When U.S. postage stamps were first issued in 1847, they held the promise that the entire country could be united by mail for no more than 10¢ per letter. However, there were no transcontinental mail routes; all letters between the east and west coasts had to be carried by ocean-going clipper ships. That meant a treacherous 16,000 mile voyage around Cape Horn lasting more than three months or a portage across the Isthmus of Panama, which did not yet have its canal.
The next year, gold was discovered in California, triggering the largest mass migration of Americans from east to west up to that point—and increasing the demand for a reliable, transcontinental mail service that would operate on a schedule. The blue water mail route was becoming obsolete, and on the eve of the American Civil War serious efforts were made to establish an overland mail line.
James E. Birch’s San Antonio & San Diego mail line began operating in August 1857. The following month, the U.S. Post Office Department awarded to John W. Butterfield a $600,000 per year contract to carry the mail from Missouri to San Francisco, with service to begin in September 1858. The first Butterfield Concord mail coach rumbled into San Francisco on October 10, 1858, having departed Missouri twenty-four days earlier.
Beginning in 1957, enormous political pressure was placed on the Post Office Department to mark the anniversary of Birch’s and Butterfield’s overland mail lines with a commemorative stamp. Congressional delegations from states along the route addressed letters of support to the postmaster general, as did a host of mayors, civic organizations, and even stamp clubs. Numerous unsolicited stamp designs were received by the Stamp Division, including one depicting both Birch and Butterfield submitted by the California Overland Mail Centennials Committee (notice the plural). The Committee also sent copies of their design to Linn’s Weekly Stamp News and other, non-philatelic publications, which illustrated it.
Finally, on November 2, 1957, a POD press release announced that the 1958 commemorative stamp program would include an issue “honoring the Centennial of the Overland Mail.” A follow-up release named October 10, 1858 as the date of issue and specified that San Francisco would be the first day city because it “was the western terminal point of the overland mail.” The choice of date and first day city, coupled with the fact that both postal communiqués referred to the overland mail in the singular, indicated that the Butterfield line was being commemorated to the exclusion of the Birch line.
This caused enormous consternation in some quarters. One San Diego magazine editor protested that “…any commemorative should show both lines. If only the Butterfield is shown, Southern California would be almost completely eliminated from the map, and this shouldn’t be.” Texans—the other end of Birch’s trail—were similarly incensed, especially Emily Giddings of El Paso. Her father, George H. Giddings, had operated the San Antonio to Santa Fe portion of Birch’s line after Birch was lost in the sinking of the S.S. Central America. Miss Giddings organized a high-level (but unsuccessful) letter writing campaign to have her father’s portrait added to the stamp, recruiting for the effort the Texas State Historical Association, Texas senators Lyndon B. Johnson and Ralph Yarborough (a member of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service), and even former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt!
In the end, Bureau of Engraving and Printing artist Charles R. Chickering was commissioned to do an original painting of “a dramatic scene of an Overland Mail coach under attack” but without any identifiable people. William H. Buckley modified Chickering’s artwork by eliminating the foreground and superimposing the vignette “on a map of the southwestern part of the United States.” The lettering, which went through several modifications, vaguely honors “Overland Mail,” but the course shown on the map is clearly the southern “oxbow route” used by the Butterfield until 1861. Charles A. Brooks engraved the die. The stamps were printed in orange red on the rotary press in sheets of 200 stamps that were perforated 11 x 10½ and cut down into four panes of 50 for sale at post offices.
A pictorial first day cancellation was ordered for the ceremonies at San Francisco, and an early mock-up of the cancel shows all three overland mail pioneers – Butterfield, Birch, and Giddings – perhaps a last-minute attempt to soothe hurt feelings. In the end, however, the rather generic image of a U.S. mail bag was used instead.
For more information
National Postal Museum Library, Papers of the Third Assistant Postmaster General, Stamp Design Files, Folder for Scott #1120
Wunderly, Kathleen. “Overland Mail Drew Excitement in 1858; Stamp Generated Less Enthusiasm in 1958.” Scott Stamp Monthly 26:3 (March 2008), pp. 22-26.
Butterfield Overland Mail Record Book
Overland Mail employee's notebook
80th Anniversary of the Pony Express Issue
Concord-Style stagecoach model
Mud wagon-style stagecoach model
Written by Daniel Piazza