Steamship Mail in the 19th Century


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Merchant ships in the San Francisco Bay during the California Gold Rush in 1850 or 1851.

The mail steamship lines of the nineteenth century were established by the United States to provide a means of rapid communication with its newly-acquired western territories. Before the first mail steamer had reached the west coast in 1849, the news of gold in California spread throughout the country and multitudes of Americans made plans to travel westward. The mail lines then entered into the highly profitable passenger business, in addition to carrying mail, freight and intelligence vital to developing the western territory.

Travelers to California might have considered journeying on long overland stagecoach routes or rounding South America in a sailing ship, but mail steamers offered a more expedient passage. The mail steamer Oregon brought the announcement of California’s admittance to the Union in September 1850. William Henry Aspinwall, president of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, gave instructions to deliver the message:

“A flag ‘California a State’ went out in the Philadelphia on her last trip — to be displayed by the steamer taking the news to San Francisco & I have also instructed Captn Patterson to give a salute on his arrival.”1

According to the Courier of Oct 19, 1850,

“The booming of cannon was heard at the bay, and in a few minutes the beautiful steamship Oregon hove in sight, completely covered with flags of all nations, the starry flag of our country waving over all. She came up in fine style, in front of the city, firing her heavy guns in quick succession, which were answered by the ships in the harbor, and from cannon on shore, also by the vessels of war at Saucelito. … the guns of the Oregon never fired a more joyous salute.”2

1) John Haskell Kemble, “The Panama Route, 1848-1869,” (Berkley and Los Angeles, University of California press, 1943), 205.

2) Kemble, 206.