Notes from the Past

Mail to Oregon - Via Panama

In 1847 America was riding a wave of westward expansionism.  The term "Manifest Destiny" coined in 1845 portrayed the belief that this imperialism had divine guidance.  Oregon was part of the story.

Fort Vancouver on the Columbia river was a fur trading outpost with a well-developed community operated for the Hudson's Bay trading company.  The first American immigrant party arrived there in 1836.  Although the Hudson's Bay company was committed to keeping American traders out of Oregon, the immigrants were welcomed.  By 1839 there were only about 100 Americans in Oregon.  The boundary between Canada and the United States had not been settled west of the Rocky Mountains and conflict between British and United States interests was inevitable.

By 1843 the flood gates of immigration were opening and there were perhaps 1500 Americans in the region.  The lure of rich, free land brought many Americans across the continent on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.  The uncertainty of the boundary arose again in 1843 with representatives from six Mississippi valley states demanding the entire territory up to the latitude 54° 40'.  This was 5° north of the boundary east of the Rocky Mountains resolved in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty confirmed by the Senate in August 1842.  The cry was, "54-40 or fight!"

The United States had previously tried to get Britain to agree to 49° but the British had not accepted.  Finally, after being challenged by the more northerly 54° 40' position, the British did accept 49° in a treaty signed June 15, 1846.

This then was the background against which provisions were made for mail to Oregon. The enabling legislation which authorized routes to Oregon was noted in Laws and Regulations for the Government of the Post Office Department published in 1847 as follows:

AN ACT
To establish certain post routes and for other purposes.
Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That the Postmaster General be, and he is hereby authorized, to contract for transporting a mail from Charleston, South Carolina, to Chagres, touching at St. Augustine and Key West, and also at Havana, in the Island of Cuba, if deemed expedient, and across the isthmus to Panama, and from thence to Astoria, or the mouth of the Columbia river, touching at Monterey, St. Francisco, and such other places on the coast as the Postmaster General may direct; the mail to be conveyed from Charleston to Chagres, and from Panama to Astoria, in steamships, and to be transported each way once every two months, or oftener, as the public interest may require:  Provided, That the expenditure for such service shall not exceed one hundred thousand dollars per annum.

Sec. 7.  And be it further enacted, That the Postmaster General be, and he is hereby authorized to establish a post office and appoint a deputy Postmaster at Astoria, and such other places on the coast of the Pacific, within the territory of the United States, as the public interest may require; that all letters conveyed to and from Chagres shall be charged with twenty cents postage; and all letters carried to or from Havana shall be subject be subject to twelve and a half cents postage; and letters carried to or from Panama shall pay a postage of thirty cents, and letters to and from Astoria, or any other place on the Pacific coast, within the territory of the United States, shall pay forty cents postage.

Sec. 8.  And be it further enacted, That any contract made in pursuance of this act shall provide for the purchase, by the United States, of the steamships to be employed in conveying the mail, at its option, agreeably to the provisions of an act entitled "An act to provide for the transportation of mail between the United States and foreign countries, and for other purposes," approved the third day of March , one thousand eight hundred and forty-five:  Provided, That the departure and return of said mail may, at the discretion of the Postmaster General, be either from Charleston, New York, Savannah, Pensacola, or New Orleans, as may be deemed most consistent with the public interest.

Sec. 9.  And be it further enacted, That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated for the service herein provided for, to be paid from the general appropriation for mail transportation.

Approved, March 3, 1847.


Posted May 30, 2000

Editor's Note:  Modern philatelists are indebted to Theron Wierenga who republished this volume in 1980.  Italics follow the original.  Chagres was on the Rio Chagres which ultimately became part of the Panama Canal route.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

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