Select Chapter – Appendix
Central Overland Mail, 1847-1850
In 1847, Mormons began the third great stage of the westward migration, as thousands travelled from starting points on the Missouri River to Salt Lake City. This followed the earlier westward migrations to Oregon and California, which were described in Chapters Three and Four. The resulting large settlement at Salt Lake City (in today’s Utah) created a need for communication with both the United States and California, and the Central Route evolved to service this need. The eastern segment of the route was the Platte River Road, which ran between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City. Figure 5-1 shows this segment, which passed through Fort Kearny, Fort Laramie and South Pass to Salt Lake City.
Figure 5-1. Map of the Platte River Road between Iowa/Missouri and Salt Lake City. The emigrant trails which evolved into mail routes are shown in green.
The Mormon Church Migrates West
Leader of Mormon Church
- Born in Vermont in 1801
- Joined the Mormon Church in 1832
- Founded Salt Lake City in July 1847
- Succeeded Joseph Smith as President in 1847
- Governor of Utah Territory, 1851-58
- Died at Salt Lake City in 1877
On April 5, 1847, Brigham Young led the pioneer party of 143 people1 westward from the Winter Quarters. They followed the north bank of the Platte River to avoid contact with travelers on the Oregon Trail, who typically used the south bank. The company reached Fort Laramie on June 1. During the last week of June, Brannan came east to meet Young near the Green River (in today’s Wyoming) and tried unsuccessfully to convince Young that California was a better location for settlement.
On July 21, 1847, advance scouts reached the Salt Lake valley, and Young declared it to be their home three days later. By December of that year, 2,200 Mormons had made the trek to settle in the Salt Lake valley,2 followed by 2,400 additional settlers in 1848. By the end of 1849, a total of 6,100 people had travelled to Salt Lake City.
Mail between Salt Lake City and the Missouri River
Within a month of their arrival, the Mormon settlers designated a small building in Salt Lake City as their post office and named it “The Great Basin Post Office.” The Mormons had historically relied heavily on communication to connect their widely dispersed members, so the creation of a post office was one of their earliest priorities. Seventeen months later, in response to a petition from the Salt Lake settlers, the United States established the first official post office at Salt Lake City on January 18, 1849.
In the period before the establishment of a U.S. post office, there were only a few overland trips that could carry mail, as listed in Table 5-1.
|Table 5-1. Trips between Salt Lake City and the United States, 1847 and 1848|
|Eastbound to the United States|
|Departed Salt Lake City||Arrived||Party||Notes|
|Aug 2, 1847||Sep 1847 at Winter Quarters||Ezra Benson|
|Aug 26, 1847||Oct 31, 1847 at Winter Quarters||Brigham Young||Young’s return|
|Oct 8, 1847||Dec 17, 1847 at Winter Quarters||Mormon Battalion||Carried 144 letters (Young’s journal)|
|Jan 10, 1848||May 11, 1848 at Linden, MO||Mormon Battalion||See Figure 5-2|
|Mar 7, 1848||May 16, 1848 at Kanesville, IA||Levi Hancock||SLC Mar 5, 1848 letter via Kane|
|July 9, 1848||Aug 3, 1848 at Independence, MO||California Star Express||See Chapter 4, Aug 8 in St. Louis|
|Aug 9, 1848||Oct 18, 1848 at Kanesville, IA||Benjamin Rolfe||Carried 63 letters, SLC Aug 8 letter via Kane|
|Oct 14, 1848||Dec 20, 1848 at Kanesville, IA||Howard Egan||SLC Oct 13 letter via Kane Dec 20|
|Westbound to Salt Lake City|
|Apr 5, 1847
|Jul 23, 1847||Pioneer Party||Young’s first trip|
|Jul 4, 1847
|Sep 19, 1847||First Migration|
|May 26, 1848
|July/August 1848||Second Migration|
|Jul 3, 1848
|Oct 19, 1848||Willard Richards|
|Oct 14, 1848
|Nov 30, 1848||Allen Compton||Carried 227 letters (Young’s journal)|
Figure 5-2 was written in Salt Lake City on January 9, 1848 and explains that, “I avail myself of this opportunity of writing to you by the mail which leaves tomorrow for the bluffs: this mail is carried by some of the soldiers of the Mormon battalion recently from the settlements of California.” The soldier posted the letter at Linden, Missouri on May 11, where it was rated for 10 cents due to Indiana. This is the earliest reported use from Salt Lake City.
The Babbitt Special Contract Mails
MAILS TO THE PACIFIC – A post office has been established at the Salt Lake Valley, in California, and Joseph L. Heywood, formerly of Quincy, Illinois, appointed postmaster. Mr. Almon W. Babbitt, the contractor, will deliver the mail six times a year, and forward all mail matter, sent through by way of Kanesville, Iowa to Oregon and California. The first mail will go through the first of April.
Almon Babbitt, Mormon Expressman, 1812-1856
- Joined the Mormon Church in 1833
- Elected to Illinois House in 1844
- Emigrated to Salt Lake City in 1848
- Organized Salt Lake City-Missouri mail system in 1849
- Requested territorial status for State of Deseret, 1849
- Murdered April 1856 near Ft. Laramie
This announced service was only partially implemented. There was no through mail to California or Oregon as no contractors were available to carry the westbound mail beyond Salt Lake City. Further, since no funds were allocated by Congress for the route between Kanesville and Salt Lake City, the post office relied on a “special” contract, with compensation to the carrier consisting of each trip’s postal proceeds. For purposes of classification, “Babbitt Special Contract Mails” is used here to differentiate this service from the previous mails carried at the expense of the Mormon Church, and the later regular contract mails. Regular contract routes required a contract between the federal government and a mail contractor for a specific sum of money to be paid for a specific route service.
Brigham Young’s journal4 entry of February 28, 1849 (the date the news reached Kanesville) reported that:
|Table 5-2. Babbitt Special Contract Mail Trips, March 1849 to August 1850|
|Eastbound to the United States|
|Departed Salt Lake City||Arrived at Kanesville||Mail Part||Notes|
|Mar 1849||May 16, 1849||Almon Babbitt||First trip|
|Apr 14, 1849||May 27, 1849||Allen Compton|
|May 4, 1849||Jun 22, 1849||Deseret Territorial Memorial||Carried 31 letters (Young’s journal)|
|Jul 27, 1849||Sep 3, 1849||Almon Babbitt||See Figures 5-3 and 5-4|
|Sep 10, 1849||Dec 7, 1849||Dec 12 1849 at St. Louis|
|Oct 19, 1849||Dec 10, 1849||John Taylor||See Figure 5-5|
|Apr 18, 1850||Jun 10, 1850||Robert Campbell|
|May 1850||Jul 8, 1850||SLC Feb 14 letter via Kane|
|Aug 2, 1850||Sep 12, 1850||John Green and B. Holladay||See Figures 5-6 and 5-7|
|Westbound to Salt Lake City|
|Departed Kanesville||Arrived Salt Lake City||Party||Notes|
|Feb 1849||Apr 9, 1849||Allen Compton|
|May 15, 1849||Jul 29, 1849||Howard Egan|
|May 21, 1849||Jul 1, 1849||Almon Babbitt||Met St. Louis wagons enroute|
|Jul 1849||Sep 19. 1849||Campbell & Patten|
|May 1, 1850||Jun 8, 1850||Thomas Williams||“First news from the States this season”5|
|Jul 6, 1850||Aug 15, 1850||Orson Hyde|
On April 12, 1849, Thomas Bullock, the auditor of Church tithing accounts and probable acting Postmaster, recorded an accounting6 for the April 14 eastbound mail trip from Salt Lake City. He identified the men in Captain Allen Compton’s party and listed an account of mails sent (in waybill form) as:
|For the States||126 paid letters||$63.00|
|Europe & C.||24 paid letters||$12.00|
|Kanesville||80 paid letters, 170 unpaid, 10 free||$40.00|
|Mount Pisgah||4 paid letters||$2.00|
|Way Mail||1 paid letter, 7 unpaid||$ .50|
|Totals:||235 paid letters, 190 unpaid letters||$117.50|
Bullock’s entry also listed the number of letters carried by four of the men in the mail party: Compton (425), Johnson (54), Casto (11), and Huntington (12). The 425 letters carried by Compton matches the total listed in the waybill, so the others apparently carried letters on their own account.
The waybill shows that the amount collected per prepaid letter was 50 cents. At that time, the postal rate for over 300 miles was 10 cents.7 Thus, it appears that Babbitt charged a 40 cents fee for each prepaid letter in addition to the postal receipts associated with each trip. It is not clear if he collected a fee for each unpaid letter, and may have only received the amount of postage on such letters.
The earliest recorded letter posted from the Salt Lake City post office is shown in Figure 5-3, and was carried by Almon Babbitt under the terms of his special contract. The letter was datelined July 5, 1849 by Ursulia Hascall, who acknowledged receipt of letters dated January and February 1849 by “the mail which came in July 1” (the May 21 Babbitt trip from Kanesville). She also observed that, “the last letter we had (before that) was October 18478 the mail will now be more regular, but it is impossible to pass through the Rocky Mountains in winter without people and animals both perishing.” Ursulia was a Mormon convert from Massachusetts who left Nauvoo, Illinois on May 30, 1846 for Winter Quarters, Nebraska. She then took part in the First Migration, which left Winter Quarters on July 14, 1847 and arrived in Salt Lake City on September 19 of that year.
Another letter9 carried in the same July 1849 mail was datelined “Great Salt Lake City Upper California July 14th 1849” and postmarked on the same day as the Hascall letter in Figure 5-3. William Suceree wrote to his children in Indiana that, “you been write to us now and it will come direct as there is a post office established here and contract for the mail through to the bay once in three months.” This apparently refers to a mail arrangement between Salt Lake and California.
Both letters received manuscript “Salt Lake Cal. July 16” postmarks in the hand of Thomas Bullock. They indicate that the Salt Lake City post office was part of California for postal purposes. Neither of the July 16, 1849 letters show indication of any express fees and both were rated for 10 cents postage due in Salt Lake City, reflecting the over 300 miles rate for domestic mail. As shown in Table 5-2, Babbitt left Salt Lake City with this mail on July 27 and arrived in Kanesville on September 3.
A way letter collected enroute by the Babbitt party on the same trip is shown in Figure 5-4. This letter was datelined on July 27, 1849 by Chauncey Swan, who wrote that, “Here I am in Mr Switzers tent writing, three miles west of the great south pass of the rocky mountains…I am in Orrigan and within 25 miles of California. I expect to be at Salt Lake by the 15th of August…My hopes are strong of being at Suters fort in California by the first day of October.” He closed by saying, “it is getting late and I expect Mr. Babbitt along with the Mormon mails.” Babbitt collected this letter during his July 27 mail-carrying trip which arrived in Kanesville on September 3. The letter was postmarked “Kane Iowa” three days later and assessed 10 cents postage due, for the postage from South Pass to Iowa City. The sender endorsement of “paid” was also lined through by the postmaster, which suggests that Babbitt collected an additional express fee (probably 50 cents) before the letter was posted. The other sender endorsement, “Comp(limen)ts of Dr. McCormick” refers to a fellow member of Swan’s party who had contemplating a return to the States but instead continued onward to California.
Notices in the Deseret News in 1850 confirm the charges for the Babbitt special contract mail. The July 27, 1850 Deseret News reported that, “A mail is expected to leave for the States, about the 27th of July. Single letters to any part of the States, 50 cents.” The July 27, 1850 mail trip actually left Salt Lake City on August 2, and carried the letter shown in Figure 5-6. This letter was written at Fort Hall (northwest of Salt Lake City in today’s Idaho) on July 20, 1849. The writer was enroute to California and reported that, “We have just arrived here and as an opportunity is now offered to send letters to the States by the Government Express I hasten to inform you of my whereabouts.” This express was probably carried by military officers returning to the East, and they left this letter at Salt Lake City, where it languished for nearly a year.
It was finally postmarked “G.S.L.C. Cal” (Great Salt Lake City, California) in manuscript on July 11, 1850, probably by acting postmaster Willard Richards. Richards uncharacteristically rated this letter for 40 cents due, perhaps reflecting the transcontinental rate from California. It is unclear whether he had received instructions from Washington to charge 40 cents on mail to the East, or if he simply made a mistake. The letter was then given to John Y. Green and B. Holladay, who were operating under the Babbitt special contract. They left Salt Lake City on August 2 and arrived in Kane on September 12.
The letter in Figure 5-7 was carried in the same mail, but did not pass through the Salt Lake City post office.
This letter was written by Ursulia Hascall at Salt Lake City on July 27, 1850. It received a Kane, Iowa postmark of September 12 and was rated for ten cents postage due to Massachusetts.
As described in Chapter Seven, the post office route contract with Samuel Woodson superseded the Babbitt service.
The mail will leave the frontiers on the 15th, relays of horses have been stationed at various points along the route, and it is intended to push this Express forward, so as to pass all of the emigrants and other trains on the route for California. This will enable persons who wish to communicate with their friends, to do so, and will probably be the last opportunity they will have, before their arrival in California. When the Express reaches the Pacific Springs, which will be in advance of any of the emigrant trains, another Express will be sent back to the State, bringing with it all the letters which emigrants on the route may send home. All letters sent to persons in California will be forwarded by one of the partners of the concern, and delivered according to direction…Every letter sent by this line must be delivered, postage paid, and accompanied by fifty cents – compensation to the express – double letters in proportion.
Estill & Co. apparently made only one trip to Pacific Springs, leaving Westport on May 21, 1850 and arriving around July 15. His return trip reached Weston on August 15, with a reported 4,000 letters. Even so, very few letters carried by this express are known to have survived. Figure 5-8 illustrates a letter addressed to New Jersey.
Estill collected this letter on the trail and endorsed it “Estill & Co. Express” on the front. It was apparently double-weight, since a $1 charge is indicated on the front. It was carried to Weston, Missouri where it was posted on August 16 with ten cents postage due to New Jersey. This envelope also confirms the date of Estill’s departure from Weston. It carries a note on the reverse that, “I have learned by the Gentlemen in Estalls Express mule train which left Weston on the 21st May that there is considerable sickness among the emigration behind.”
Trail Mail on the Platte River Road
This letter was datelined “on the plains May 21st 1848” from an immigrant to California who explained that, “I have an opportunity to use the influence of one captain (who was an officer at this post last year) to get a letter conveyed. I gladly embrace this opportunity but were it not for this chance I could not write as there are so many persons wishing to send letters that it would be impossible for the Quartermaster to get them all in the mail.” The fort’s quartermaster marked this letter “Fort Kearny Oregon Route” and placed it with the military dispatches for Fort Leavenworth. At Leavenworth, it was placed in the mails on June 14 and rated ten cents due for the postage to Illinois. This is the earliest possible postmark from Fort Kearney.
Figure 5-10 shows the back of an interesting June 1849 letter to New York City that was collected along the Platte River Road and brought back to Missouri, probably by army personnel from Fort Laramie.
This envelope was delivered to the steamship Algoma on the Missouri River. It was marked “STEAM 10” due in red by the ship purser and carried to St Louis. Unfortunately, the Algoma was burned and sank at the wharf in St Louis on July 29. Some of the mail was recovered and forwarded with the post office label illustrated in Figure 5-10. This accident was widely reported, and the August 16, 1849 Arkansas Weekly Gazette, quoting from the St Louis Republican, gave one account:
The two bags of letters brought down in the Algoma, and which were supposed to have been lost in the fire, were found yesterday in a damaged condition. There are several thousand letters…Capt. A.J. Eaton, the mail agent has taken possession of them, and is endeavoring to dry them…One of our letters was delivered to us yesterday – a good deal burned, and scarcely in an intelligible shape. We gather from it that it was written 60 miles beyond Fort Kearney, on the 4th of July.
Westbound travelers along the Platte typically stopped at Fort Laramie, which was located on the south bank of the river. This meant that they had to cross the North Platte at some point before South Pass. Brigham Young saw an opportunity while crossing the North Platte in 1847, and established the Mormon Ferry near today’s Casper, Wyoming. For a fee, the Mormon Ferry carried travelers across the river during the May to September active emigration period, from 1847 to 1852.
Figure 5-11 is headed “Platte River Ferry 125 miles from Fort Laramie” and was written around May 9, 1850. The 1850 date is confirmed by the ten cents due rate on the cover and a reference in the letter to D.S. Norton, who travelled from Mount Vernon, Ohio to California in 1850. The writer of the letter explains that, “I have just been informed by the Captain of this Ferry that he would carry letters back to the States (note: at this point the phrase “at no charge” has been crossed out) as soon as Emigration was past.” He also explains that he left Fort Laramie “on the 5th” (of May) and hopes to be in California by mid-July. The emigration ended sometime in September, and the captain of the ferry (Thomas Crover) arranged to have the letter carried back to St Joseph, where it was posted on November 8.
Mail between Salt Lake City and California
|Table 5-3. Overland Trips between Salt Lake City (SLC) and California – 1847 to 1851|
|Westbound to California|
|Departed Salt Lake City||Arrived in California||Notes|
|Aug 9, 1847||Oct 1847 at Monterey||Capt. James Brown party|
|Nov 18, 1847||Jan 7, 1848 at Los Angeles||Hunt & Rockwell party|
|Mar 12, 1848||(unknown)||Levi Riter (with Epistle)|
|Apr 12, 1849||May 25, 1849 at Sacramento||Lyman & Rockwell party|
|Oct 8, 1849||Dec 22, 1849 at William’s Ranch||Rich & Pratt party|
|Nov 18, 1849||Jan 15, 1850 at Los Angeles||Egan party|
|Jul 7, 1850||Aug 27, 1850 at Sacramento||Goodale (?)|
|Easbound from California|
|Departed California||Arrived Salt Lake City||Notes|
|Aug 27, 1847 from Sacramento||Oct 11, 1847||Mormon Battalion|
|Oct 1847 from Monterey||Nov 16, 1847||Capt. Brown party|
|Feb 5, 1848 from Los Angeles||May 1848||Jefferson Hunt party|
|Apr 12, 1848 from Los Angeles||Jun 5, 1848||Orrin P. Rockwell party|
|Apr 15, 1848 from Sacramento||Jul 9, 1848||Nathan Hawks (“Star Express“)|
|Jul 2, 1848 from Placerville||Sep 25, 1848||Mormon Battalion|
|1848 from San Francisco||Sep 28, 1848||Addison Pratt party|
|1849 from (?)||Nov 1849||Supply Train|
|1850 from Los Angeles (?)||Sep 10, 1850||John Barnard party|
|Aug 16, 1850 from Sacramento||Sep 29, 1850||Amasa Lyman party – Figure 5-13|
|Sep 5, 1850 from Sacramento||Oct 12, 1850||Rockwell party|
|Sep 26, 1850 fom Middle Fork||Nov 12, 1850||General Rich Party|
Figure 5-13 illustrates an eastbound letter sent from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. This letter was mailed at the Sacramento, California post office and postmarked on August 12, 1850 with 12½ cents intra-California postage due. As there was no regular contract mail service available, the Sacramento postmaster entered into a trip contract with a member of the Amasa Lyman party (see Table 5-3) to carry a mail to Salt Lake City for compensation amounting to the value of the postage on the letters carried. The Lyman party left Sacramento on August 16, and arrived in Salt Lake City on September 29, 1850.
The last line of the address shows “Deseret” as part of the location. In March 1849, the Mormon government in Salt Lake City proposed that the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains be added to the United States as the State of Deseret. This provisional state existed for about two years and was never recognized by the U.S. government. The United States initially considered combining the states of California and Deseret, but instead created Utah Territory on September 9, 1850. The news of this, however, was not received in either Utah or California until months later, so postmarks with the Deseret designation are known until June 1851.
- Bancroft, History of Utah, 1540-1886, page 253.
- Unruh, The Plains Across, pages 119-120.
- Lot 577 in the October 23, 1857 John Fox auction.
- Harwell, Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1847-1850, page 163.
- Described as the “First authentic intelligence from the States this season,” in the September 28 1849 Deseret News.
- Whall, The Salt Lake City Post Office, p39
- August 14, 1848 Post Office Act, Sec 3
- Probably carried by Willard Richard’s party, per Table 5-1.
- Lot 563 in the Spink January 2010 auction of Floyd Risvold’s collection.
Select Chapter – Appendix