This page last updated: 27 March 2013


December 21, 1850 - June 30, 1870

Hono 201 50 - Dec 21

The Honolulu straightline postmark dated December 21, 1850, the day the post office opened and the first day of the Treaty Period.

On December 21, 1850, Hawaii established its first post office at Honolulu. That event marks the beginning of Hawaiiís Postal Period. Also, because the kingdom fixed postage rates to take effect with the opening of the post office, the conditions for exchanging mail with the United States under the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce were fulfilled and the Treaty Period of Hawaii postal history began.

Hawaii and the United States agreed on a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce in 1849 and finally ratified it in August, 1850. Among other things, Article 15 of the Treaty created an arrangement for exchanging mail.

So soon as steam or other mail packets under the flag of either of the contracting parties, shall have commenced running between their respective ports of entry, the contracting parties agree to receive at the post offices of those ports all mailable matter, and to forward it as directed, the destination being to some regular post office of either country; charging thereupon the regular postal rates as established by law in the territories of either party receiving said mailable matter, in addition to the original postage of the office whence the mail was sent. Mails for the United States shall be made up at regular intervals at the Hawaiian post office, and despatched to ports of the United States, the postmasters at which ports shall open the same, and forward the enclosed matter as directed, crediting the Hawaiian Government with their postages as established by law and stamped upon each manuscript or printed sheet.

All mailable matter destined for the Hawaiian Islands shall be received at the several post offices in the United States and forwarded to San Francisco or other ports on the Pacific Coast of the United States, whence the postmasters will despatch it by the regular mail packets to Honolulu, the Hawaiian Government agreeing on their part to receive and collect for and credit the post office department of the United States with the United States rates charged thereupon. It shall be optional to prepay postage on letters in either country, but postage on printed sheets and newspapers shall in all cases be prepaid. The respective post office departments of the contracting parties shall, in their accounts, which are to be adjusted annually, be credited with all dead letters returned.

[Emphasis added]

In September, 1850, Hawaii's Foreign Minister, R. C. Wyllie, wrote to San Francisco Postmaster Jacob Moore, asking Moore to implement the mail exchange provision. At that time Hawaii had neither a postal system, nor a post office nor established postage rates - all of which were required conditions to implementing the mail exchange. Nonetheless, a favorable reply was received from Moore on December 2. Hawaii hastened to form a post office at Honolulu and set regular postage rates, effective December 21, 1850, thus fulfilling the required conditions.

Effect of Article 15

  • First, Article 15 stipulated normal United States domestic postage rates applied to mail from Hawaii. Thus, Hawaiian mail received at San Francisco was, once entered there, treated the same as a letter originating in San Francisco. Ship fees were charged in addition to United States postage to pay for transporting mail to San Francisco.

  • Second, accounts were created at the Honolulu Post Office and the San Francisco Post Office to adjust sums one country paid or collected on behalf of the other. This account allowed the Honolulu Post Office to collect cash for prepaying United States postage and prepaid letters were accepted at the San Francisco Post Office.

  • Third, the Treaty forced Hawaii to establish a formal post office (no real force other than inertia resisted creating one).

  • Fourth, mail from Hawaii to Europe could be handled at the same rates and in the same manner as mail originating in the United States and Hawaii had no need to create separate postal treaties other than with countries having no treaty with the United States.

  • Fifth, changes in United States domestic postal rates directly affected the postal rates on Hawaiian foreign mail going to or through the United States. This feature means Hawaiian foreign mail during the Treaty Period cannot be understood without a comprehensive knowledge of United States rates.

By the time these changes occurred, the mail route via San Francisco and Panama was well established so other than mail for Pacific ports or addressed to people living in California or Oregon, almost all mail sent between Hawaii and everywhere else in the world went first to San Francisco.

Article 15 continued to govern the exchange of mail between Hawaii and the United States until July 1, 1870, when it was replaced by a formal Postal Convention. When the Treaty began, United States postage for letters was set by the 1847 Postal Act and 1799 ship fee law. During the twenty year span of the Treaty Period, the United States changed its letter rates in 1851, 1855 and 1863. These changes create divisions, or sub-periods, in the Treaty Period. We thus have the:

Inaugural Treaty Period: December 21, 1850 to July 1, 1851, when new United States postage rates for letters took effect.

Early Treaty Period: July 1, 1851 to May 16, 1855, when Hawaii learned higher United States postage rates on prepaid mail to the East, effective April 1, 1855, were in place.

Middle Treaty Period: May 16, 1855 to August 30, 1863, when Hawaii learned United States postage rates were reduced, effective July 1, 1863.

Late Treaty Period: August 30, 1863 to June 30, 1870. This Period is so complicated by mistakes and multiplicity of rates it is broken into six sub-parts for studying rates.

For many reasons, the Treaty Period is the "Classic Period" of Hawaiian Postal History. During the twenty years of the Treaty Period, Hawaii introduced its first postage stamps, including some of the great philatelic rarities, and stocked stamps of the United States for use in prepaying United States postage, thus giving rise to exciting combinations of Hawaiian and United States stamps. Postage rate complexities frequently challenge collectors. These two decades also witnessed dramatic changes in transporting mail. At the outset, shipping traffic between Hawaii and San Francisco consisted exclusively of sailing ships. The connection between San Francisco and New York was the long and sometimes dangerous via Panama trip. A letter posted in Honolulu in 1851 might get to New York in about two months with the best connections at San Francisco. When the Treaty Period ended, steamships carried most of the mail between Honolulu and San Francisco and railroads carried all the mail between San Francisco and New York. In 1870, a letter posted in Honolulu could be in New York in about fourteen days.

For rates, see Mail Rates.

For postmarks and rate marks during the Treaty Period, see:


  • Coburn, Jesse L., Letters of Gold, The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, Inc. and The Philatelic Foundation, 1984, "Prologue", p. 5-16; "Gold", p. 18-35; and "Establishment of California Postal System", p. 38-70. Excellent history of the early California mail from early exploration through the Gold Rush Period; superbly illustrated with covers showing the various cancels used in connection with the California mail of the period; describes the early route via Mexico (p. 12-13) and the importance of Monterey; traces the establishment and early development of the San Francisco Post Office; covers early mail routes from the Eastern States, including the Isthmus route across Panama (p. 22-24); details the postal rates (pages 40-42; 52-62) affecting California mail.

  • Gregory, Fred F., Hawaii Foreign Mail to 1870, The Philatelic Foundation, 2012. The definitive study of the Treaty Period, it examines thoroughly the rates, routes, covers, postal markings and postal practices. Included is a complete sailing list for the period.

  • Hargest, George E., History of Letter Post Communications Between the United States and Europe, 1845-1875, Smithsonian Studies In History And Technology, Number 6, Smithsonian Institution Press, City of Washington, 1971. Important for figuring rates on mail to Europe via the U.S. and Transatlantic service.

  • Starnes, Charles J., United States Letter Rates To Foreign Destinations, 1847 to GPU-UPU, Leonard H. Hartmann, Philatelic Bibliopole, Louisville, 1989. U.S. foreign letter rates (see page 21 for U.S. rates to Hawaii); errs in the private ship rate of September, 1867, on Hawaiian mail; table show UPU entry dates for member countries.

  • Wierenga, Theron, United States Incoming Steamship Mail 1847-1875, Second Edition, 2000, U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, Austin, Texas. U.S. Postal Rates; excellent study of ship fee and Panama route.

  • Wierenga, Theron, The Gold Rush Mail Agents to California and their Postal Markings, 1849-1852, published by the author, Muskegon, Mich., 1987. Gives details on Panama steamer arrivals and departures for the period as well as Panama connections and N.Y. arrivals and departures.

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