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::: Mail Via San Francisco and Panama and The Polynesian Letter Bag Service :::

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Via SF and Panama

Chart of the California route and the steamship route between San Francisco and New York via an overland transit across the isthmus of Panama.

Plans began in 1845 to create a steamship route connecting the Eastern United States to Astoria in the Oregon Territory. The plan called for steamers to run between New York and Chagres, on the Caribbean Coast of Panama. There passengers would disembark and transfer to river boats to carry them up the Chagres River to a landing at Gorgona. From there, the route would utilize mules to cross the cordillera and drop down to the city of Panama on the Pacific Coast. Other steamers would run between Panama and Astoria to complete the route. By early 1848, these plans were well underway with the first scheduled departure from New York to sail later that year.

Gold was discovered in the mountains east of Sacramento in early 1848. Word of this discovery reached New York after the first steamship for California, the steamer California, departed in late 1848. When she reached Panama City after rounding Cape Horn a throng of Argonauts clamored for a berth. When the California reached San Francisco, the crew deserted and headed for the diggings. Plans to make Astoria the Pacific terminus were abandoned and San Francisco became the end of the line. After initial problems in getting things organized, a post office was open by March 15, 1849. Within a few weeks, the next steamship, the Oregon, arrived and unloaded beneath the guns of a U.S. naval ship to prevent desertion. The first steamer mail was dispatched by the Oregon on April 12. and the Panama Route began to function. Postage for the new route was high – 40 cents per half ounce, to which a 2 cents ship fee was added for letters deposited at the post office from ships arriving from a foreign port.

News of the new route was published in Honolulu, even before confirmation arrived to know it was in operation. Despite the high postage, the Panama Route quickly became the preferred way to send mail because of the speed plus the security of knowing it would be carried in the U.S. mail once it was deposited at the San Francisco Post Office. From this point until the overland stages became well established in 1859, almost all mail between Hawaii and the Eastern United States or Europe was carried via San Francisco and Panama.

The first two covers from Hawaii to go by the new steamship route via San Francisco:

49 - Feb 9 via SF

Capt. Luce of the whale ship Margaret Scott arrived at Honolulu from Newport R.I. on January 29, 1849, and dated this letter to his principal at Holmes Hole, Mass. on February 9. Luce began his letter with: “I arrived here a few days since. There is nothing by gold talked of here.”

Capt. Luce handed his letter to the captain of the brig Eliza bound for San Francisco. Luce expected the new steamship route would be operating. Eliza departed Honolulu February 13 and arrived at San Francisco March 15, 1849. Luce’s letter was delivered to the new United States Post Office there, postmarked on April 9 with the manuscript San Francisco postmark and rated “40” for the postage due on delivery. The 2¢ ship fee was not charged. Perhaps the San Francisco clerks were still unfamiliar with that fee. Luce’s letter was put aboard the steamship Oregon on April 12 to begin the trip to New York City via Panama. This mail was the first steamship mail taken from San Francisco on the new route.

49 - Mar 1 Graves

M. Cook, a traveler from Valparaiso en route to China began this letter on March 1, 1849, at sea, and finished it on March 11 when "we are now running into Honolulu". While at Valparaiso, he saw two steamships bound for San Francisco and learned they were to commence operating a new mail route from San Francisco to New York via Panama; Cook brought this news to Honolulu. Information about sending letters for the new steamship line was published in The Polynesian edition of March 17, 1849.

At Honolulu, Cook's letter was put aboard the Hawaiian schooner S. S., departing March 14 via Lahaina for San Francisco, arriving in the heart of the Gold Rush on April 16, 1849. The new San Francisco post office was still without any postmarking device so the letter was postmarked on April 17 by writing the name of the town and the rating marks "Ship" and "42" to indicate an incoming ship letter rated at 42¢ to be collected from the addressee. Postage included the ship fee of 2¢ and the 40¢ overland rate by the newly established steamship route. The letter was sent east on the first voyage of the steamer California from San Francisco, departing May 1.

Contents of this letter reveal how voyagers took opportunities to send mail home while en route from the Atlantic States to the Pacific. Cook's letter mentions he sent correspondence home on two occasions between Boston and Honolulu. In the Atlantic off South America he sent letters by an "English Brig bound into Rio Janeiro." Later in the voyage, on the Pacific off South America, he sent letters by a Chilean Brig bound into Valparaiso "there to be forwarded by steamer to Panama."

The third cover from Hawaii to go by the new steamship route:

Jun 20 SF straightline cover

This cover enclosed a May 17, 1849 letter from Joel Turrill, the United States Consul at Honolulu, to his brother-in-law, Stephen Lathrop. The cover is the only known cover bearing the San Francisco straightline, the first handstamp postmark adopted by the San Francisco post office and used for a few weeks in 1849. This cover also represents the first recorded envelope (as opposed to a folded letter) from Hawaii. The "40" rate rather than "42", shown on this cover indicates it was sent to San Francisco and deposited in the Post Office there without being treated as a ship letter – probably enclosed in a letter packet addressed to a friend or agent in San Francisco who posted the letters as ordinary domestic letters at the San Francisco Post Office.

Oct 17 to Pendleton

This cover to Gilbert Pendleton was datelined October 17, 1849 at Lahaina, Maui. In August, 1849, San Francisco began using a circular date stamp, seen on this cover, and also obtained devices for marking some of the rates.

See San Francisco Postal Markings.

Oct 18 to Brewer, SF

This folded letter dated October 18, 1850, addressed to Charles Brewer, a San Francisco commission merchant is the last recorded cover to leave Honolulu before The Polynesian letter bag service was inaugurated on November 2, 1850. Letters addressed for delivery to someone in San Francisco were charged the United States ship fee of six cents, here shown by the well-known San Francisco "clamshell" SHIP/6 rate mark.

The Polynesian Letter Bag

Hawaii's first official attempt to service letters was a simple letter bag kept open at the office of The Polynesian, the Honolulu newspaper owned by the kingdom of Hawaii. The public was promised the employees of the Government Printing Office (the “GPO”) would place letters left in the bag aboard a suitable vessel bound for San Francisco or Hong Kong. The letter bag was announced in a notice published November 2, 1850. Henry M. Whitney, the GPO employee taking responsibility for the letter bag, devised a simple postmarking device from printer's type and a printer's stick to mark letters left in the letter bag. The postmark, struck in blue ink, was Hawaii's first postmark. Nine covers are recorded with the blue straightline postmark, but the whereabouts of two of those covers has been unknown to the philatelic community for the past seventy years.

Nov 2 Hono

The unique "first-day cover" of The Polynesian letter bag - Hawaii's government mail service - postmarked November 2, 1850. This folded letter was dated by the writer at Honolulu on October 19, 1850. This cover is one of nine recorded blue strikes of the Honolulu straightline postmark.

Nov 16

An envelope postmarked November 16, 1850, at the office of The Polynesian indicating it was handled in The Polynesian letter bag, Hawaii's first postal service. This letter was a double weight letter sent to San Francisco in a packet of letters addressed to an agent or friend in San Francisco who posted the enclosed letters as ordinary domestic letters so it was rated "80" to collect from the addressee. If it had been delivered as a separate incoming ship letter, the addressee would have been charged 82¢.

Pre-Postal Covers Sent Via San Francisco and Panama

Year From: Date/Place SF Date Notes Source Reference
1849
2/9 Honolulu 4/9 To Holmes Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. with SF manuscript postmark See above
3/14 Honolulu 4/17 To Newburyport, Mass. with SF manuscript postmark HFM,1 vol. 1, page 151; see above
4/19 Boston Incoming ? Inbound to Honolulu from Boston, Mass. with Boston cds and "Paid 40," evidently rated for the Panama route via SF Fox Auction 8/66, lot 383 (no photo)
5/17 Honolulu 6/20 To Oswego, NY with straight-line SAN FRANCISCO and ms June 20 HFM, vol. 1, p. 158; see above
5/23 Newburyport Incoming ? Inbound from Newburyport, Mass. to Honolulu with PAID and ms "40" Fox Auction 8/66, lot 384, Siegel Auction No. 615, lot 639
6/30 Honolulu 8/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms "42" rate mark Wierenga, United States Incoming Steamship Mail,2 2nd edition, p. 27
7/1 Honolulu 9/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms "42" rate mark Advertiser Sale,3 lot 2079
8/12 Honolulu 10/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and Starkey Janion & Co. oval fwd mark Advertiser Sale, lot 2118
8/__ Honolulu 10/1 To Massachusetts with SF cds and Starkey Janion & Co. oval fwd mark Golden Sale,4 lot 129 (R. A. Siegel sale #1009)
8/__ Honolulu 10/1 To North Guilford, Conn. with SF cds and ms "Ship 42" Wolffers Auction No. 186, lot 1486
8/__ Honolulu 10/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms “Ship 42” and Starkey Janion & Co. oval fwd mark Gary D. Peters Collection
9/9 Ewa 11/1 To Auburn, N. Y. with SF cds and boxed 40 Siegel Auction No. 615, lot 638
9/16 Bridgeport ? Lahaina To Lahaina with Wm. Ladd/Honolulu fwd mark, PAID and 40 Siegel Auction No. 397, lot 460
9/23 Lahaina 11/1 To Fredericton, New Brunswick, in care of New Bedford, Mass. with SF cds and ms “42” and “2/3” rate from Mass. to New Brunswick File copy
9/23 Lahaina 11/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms “Ship 42” HFM, vol. 1, p. 161
9/26 Honolulu 11/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and boxed 40 Shreve Auction 6/6/97, lot 343
9/26 Honolulu 11/1 To New York with SF cds, boxed 80 and ms "45" 8 Heliograph No. 4, p. 29; Bennett Auction #260, lot 77
? 11/15 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms “42” Siegel Sale #397. Lot 445 (no image)
10/17 Lahaina 11/20 To Waverly, Rhode Island, with SF cds and boxed “40” See above
10/19 Honolulu - To London (arrived Jan. 19, 1850; carried privately, with Maitland, Phelps NY fwd mark File copy
11/1 Lahaina 11/27 To New Bedford, Mass. with SF cds and boxed 40 Rust Sale (Siegel Auction No. 681), lot 575
__ Honolulu 11/28 To Amsterdam, Holland via SF, NY and London with SF cds and boxed 40, English 9½d and European rate marks Advertiser Sale, lot 2080
11/14 1/1 To New Bedford, Mass. with SF cds and boxed 40 Siegel Auction No. 790, lot 1122
11/19 Honolulu 1/1 To New Bedford, Mass.; SF cds Harris Sale5 No. 1, lot 5
12/7 Honolulu 1/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and boxed 40 Siegel Auction No. 397, lot 447
12/7 Honolulu 1/1 To Montgomery County, PA with SF cds and boxed “40” File copy
11/30 Honolulu 1/14 From George Lathrop to Stephen Lathrop with SF cds and boxed 40 Advertiser Sale, lot 2081
12/_ Honolulu 1/14 To Oswego, NY, with SF cds and boxed 40 Advertiser Sale, lot 2081
12/2 Honolulu 1/14 To Oswego, NY with boxed “80" Kelleher Auction No. 585, lot 1778
_ Honolulu 1/14 To Worcester, Mass. with SF cds and boxed “40” and Makee, Anthon & Co. forwarding mark on flap Golden Sale, lot 123
12/22 Honolulu 1/30 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and "1.20 ms rate mark Pietsch Sale (Shreve Auction 9/27/96), lot 1658
12/23 Honolulu 1/30 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and boxed 40; ms "per English Bark Daniel Grant" Advertiser Sale, lot 2082
12/30 Honolulu 2/28 To New Bedford, Mass. with oval Makee Anthon fwd mark and “San Francisco 40” cds HFM, vol. 1, p. 161
1850
1/14 Honolulu 2/8 To Oswego, NY with boxed “40” and Starkey & Janion Honolulu oval fwd mark Letters of Gold,6 p. 119
1/15 ? To New York with boxed “80” Siegel Auction No. 316, lot 18 (no photo)
__ Honolulu 2/20 To Oswego, NY with stamped “40” and Makee, Anthon & Co. fwd mark Gary D. Peters Collection
2/5 Honolulu 3/6 To Oswego, NY with "San Francisco 40" cds Advertiser Sale, lot 2083
2/5 Honolulu 3/6 To Boston, Mass. with “San Francisco 40” cds Siegel Auction, No. 810, lot 1539
3/10 Honolulu 4/1 To Magoun & Son, Boston, Mass. Rumsey Auction No. 40, lot 2287
3/11 Honolulu 4/8 To Oswego, NY with "San Francisco 80" cds and ms "Rev May 27/50 HFM, vol. 1, p. 162
__ Honolulu 4/8 To Pennsylvania with "San Francisco 40" cds Siegel Auction No. 397, lot 448
3/27 Lahaina 5/15 To Lewiston Falls, Maine with Bush & Co., Lahaina fwd mark, "San Francisco 40" cds and “PER STMR ISTHMUS” straightline steamship mark Advertiser Sale, lot 2094
__ Honolulu 6/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and clamshell SHIP 6 (misapplied and overstruck by "42" ms rate mark) HFM, vol. 1, p. 166
__ Honolulu 6/1 To Oswego, NY with SF cds and ms "Ship 42" HFM, vol. 1, p. 167
__ Hana 6/1 To Parsippany, New Jersey with “San Francisco 80” cds File copy
4/22 Ewa 6/6 To Rochester, NY with “San Francisco 40” cds Siegel Sale No. 797, lot 2006
5/8 Honolulu 6/18 To London, England with rate marks for the British treaty rate HFM, vol. 1, p. 164
6/2 Honolulu 6/29 To James Hunnewell, Boston, Mass. with SF cds and ms "Ship 42" Blake Sale (Siegel Auction No. 363), lot 613
__ Honolulu 7/27 To Bloomfield, New Jersey with SF cds and ms “42” and Makee & Anthon fwd mark Golden Sale, lot 124
__ 8/12 To Massachusetts with SF cds and ms "Ship 42" Wolffers Auction No. 104, lot 1447
__ 11/30 To Kingston, Mass. with SF cds and “40” ms rate mark; printed Crabb & Spalding market review dated November 1, 1850 Advertiser Sale, lot 2086
11/2 Honolulu 12/1 To Barnstable, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and SF cds and “42” HFM, vol. 1, p. 179
__ 12/1 To New Bedford, Mass. with SF cds; printed Crabb & Spalding market review for October 1, 1850 Advertiser Sale, lot 2085
11/7 Honolulu 12/15 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and “San Francisco 40” cds; content dated October 3, 1850 at Kohala Hawaii, MH,8 p. 17
11/7 Honolulu 12/15 To Cold Spring, NY with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and “San Francisco 40” cds; content dated October 25, 1850 HFM, vol. 1, p. 377
11/8 Honolulu 12/15 To Kingston, Mass. with “San Francisco 40” cds; contents dated October 24, 1850 HFM, vol. 1, p. 185
11/16 Honolulu 12/14 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 with SF cds and stamped “80,” envelope without contents HFM, vol. 1, p. 182
11/23 Honolulu 12/15 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and SF cds and stamped “40” HFM, vol. 1, p. 378
__ 1/1 To New Bedford, Mass. with “San Francisco 40” cds; content dated November 19, 1850 Advertiser Sale, lot 2084
11/30 Honolulu 1/1 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and “San Francisco 40” cds; content dated October 14, 1850 at Waiohinu Hawaii, MH, p. 17
11/30 Honolulu 1/1 To Washington, NY with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and “San Francisco 40” cds HFM, vol. 1, p. 379
12/7 Honolulu 1/1 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and San Francisco cds with red “42” ms HFM, vol. 1, p. 379
12/7 Honolulu 1/1 To Boston, Mass. with Honolulu blue straightline postmark #201 and SF cds with red “42” ms HFM, vol. 1, p. 183
__ Honolulu - To London, England, carried privately to NY with Barclay’s & Co. NY fwd mark, NY cds and London cds HFM, vol. 1, p. 188

1 “HFM” is a reference to Hawaii Foreign Mail to 1870, Gregory, Fred F., Philatelic Foundation, New York, 2012.

2 U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, 2000.

3 R. A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Sale No. 769.

4 R. A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Sale No. 1009.

5 Harmer, Rooke & Co., Sale No. 776, April 27, 1954.

6 Coburn, Jesse L., U. S. Classics Philatelic Society and The Philatelic Foundation, 1984.

7 See Honolulu Foreign Mail Postmarks to 1886 for Honolulu postmark numbers.

8 The Postal History of Hawaii, Henry A. Meyer and Rear Admiral Frederic R. Harris, The Philatelic Foundation, 1948.


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