The first mail delivered by the Pony Express took 10 days from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.
Home > 19th Century History > American History

 American History

1. The Civil War

The Civil War sent huge ripples and tears through American society. On both sides of the front, the government needed to maintain communication. Lincoln and other leaders used the telegraph as a communication tool with immediacy and speed. Trains criss-crossed the East and Midwest carrying troops, supplies, and messages around the country.

In the North, significant changes to postal services met citizens’ demands: City Free Delivery, sorting mail on the train, and maintaining strong services with military units to keep soldiers in contact with loved ones.

The Confederate government immediately saw the importance of the postal system to maintain communication and established the Confederate Postal System in February of 1861. They printed new stamps and worked hard to maintain postal services in the resource-stripped south during the war.

  • Click here for more on the mail during the American Civil War.
  • Click here for an article about the value of letters. It includes sections on the Civil War and Westward Expansion.

2. Westward Expansion

Manifest Destiny proved to be a popular philosophy coined to justify the acquisition and settlement of land by Americans on the eastern half of the continent. As the nation grew, so too did the Post Office Departments’ responsibilities for getting mail to people who lived in those areas. The Post Office first relied on ships to round South America to get mail out west and then built roads through the South to send stagecoaches to carry the mail. These stagecoaches, funded by the government, enabled additional supplies and people access across the great expanse of territory to the most populated regions of the West (notably California). Although much of the correspondence that travelled these routes carried official government documents and critical newspapers, more and more often they carried the personal correspondences of individuals who moved to the West. Isolated from family and friends left behind and committed to a new life in the mines or the farms, individuals and families treasured the letters they sent and received.

In 1869, the first cross-country railroad was completed, connecting the Union and Central Pacific Railway lines. This ensured a constant and reliable transportation and communication option to cross the West.

  • Click here for more about the challenges of establishing communication routes during this time of great geographic expansion in America.
  • Click here for more about the lives of individuals moving west.

3. The Gold Rush

When Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, it ensured a need for the U.S. government to maintain strong and powerful communication channels with the distant territory. But at the time, news (through the mail) took months to get between Washington DC and California and there was no telegraph or railway to speed the communications. Californians actually learned that they had become a state 4 months after Congress approved their application.

The stagecoach route, charted through the southwestern territories of New Mexico and Arizona, was not to be hindered by weather and geography and capitalized on the traditional trade route of the Sante Fe Trail. This transportation option could be used to take mail across to the start of the railroad at its furthest western point (Missouri). Instead of 4 months, the mail could cross the West in 25 days. The mail included critical business communications and gold and payment transactions between the miners and the business interests in the East.

Speed was essential for these stagecoaches and in the 1860s, the southern route no longer proved safe for the Federal and business interests in the northeast. The Civil War meant that the south could control this vital connection to California—a source of much of the wealth that funded the war. Different business interests invested in contract routes that went through the northern and central western states to replace the southern routes. The Union government quickly invested in new routes that connected the East with California through Kansas, Wyoming, and Nevada.

One of the contract proposals was the Pony Express. Although it only lasted 18 months and never signed with the government, it could successfully get mail across the West in 10 days.

Similar gold and other mineral discoveries in Colorado, Nevada, and Alaska, continued the need for formal government investment in communication and transportation infrastructure.

  • Click here for more about the routes that the government invested it to connect it to the gold rush
  • Click here for more about the Pony Express
  • Click here for more about the Alaskan Gold Rush
  • Click here for more about the impact of contract carriers like the Pony Express and stagecoaches.