Isthmus of Law’s Line "Rounded the Horn" and stopped in Valparaiso March 1850 on its maiden  journey to SF to begin servicing the SF/Panama route.  It departed Panama April 9 and arrived in SF May 5, 1850.

When the PMSC established a competing line against the U.S. Mail Steamship Company (USMSC) on the Atlantic side in 1850, owner George Law rebutted by placing his own opposition line of four steamers running between SF and Panama (Antelope, Columbus, Isthmus and Republic).  This was direct competition against the PMSC.  The Isthmus was the first to arrive.

Endorsed "S.B. Isthmus" (Steam Boat), unpaid 40¢ rate to Iowa.
The maiden voyage of the Isthmus from SF and first sailing with the mails of a Law's Line non-contract steamer, departing SF on May 15, 1850.

The first conveyance of the SF mails by Opposition Line non-contract vessel

Although the PMSC had an exclusive government contract to carry the mails, George Law offered the SF postmaster the use of his ships to convey mail.  Due in part to the demands of the public, on May 14, 1850 the postmaster agreed and authorized the line to carry mail only if the letter was specifically endorsed to a Law’s Line steamer.

Straightline marking device  "PER STr ISTHMUS"

Red straightline "PER STr ISTHMUS" used on the first trip of two that this marking was applied.  Paid 80¢ double rate cover to NY.  Manuscript & handstamp 80 rates and straightline PAID.  Second voyage of the Isthmus, departed SF on July 17, 1850, postmarked the day prior.

Only known double rate cover with this steamer straightline marking

Straightline marking devices with the vessel name were created and put into service in June 1850.

Red straightline "PER STMr ISTHMUS" with additional  manuscript endorsement on unpaid 40¢ rate to Massachusetts.  The Isthmus departed SF on September 17, 1850, its last trip carrying the SFPO mails.

Final departure of non-contract steamer Isthmus carrying the SFPO mails
Last usage of “PER STr ISTHMUS” straightline marking device

Steamer Columbus

Manuscript "per Steamer Columbus", unpaid 40¢ rate to Massachusetts.
The maiden voyage of the Columbus from SF and second sailing with the mails of a Law's Line non-contract steamer, departing SF on June 18, 1850.

The Columbus was the second steamer of Law’s Line sent to SF, arriving June 6, 1850.

Manuscript "per Columbus" on paid 40¢ rate to New York.  Carried on the Columbus which departed SF on October 19, 1850.

Final departure of the non-contract steamers with the SFPO mails

Post Office Department directive of October 10, 1850 banned all future non-contract sailings with the mails as this was a breech on the government contract.  October 19, 1850 was the final non-contract sailing date carrying the mails from the SFPO.  The directive was received in SF just after this departure and from this date forward all sailings carrying the SFPO mails were via PMSC contract steamers. This directive also required that mail agents accompany the mails on all contract sailings by the PMSC & USMSC.

The Opposition – Howard & Son's Empire City Line (Pacific)

Steamer Northerner

Manuscript "p Northerner" on SF datelined letter carried outside the mails, dropped in the New York PO and postmarked OCT 7 (1850).  Treated as 2¢ local drop rate instead of 40¢  transcontinental postage.  The Northerner departed SF on August 31, 1850 sailing for the Empire City Line.  The Northerner arrived in SF August 15, 1850 and made one voyage under the Empire City Line before being sold to the PMSC in December 1850.

First and only voyage of Northerner under the Empire City Line
Only discovered cover carried by the Northerner under the ECL

The next opposition entrant into the lucrative SF gold rush traffic was Howard & Son's Empire City Line (ECL), arriving in June 1850.  Howard & Son's were early competitors to the USMSC on the Atlantic side and quickly expanded to the Pacific placing three steamers (Sarah Sands, Northerner and New Orleans)  in service between SF and Panama, although Sarah Sands never carried the mails.

Steamer New Orleans

Manuscript "pr Str New Orleans" on SF incoming letter postmarked September 24, 1850, New Orleans inaugural arrival.  Clamshell “Ship 6” due for incoming non-contract steamship rate.

The New Orleans was the third of three ECL steamers to arrive in SF as competition to the PMSC.  The steamer arrived in SF on September 24, 1850, 210 days out from New York.

Manuscript "per New Orleans" on letter datelined September 30, 1850.  Unpaid 40¢ rate to Massachusetts. ECL New Orleans departed SF October 5 on its maiden voyage to Panama.

First and only departure of non-contract steamer New Orleans with SFPO mails.  One of two discovered outbound covers with this sailing endorsement

Return to Contract-Only Mail Carriage via PMSC

Manuscript "Carolina, Dec 24, 1850" on paid 40¢ rate to NY.  Carried on PMSS Carolina January 1, 1851, maiden voyage from SF of the first steamer added to the PMSC fleet after non-contract vessels were prohibited from carrying the SFPO mails.  The Carolina sank near Panama in December 1851.

After October, 1850, only PMSC steamers were authorized to carry the contract mails from the SFPO, commencing with the November 1, 1850 departure of the Panama and all subsequent PMSC sailings.  New ships were sent to supplement the original three PMSC steamers.

Manuscript "p Northerner" on paid 26¢ rate to France.  Carried on PMSS Northerner April 16, 1852 now sailing for PMSC after being sold by Howard & Son's ECL in November 1850.

Steamer Winfield Scott

Maiden voyage into SF of steamer Winfield Scott at this time sailing for the NY & SF Steamship Co.

Endorsed "via Panama pr Vapor Winfield Scott" and red purser marking "STEAMER WINFIELD SCOTT" on incoming SF letter postmarked APR 29, 1852.  Unpaid 6¢ non-contract steamship rate. 

Another entrant into the lucrative passenger trade was the NY and SF Steamship Co. which sent the Winfield Scott to SF in April 1852.  The company changed name in May 1853 to the NY and CA Steamship Co.  After the demise of this line, ownership was transferred to the PMSC in July 1853.

Final Voyage of the steamer Winfield Scott now sailing for the PMSC

San Jose, Cal NOV 22 (1853) via SF to IL, PAID handstamp and manuscript 6¢ rate.  Carried on second and last trip, now sailing for PMSC, departing SF DEC 1, 1853.  Wrecked in the Santa Barbara Channel DEC 2 and lost, but mails, passengers and cargo were saved.  Mail eventually sent by PMSS California to Panama.

1 of 7 known covers recovered from wreck of PMSS WINFIELD SCOTT


Vanderbilt Independent Line - Accessory Transit Company

Via Nicaragua Route

The Independence, en route to SF to inaugurate the new Vanderbilt Nicaragua service

Letter datelined Valparaiso May 12, 1851, endorsed "pr Amn Str Independence to Panama" and carried on the Vanderbilt Independent Line  Independence to Panama where it was forwarded by Smith & Lewis.  Letter entered the mails at the SFPO and received the red Box-30 due marking representing the 30¢ half ounce rate from Panama to U.S. 

Carried from Panama onboard the Northerner sailing for the PMSC at this time, arriving in SF July 7, four days ahead of the Independence. Ironically had the letter stayed onboard the Independence it would have been due only 6¢, the incoming rate via non-contract ship.  The Independence sank near Margarita Island, February 16, 1853.

The Panama route held the mail contract but a shorter route via Nicaragua was utilized by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s shipping company for the lucrative passenger trade starting mid-1851.  This route was faster than the Panama route (to New York) by several days.

Nicaragua Steamship Company

Via Nicaragua Route

Endorsed "pr Cortez" prepaid 6¢ rate to NY. "Via Nicaragua Ahead of the Mails" marking applied at SF.  Letter entered the mails at NY with "New York SHIP FEB 24" (1854) postmark.   The Cortez departed SF on February 1, 1854, sailing for the Nicaragua Steamship Co. after transition from the Vanderbilt Independent Line.

By late-1852, letters were offered to be carried for free (outside of the mails) by independent (non-contract) companies and delivered "in advance of the mails" or "ahead of the mails" reaching the East sooner than the Panama contract route.  This mail was not processed through the SFPO, as only the PMSC could carry such.  This mail was collected and carried to the steamer  directly, completely bypassing the SFPO.  It did not enter the U.S. mails until reaching the East.  In order to meet postal regulations, U.S. postage had to be prepaid on these letters (for the transcontinental rate).
In early 1853 Vanderbilt lost his Nicaragua shipping business when he lost stock control of the company to Cornelius Garrison while vacationing in Europe.  The company changed name to the "Nicaragua Steamship Company" which commenced sailings in April, 1853 (initially using the same steamers).  By late-June, 1853 the name Vanderbilt had been completely removed from sailing advertisements.  The Nicaragua Steamship Co. held the monopoly on the Nicaragua route, and directly competed against the PMSC.  Vanderbilt had unknowingly been ousted from this business, but he would return by September 1853.

Vanderbilt Independent Opposition Line

Via Panama Route (1853-1854)

Endorsed "Via Nicaragua, Stmr Yankee Blade" prepaid 6¢ rate to Connecticut.  The Yankee Blade departed SF on June 1, 1854, letter entered the mails in NY and postmarked June 24.  At this time the Vanderbilt steamers went via Panama, the endorsement reflecting the original route before the Nicaragua Steamship Co. take-over, but many people continued to associate Vanderbilt steamers with the Nicaragua route. 

Slogan handstamp on reverse of above cover "Forwarded via Independent Line, Ahead of Every Thing" (applied by Noisy Carriers, SF)

After Vanderbilt lost control of his company and it became the Nicaragua Steamship Co. he began the new competing Independent Opposition Line to Panama (not Nicaragua) in September 1853. Two ships were utilized on the Pacific, Uncle Sam and Yankee Blade.  Vanderbilt eventually sold all interests to the PMSC and USMSC in September 1854, at great profit.

Oval handstamp "Independent Line, Ahead of the Mails, Uncle Sam and North Star, Via Panama" carried by the Uncle Sam departing SF September 1, 1854, letter entered mails in NY September 27.

Final voyage of the Vanderbilt Independent Opposition Line from SF