Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Mail Contracts for Texas, 1858-62

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 12, 2018

This is neat. This is a notice from the federal government, seeking bids on contracts to carry the U.S. Mail throughout Texas for a four-year term, 1858 – 62. Assuming that many or most of these contracts were eventually awarded, this gives a very detailed look at how overland travel was organized here on the eve of the Civil War. Routes, schedules, frequency – it’s all laid out here.

If you read much at all about transportation networks in the 19th century, particularly in the West, it becomes immediately apparent how important these mail contracts were to operators of stagecoach lines, riverboats, and railroads. While contracts for carrying the mail would not support a company’s operation by themselves, they often did provide a regular, reliable source of revenue that made the difference between profit and loss for the company. There were significant marketing advantages to having a mail contract, as well — it lent an air of prestige, speed, and reliability to the company. Failure to meet the terms of a contract could similarly cause headaches for a transportation company, as I noted in my riverboat book:


The U.S. Mail route through Galveston and Buffalo Bayou to Houston was a particularly important one and often at the center of controversy. Galveston was a primary terminal for one of the main transcontinental mail routes, one that began in New Orleans, went by coastal steamer to Galveston, then overland to San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe and points farther west, all the way to San Francisco—total contractual transit time from the Crescent City to Frisco was twenty-five days.

Galveston, though, was seen by many as a problem and came to be known as a bottleneck in the fast and efficient transport of the mail. Galveston’s monopoly on mail coming in from the rest of the United States was a source of deep annoyance for both citizens and newspapermen, who charged that publishers on the island were using their influence to hold newspapers coming in from other parts of the country for several days, allowing the Galveston publishers the ability to go to print first with the latest national news. This frustration led to many customers avoiding the U.S. Mails altogether, sending valuable parcels and shipments by way of one of the private express companies that sprang up to carry mail and valuable packages along their own routes, generally overland. . . .

John Sterrett and Frederick Smith bid successfully for a $20,000 mail contract in 1858 [No. 8509 highlighted above] that required them to provide mail service between Galveston and Houston six times per week. This was likely the largest single contract and route out of Galveston, including as it did not only mail destined for Harrisburg and Houston but also points north and west of the Bayou City. With the requirement for mail service six days every week, it was also the most regular and frequent. The Houston Navigation Company was well established by this time, so Sterrett and Smith likely had little trouble meeting the terms of the mail contract. Nonetheless, there were critics always ready to pounce, as when, just a few weeks after Sterrett and Smith won their contract, complaints were being made about Sterrett’s failure to deliver the mail as expected. The Galveston Civilian and Gazette came to Sterrett’s defense, pointing out that it was the first time in twenty years that he’d failed to carry the mails, and even in this case, it was a trip outside the strict terms of his contract. Sterrett, the Civilian and Gazette pointed out, “has been running between Houston and Galveston nineteen years, and in that time has made four thousand trips between the two places. Every man who has ever travelled in Texas knows him, and very few who have ever made a trip with him but tell their friends to do the same thing. Justice requires us to say there are other boats in the Houston trade that will compare well with steamboats anywhere; but Capt. Sterrett always manages to command the best one.”


The newspaper’s claim that Sterrett had, in nineteen years on the route, made the passage between Galveston and Houston some four thousand times averages out to about three one-way trips in every five days. Although the exact number cannot be known, the newspaper’s estimate in Sterrett’s case is entirely plausible.

Click to embiggen. From the Palestine, Texas Trinity Advocate, Feb 17, 1858, p. 2.

4 Responses

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  1. Andy Hall said, on May 12, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    This list of routes would go along well with this map of Texas from the OR Atlas:

    War of the Rebellion Atlas: Plate CLVII

  2. Eric A Koszyk said, on May 16, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    What happened to these contracts when the Civil War started? Would they have been nullified? I assume the delivery of mail between the U.S. and the treasonous states ended at the beginning of the war, but I really don’t know. Does anyone know the answer?

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2018 at 8:37 pm

      The mail contracts ended because most transportation networks folded and federal property was seized, and then I imagine they were formally (i.e. on paper) cancelled at some later date. I’m not sure how much of this the CS government was able to pick up.

      Great question, that I cannot answer in detail.

  3. Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    I wonder why the contract specified the route from Hempstead to Washington (No. 8519, center column) called for six hours on the northbound passage of 20 miles, but only four hours for return? Weren’t the roads pretty crappy going BOTH ways?

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