Mail Carriers Hit Pay Dirt
The bedazzled gold-rushers who swarmed into California in 1849 soon complained of many things—inflated prices, low-quality foodstuffs, scant medical services, and the shortage of shoes—but their loudest complaint was their need for mail from their far-away homes and loved ones.
In 1849 California was a recently-acquired U.S. territory that as yet had no formal system of American law and order, or ordinary public services such as public transportation and postal facilities. The United States had indeed opened a post office at the port of San Francisco in early 1849, but the cost of goods and services in California was so high that postal agents were unable to hire employees who were willing to carry the mail for the meager pay Congress allowed. This meant that the postal service could not deliver mail arriving at San Francisco: addressees would have to come to the post office in person—and then endure an hours-long wait in long lines when a mail ship arrived.
Men in the gold camps yearned for word from home, but were unable to leave their claims for the two-week trip to the San Francisco post office and back. A solution that benefited everyone arose when mail delivery needs were met by enterprising individuals whom postal authorities were willing to “deputize” as mail carriers whose services were paid for by persons receiving or sending mail. An era of private mail systems sprang into being in 1849, and lasted for seven years.
A young man named Alexander Todd is thought to be one of the very first to establish a private-mail service. A gold miner himself until he realized his health couldn’t withstand the rigors of prospecting, Todd proposed that if men in the remote mines would pay him one dollar to act as their agent, he would collect their mail at the San Francisco Post Office and hand-deliver it to the recipient for an ounce of gold dust, then worth $16; plus, for an additional $2.50, he would carry their out-bound letters to the station. Dozens of men immediately signed up for his service, which began on July 14, 1849.
Todd operated out of Stockton, the hub city for the southern mines. He used mule teams over rugged terrains, and bought a rowboat to take him down the San Joaquin River to the Bay. Soon he had hundreds of subscribers, and his business expanded when gold-camp merchants hired him to deliver their gold to San Francisco banks. He further augmented his income with two innovative methods: in San Francisco he bought stacks of old New York newspapers for a dollar each, selling them for $8 each back at the gold fields, and—though the passengers were required to row his boat—charged just-landed gold-rushers a $16 “tax” for transport from the Bay to the upland gold districts. He hit pay dirt, all right: by some estimates, Todd made $1,000 a day—far more than the average prospector who considered himself lucky if he panned out $100 a week.
Within a very short time, Todd had 20 rivals operating south of the Mokelumne River; dozens more serviced the other gold country zones. In May 1850 he partnered with E. W. Colt to form Todd & Co’s Express, then in October 1851 joined with another private mail carrier as Reynolds, Todd & Company’s Express.
Most of the expresses were small businesses servicing specific areas, until Adams & Co., a large outfit from Boston, achieved state-wide prominence. In 1852 the New York firm Wells, Fargo & Co. entered the fray, ultimately becoming California’s premier express service.