Prior to both the Gold Rush and the ceding of California to the United States by Mexico in early 1848, the mail system in California consisted of numerous “unofficial” post offices and a simple, but efficient, military mail delivery system.
Following these two events, the Postmaster General of the United States realized the immediate need for an efficient system of government operated post offices in California and sent a special agent to establish them, wherever the agent might feel they were needed.
Special Agent William Van Voorhees was the first of these men and was instructed to proceed to San Francisco and establish post offices at San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey en route. Had the ship carrying him from Panama to San Francisco not run short of coal it probably would have made all of the intermediate stops he needed, but it only made one, at Monterey.
There, on February 23, 1849, the first official US Post Office on the west coast was established with Captain William G. Marcy serving as its first postmaster, his appointment having been confirmed by Washington D. C. in advance the previous November. Less than a week later, on February 28, 1849, Van Voorhees appointed Mr. C. L. Rose to open and distribute the mail in San Francisco, pending arrival of Mr. Stephan J. Dallas, who, like Captain Marcy, had been previously confirmed as postmaster.
Mr. Dallas did not take the job, so on April 1, 1849, Van Voorhees appointed Colonel John W. Geary as postmaster. On June 4 of the same year, Geary was replaced by Jacob B. Moore.
For some unknown reason, on June 15, 1849 the Postmaster General replaced Van Voorhees with another special agent, R. T. P. Allen. Like Van Voorhees, he carried on the job of establishing the postal system in California, all the time attempting to overcome what it turned out was a list of serious problems faced by his predecessor.
First of all, the post offices were ordered to pay expenses out of receipts, which often didn’t work and the salaries offered postmasters and clerks was less than that earned by an unskilled laborer.Secondly, transportation for the mail was hard to find and, when found, very expensive. All in all, the process of establishing post offices and appointing postmasters was not the simple job the special agents thought it would be.
As an example, when the need for a new post office was established by the special agent, he would authorize it and try to find a postmaster, who, if he was successful, often turned out to be the owner of a business in the same building were the post office would be located – someone who knew the advantage of having the entire population of the area passing through his or her business to get the mail.
The postmaster would be appointed and assume office, however, this was just the start of a long process. The agent would then request confirmation the post office and postmaster from the Postmaster General in Washington D.C. That, including getting the message there and back by ship, could take many months or even longer, depending upon the route the message took and the amount of bureaucratic red tape involved.
Because the population of a California community could grow and decline in just a few months a new post office could easily be established and discontinued before it was even officially open. Worse yet, postmasters were political appointees and, depending how the fickle winds of politics in the nation’s capitol blew, the newly appointed postmaster might find that after nearly a year of working at the job, he or she was not confirmed at all and someone else was. Needless to say, this did not make the special agent’s job any easier.
Fortunately, in 1853 the Postmaster General had this changed so that a Post Office did not open and an appointed Postmaster did not take office until confirmed. However, as in most bureaucracies, the former practice continued for some time thereafter.
Sources for this story include, “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976”, researched by H. E. Salley (1976); “The Gold Rush Mail Agents to California and Their Postal Markings”, by Theron Wierenga” (1987); “California Town Postmarks, 1849-1935”, by John H. Williams (1997); “Short Stories Regarding The History of South El Dorado County”, by D. A. Wright (undated); the “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); and the archives of the Mountain Democrat (on microfilm and accessible by computer at the El Dorado County Main Library).