The Overland Mail on the Oregon Trail

There were no established mail routes across the Great Plains until the Mormons settled in Utah and gold had been discovered in California. These events caused the two great settlements of Americans to be made west of the Rocky Mountains. The first was in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and the second was on the Pacific Coast. There had been emigration to Oregon and California before either of the events referred to had occurred, but the settlers were not numerous enough to cause the establishment of a mail service to accommodate them. While the Mormons were hostile to the United States and had started to settle in the Salt Lake Valley when the country still belonged to Mexico, there were many among them who looked back to the United States as a mother-land. They desired news from home. And it was but a few months until the country to the Pacific Ocean fell to the United States by the fortunes of war, and the Mormons found themselves again citizens of the country they had foresworn. The settlement in California, the stupendous production of wealth there, the enterprises of the country projected on so enormous a scale, made it necessary to furnish means of communication with the Government at Washington and relatives and friends in every state. Ships did indeed bring mail around the cape and some soon found its way across the isthmus, but Americans exalted with more money than the world had ever known were not to remain content with so slow a process. It became necessary to found the Overland Mail.

The first contract for an overland mail service was made with Samuel H. Woodson, of Independence, Missouri. It was for a monthly service between that point and Great Salt Lake, and was called “The Great Salt Lake Mail.” The contract was awarded in 1850, the service to begin July 1, 1850, and continue to June 30, 1854. The distance was more than eleven hundred miles, and the amount to be paid Woodson was $19,500 per annum. This mail was carried on horses and mules. In 1854, the contract was awarded to W. M. F. McGraw, of Maryland, for $13,500 per annum. Three mules were used in this service, each carrying a sack of mail and ridden by an agent fantastically garbed in fringed buckskin and other ornamental mountain attire. There was a line from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, and McGraw had helped to carry passengers overland at the rate of $180 to Salt Lake City and $300 to the California terminal. For some time he was not equipped for his passenger business. The Mormon War increased the volume of business and the mail was transported in wagons drawn by mules. As this was but a monthly mail it was found insufficient for the needs of the Government. In 1858 John M. Hockaday, of Missouri, was given a contract for a weekly mail over the same route for $190,000 per annum. The starting point was St. Joseph, Missouri. The Government paid a like sum for carrying the mail from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. The returns from this service amounted to very little, being only $5,412.03 for the first year. This contract was sold to the great freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell in the year 1859.

The Government immediately prior to the Civil War was in the hands of the South. The great overland mail was directed and carried through Southern territory—from Memphis and St. Louis by Little Rock and El Paso to San Francisco. When the administration changed to loyal hands the mail was carried from St. Joseph, Missouri, to which point the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had been completed. The Southern route was discontinued in March, 1861. This contract was soon annulled. It was decided to put on a daily mail from St. Joseph, by Salt Lake City to Placerville, California. As soon as the railroad reached Atchison, Kansas, that town was made the initial point of this route. From this time there were abundant mail facilities provided for the Western settlers. The overland stage was soon an established institution on the Oregon Trail, and the coaches always carried mail.

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