Notes from the Past

Western Mail - Part I

The westward expansion of the United States to the Pacific shores in the mid 19th century was a fabulous time for adventurous travel and interesting mail handling.  The keys were the private express companies which carried mail, express, and passengers -- generally in coaches -- between the western railheads to the Pacific settlements in Oregon and California.  In 1865, Demas Barnes undertook a challenging trip from New York City across the west to San Francisco via the railroads and Overland stage, returning via Acapulco and the Isthmus of Panama.  The trip was likely commissioned by Wells Fargo seeking intelligence on the routes.  Barnes wrote letters along the way and in 1866 D. Van Nostrand & Co. published the letters in From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Overland - A Series of Letters.

At the time Ben Holladay operated his Overland Stage Line following a route similar to what became the Union Pacific railroad from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory.  Where the route crossed the South Platte River, he operated a branch line to Denver encouraged by the Colorado territorial legislature.  In July, 1864, Holladay won the contract to carry westbound mail over this route.  The Overland Mail Company held the contract to deliver mail from Salt Lake City to Folsom, California.  The Overland Mail Company was owned by four major express companies but Wells Fargo & Co. was the dominant partner.  The Pioneer Stage Company operated from from Placerville, California, to the towns of the Comstock district of Nevada where Gold had been discovered in 1863.  Wells Fargo centered in San Francisco was the dominant express company in California.  These were the routes that Barnes would travel.  These were also the companies which would be acquired by Wells Fargo in the "Great Consolidation" of 1866 which created a western express and freighting empire which, except for the Oregon Steam and Navigation Company and the railroads, controlled transportation throughout the west.

The letters tell a tale of an extremely difficult journey.  Barnes described it after the first six days and nights on the stage as: It is not pleasant, but it is an interesting trip. . . I shall not undertake it again.  Since the contract for mail carriage subsidized the companies involved and mail was a link to home dear to Barnes, he periodically commented on his observations regarding mail.

To be continued.

Posted June 14, 2000

Editor's Note:  I am indebted to Wells Fargo in Colorado Territory by W. Turrentine Jackson published by the Colorado Historical Society, 1982 for the source material contained herein.

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