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::: Mail Between Hawaii, California and Oregon :::

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Spanish settlement of California began at roughly the same time Cook was in Hawaii. Spanish priests and soldiers occupied the sparsely populated region northward from San Diego and named it Alta California. Trade along the California Coast was prohibited by Spain. Strict enforcement of the ban was impossible along the lengthy California coastline and smugglers actively pursued weaknesses. Also, local governors sometimes were flexible in allowing non-Spanish ships to trade because of shortages in supplies. After Mexico won its independence in 1822 trade improved and settlement by non-Spanish Europeans and Americans began. American and English merchants became established at the capital, Monterey, and at other coastal cities.

During the early 1840's American emigrations to California began and their numbers grew with each passing year. American settlers in California declared independence in June, 1846, the so-called Bear Flag Revolt. Assisted by the presence of an American Army under Colonel John Fremont, a United States naval fleet at Monterey under Commodore Robert Stockton and the declaration of war between Mexico and the United States, the revolt was successful. On July 2, 1846, the flag of the United States was raised above Monterey, opening the California theater of the United States War with Mexico. By then, American settlers were the dominant non-indigenous people living in California, with settlements at Yerba Buena, on San Francisco Bay, along the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay near Sonoma and Napa and inland at Sacramento. California became a formal possession of the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Hidalgo in early 1848. Once the United States controlled California, the settlement at Yerba Buena soon changed its name to San Francisco and began to eclipse Monterey as the principal town in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States claimed the Oregon Territory north of Mexican California to the Columbia River and American settlement there happened in parallel with American emigrations to California in the early 1840's. Fort Vancouver, located on the north side of the Columbia River opposite Portland, was the major trading place for furs and up to 1846 was headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company operations in the Pacific Northwest. Fixing the border between the American Oregon Territory and British possessions on the Northwest Pacific Coast was finally accomplished in 1846, giving the United States possession of the region north of the Columbia River to the 49th parallel, today's state of Washington.

Correspondence between the Spanish settlements of Alta California and Hawaii began at least by 1803. Don Francisco de Paulo Marin, a newcomer to Honolulu from the former Spanish settlement in the Pacific Northwest, knew the Spanish governors of California. Ship captains seeking trade along the California Coast sought Marin's assistance to obtain exemption from Spain's prohibition on trade. Being remote and poorly supplied from Mexico, permission was sometimes granted. Otherwise, goods were smuggled ashore. Marin's letters to the Spanish governors sometimes were in his name or were written by him over the name of a friendly ship captain. Marin resided in Honolulu for many more years, keeping up his correspondence with people in California.

Hawaii was the supply base for ships trading along the California Coast. Goods were shipped to Hawaii from America, China and Europe to be transshipped and traded in California for bullocks and hides used to make tallow and leather. Hawaii also offered a place for the dons and merchants to educate their children, many of whom were shipped to Honolulu for school.

All mail between California and Hawaii before 1849 was handled privately. Private mail forwarders often were used both in Hawaii and in California. An example is the 1844 letter from Boston to California via Valparaiso and Honolulu shown on the main Pre-Postal page with the forwarding inscription by C. Brewer & Co. in Honolulu. Other examples of early letters to California are:

Apr 1 YerbBuena to Sweetser-cropped

Datelined Yerba Buena, April 1, 1842, from Capt. W. S. Hinckley to Capt. John Paty and (on the same sheet of paper) a letter from Capt. Paty, datelined Yerba Buena on April 2, 1842 to Isaac Sweetser in Boston, Mass., where it was received in February, 1843, after being entered in the United States mail and postmarked at New Bedford on February 15 (and rated "12" in manuscript for the United States zone rate for carrying a letter beyond 30 miles but less than 80 miles). Paty sent the letter to Sweetser via Lahaina where it was handled by Von Pfister & Co. (with its manuscript inscription) and transshipped to New England when the first of the returning whale ships departed in late September.

Apr 20 to Leidesdorff

Sent from Honolulu on April 20, 1846, to William Leidesdorff, the US Vice-Consul at San Francisco. Until sometime in 1847 (the exact date is ambiguous), Yerba Buena is the name for the settlement which became known as San Francisco. This letter arrived just on the eve of the "Bear Flag Revolt"

Jul 31 to Leidesdorff

Another cover addressed to William Leidesdorff, on July 31, 1847, uses the new name San Francisco.

The Hinckley/Paty letters reveal how trade was accomplished in those days. Sweetser had acquired an account owed by Hinckley to Stephen Mackintosh, probably in exchange for credit extended to Mackintosh. Paty, acting for Sweetser, presented the account to Hinckley in Yerba Buena for settlement. Hinckley insisted there were outstanding credits against the amount he owed Mackintosh and refused to pay until there was a full adjustment for the credits, prompting these letters of explanation to Hinckley. Upon settlement, Paty writes, "I shall have to take Bullocks & Hides for whatever he will pay - and shall ship them to you at Boston - direct from this place - or by way of the S. Islands. I am to leave this place for the S. Islands, the last of the month - and expect to return here again by the first of July." Money rarely circulated in the Pacific and trade was in a form of barter, with accounts created to turn into cash in New England or Europe.

May 20 Larkin cover

Datelined Honolulu May 20, 1846, from Robert Davis to Wm. H. Davis, then serving as the supercargo on the brig Euphemia trading along the California Coast. Ships trading on the coast were fitted up as mobile stores with shelves, show cases, drawers, and scales to sell a pound of tea, a yard of silk or large quantities - whatever the customer wanted. Supercargoes were in charge of the ship's cargo and were entrusted to make the voyage profitable for the owner. This letter was carried to Monterey on the bark Angola, departing Honolulu May 20 and arriving at Monterey on June 11. There it was delivered to Thomas O. Larkin, a prominent Monterey merchant and the United States Consul and received his oval forwarding mark (see another illustration of the same mark at Via California and Mexico Covers. Robert Davis begins the letter to his brother by explaining why it was shorter relative to his earlier letters: "from the character of the Captain, there appears to be some uncertainty whether he will go to the California or the Columbia River."

Gold was discovered in the mountains east of Sacramento in early 1848. Word of this discovery was kept quiet at first but leaked out and in May, 1848, a merchant walked the streets of San Francisco shouting out the electrifying news and the California Gold Rush began. Hawaii was the first place outside California to hear of the gold discovery and in June, 1848, almost all seaworthy (and some unseaworthy) vessels left for California jammed with gold seekers. Hawaii supplied everything from vegetables to laundry services to the suddenly overgrown population in California and opportunities were presented almost daily to send letters between the two places.

Communications between Hawaii and California merchants and residents intensified as the gold rush progressed. A United States Post Office was opened at San Francisco in early 1849 and with it, United States postage rates went into effect for mail delivered to San Francisco. The rate on incoming mail to be delivered to an addressee in the port of entry was 6, including the 2 ship fee. Letters from Hawaii to San Francisco addressees show the rate markings used for the 6 rate and also exhibit the forwarder markings sometimes used in Hawaii.

Aug 17 to Grimes

Datelined August 12, 1849, at Honolulu, Sandwich Islands, by Stephen Reynolds, a prominent merchant, to Hiram Grimes, a merchant in San Francisco (since renamed from Yerba Buena). Reynolds gave the letter to another merchant firm in Honolulu, Starkey Janion & Co. (the forerunner of Theo. Davies & Co.) to put in their letter bag for San Francisco. Starkey Janion added its oval marking and put the letter aboard the ship James Munroe, departing August 22 and arriving at San Francisco on September 20, where it was marked "Ship 6" in manuscript to be collected on delivery. The letter is full of commercial information dealing with trade between Hawaii and San Francisco during the California Gold Rush.

Jan 25 to Davis unfolded for bs

Datelined January 25, 1850 at Honolulu by James Makee, this letter was carried to San Francisco on the brigantine Pianet, departing Honolulu January 28, 1850, and arriving San Francisco February 18. Makee had the firm's forwarder oval mark applied at Honolulu. At San Francisco, the new rate marking device with "Ship 6" was used to rate the letter for the amount to be collected on delivery. This cover represents the earliest recorded use of that device. By June, 1850, the San Francisco post office was using red ink for the rate mark.

Makee Anthon mark
Clamshell 6 - black from Davis cover

Makee Anthon forwarder mark

San Francisco "clamshell" Ship 6

Feb 18 from Oregon City

The letter shown above was from Rev. Atkinson at Oregon City datelined February 18, 1849. It is a rare example of the pre-postal Oregon-Hawaii correspondence.


  • Gregory, Frederick F., "A Gold Rush Letter from Oahu," Western Express, Vol. 49, No. 2 [192], p. 12, June, 1999. This article publishes the text of the Reynolds letter to Hiram Grimes, illustrated above.

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