Hawaii's First Post Office
by Fred Gregory
Until the latter part of 1850, handling mail was strictly a private affair in Hawaii. There wasn’t much privacy, however – letters received from abroad often were spread across the counting table of one or another mercantile house in Honolulu and people sorted through the stack looking for their letters. Sending letters was another matter. Everyone had to make their own arrangements to put letters aboard a ship ready to sail for some port with a post office where letters could be deposited into the international mail stream. Marine Intelligence columns of the local weekly newspaper gave usually reliable information about impending ship sailings and announced destinations. These columns were useful to those living in Honolulu, but not so helpful if you lived on Kauai and got your paper after the ship sailed from Honolulu.
Pressure to create an official postal system increased during 1850 in order to secure safer and more certain arrangements for getting and sending letters. In those days, all shipping was by sail. Steamships of a sort had been present in the Pacific for several decades, but those small steamers kept pretty close to the coasts and did not venture to Hawaii. Larger steamers capable of the Honolulu to San Francisco trip began to make rare appearances later in the 1850’s.
By 1850, almost all Hawaiian mail sent anywhere abroad went to San Francisco. From San Francisco, letters for the Eastern States, Europe, Africa or Asia were carried by one of the semi-monthly steamers to Panama City, hauled across the Panama Isthmus by mule, canoe and river boat to Aspinwall and then taken up to New York by steam ship. The Honolulu to San Francisco part of the trip took about a month and another month was required to reach New York. If the boat from Honolulu missed the steamer sailing from San Francisco, a letter might take nearly three months. Still, two or three months was a vast improvement over the six months or more needed for a ship to reach New England rounding Cape Horn – before the San Francisco/ Panama/New York steamship service was inaugurated in March, 1849.
In September, 1850, the government began offering an official mail service – but no full blown post office yet. The first step toward a postal system was merely a letter bag at the office of The Polynesian, a local newspaper owned, operated and edited by the Government Printing Office, a branch of the Interior Department. People could deposit letters in The Polynesian letter bag and an employee of the GPO would get it aboard a ship bound for San Francisco.
Finally, on December 21, 1850, the Honolulu Post Office was created by royal decree. At first, one might not have noticed much difference. The Post Of- fice occupied a room in the office of The Polynesian and the GPO employee most visibly associated with The Polynesian letter bag, Henry Whitney, was named Postmaster of Honolulu. Although opening a post office might suggest a “business- as-usual” atmosphere pervaded in Honolulu, but in truth the French warship La Serieuse lay menacingly in Honolulu Harbor, threatening to attack and take possession of Hawaii unless harsh treaty terms were accepted.
Only one envelope actually postmarked on the first day of the Post Office is known to have survived the century and a half since then.
This letter was postmarked with a straightline postmark dated Dec. 21, 1850. The same mark was used for The Polynesian letter bag, the only difference being a change of ink color from blue to black when the Post Office started operation. The opening of the Post Office preceded, by about ten months, the introduction of postage stamps in Hawaii so the amount of postage was reflected in rate marks applied by various postal clerks and postage was paid in cash. Stamp collectors call this envelope a “stampless cover”. Also, the Figure 2 cover is an example of a “collect” cover – requiring the recipient to pay postage upon delivery. In 1850, many people considered prepaid letters to be disrespectful – implying the recipient was too poor to afford the postage – so collect mail was common. A red “42” in pencil shows the amount of United States postage required to carry the letter from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, where 42¢ was collected upon delivery. No rate mark on this cover shows it, but the Honolulu Postmaster collected 10¢ for Hawaiian postage when the letter was deposited in Honolulu. In those days a good annual salary was about $450, so sending a letter costing 52¢ was close to a luxury.
Once deposited with the Honolulu Post Office, the obligation fell on the Post Office to place it aboard a vessel with a reliable captain who would deposit it with the San Francisco Post Office as soon as his ship arrived. This letter was put aboard the Hawaiian brig Chameleon, which left Honolulu December 21, 1850, and arrived at San Francisco on January 22, 1851. San Francisco applied its red postmark, dated January 23, seen only faintly now, and put the letter aboard the Panama steamer Panama on February 1, bound for New York, where it arrived around March 1. The letter traveled on to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the intended recipient, Wm. DeWitt Alexander, had returned to Yale College. His relatives in Harrisburg paid the 42¢ postage from San Francisco plus they prepaid the 5¢ forwarding fee charged to carry the letter to New Haven, Connecticut, as shown by the scrawled “Fwd 5” and a blue handstamped PAID. Young DeWitt, probably got the letter about mid-March.
William Patterson Alexander, a missionary who arrived at Honolulu with his wife on May 17, 1832, addressed this envelope. Apart from being known as an eloquent preacher who also possessed a quick wit, he helped the government with land surveying. William DeWitt Alexander was their first child, born in 1833. As was a custom with many missionary families, the children were sent to New England for education at a fairly young age. DeWitt graduated from Yale College in 1855, returned to Hawaii in 1857 and joined the faculty of Punahou School as a professor of Greek. Later, he became president of Punahou but after seven years, he left academia to head the Government Survey. He was a distinguished geographer and historian, married a Baldwin daughter and served in the privy council under Kalakaua and Liliuokalani. Wm. DeWitt Alexander died in 1913.
Fred Gregory has been collecting Hawaiian pre-Territorial stamps and correspondence for about thirty years. You can learn more about the subject at his web-site, Post Office in Paradise, at www.hawaiianstamps.com.
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