Mail to California

In April, 1850, David Green wrote to his father and brothers in the gold fields near Sacramento. The postage to California and Oregon was 40 cents and it was paid by the sender. This letter was folded and sealed to create its own envelope. Note the red blob of sealing wax still adhering to the paper. The postmark reads “Ottawa Ill. APR 28”. How did this letter get to California?

Mail to California began in November, 1848, when Postmaster General Cave Johnson dispatched a special agent to California to establish Post Offices. By Christmas, steamships were carrying mail from New York to California via the Isthmus of Panama. This was before the construction of the canal. When the ships reached Panama, the mail was taken off and transported in canoes or on pack animals – and later by railroad – about 50 miles to the Pacific coast. Another steamship collected the mail on the Pacific side and headed north. The total journey took about three weeks. See here for map.

Since the first overland mail service to California was not until the spring of 1851, this letter likely went by boat from Ottawa to St. Louis and then by steamboat to New Orleans. From there it joined the main mail route from New York, crossing Panama and continuing up the coast to San Francisco.

This second letter came in its own (hand-made) envelope. Note that in this case the sender paid only 10 cents, leaving 30 cents to be collected upon arrival. Was David thinking the miners would have plenty of gold to pay the amount due?

Mail to and from California was eagerly awaited and all the letters stressed the fact that they had not heard from the other in a long time. Then a batch of letters would appear all at once and news was relayed to everyone for miles around, in hopes that their people would be mentioned. Many of the letters from La Salle county people were published in the Ottawa Free Trader.

Mail from home was not only eagerly awaited, it was treasured. These two letters, mailed to California and received there, were put away safely and brought home with them. The fragile originals are now treasured as evidence of how important the mail was to the adventurers.

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