Delivering mail could sometimes prove deadly in Idaho frontier

Silver City folks wait for the mail coach to arrive, and hope it hasn’t been robbed yet again.
Silver City folks wait for the mail coach to arrive, and hope it hasn’t been robbed yet again. Provided by Arthur Hart

Mail delivery in early Idaho was often difficult, and sometimes impossible. Poor roads, bad weather, careless handling and all too often robbery caused delays and outright loss.

Mail was often delivered by men on horseback, as it was in January 1863, when Haggard, Dennee & Co. advertised its “PONY EXPRESS” in Lewiston’s Golden Age newspaper. Destinations served by this company were through the mountains to the east in what would become Montana Territory in May 1864: “Bitter Root, American Fork, Deer Lodge, Hell Gate, Prickly Pear, Horse Prairie, Big Hole, Beaver Head, and Fort Benton., connecting with Wells, Fargo & Co.”

The original Pony Express, in business from April 3, 1860, until October 1861, had carried mail and small packages by men on horseback from St. Joseph, Mo., across the Great Plains to Sacramento, Calif. It reduced the travel time for messages to cross the continent to 10 days but had not been a financial success.

Especially interesting is the history of mail delivery in Owyhee County. In May 1865, the body of a man who had been carrying the mail to Silver City on snowshoes was found. The Idaho World reported, “He was in a sitting posture: doubtless he had become fatigued, sat down and froze to death. The mail bag, as yet, has not been found.” In the 1870s and ’80s, mail was still being backpacked into Silver City every winter when snow was too deep for horses to make it.

Some delays in mail delivery could not be attributed to bad weather. In May 1866, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported, “Directed Strong. There is a letter in the Boise City Post Office directed to Mr. Wm. Johnson, Boyes River, Idaho Oregon, Colorado Territory. The letter has evidently had difficulty in finding all these places at once, for it has been since February traveling from Chandlerville, Ill. Some indignant clerk has endorsed on it ‘If you know where this letter belongs for God Sake send it.’ Post Office clerks have their own amusement.”

In May 1875, the Post Office Department advertised in the Statesman for bids from contractors for carrying the mail once a week for the next three years from Silver City to South Mountain, where a post office had been established in 1872, and for three years from Silver City to Bruneau. On July 28, 1875, the Bruneau Valley post office was established with Benjamin F. Hawes as postmaster. In 1899 the name was shortened to Bruneau. Earlier Owyhee County post offices were at Ruby City, 1864; Oro (Spanish for gold), 1866; Silver City, 1867; and Fairview, 1872.

The mail was looted regularly, as were Wells, Fargo treasure boxes by stagecoach robbers, not all of whom got away with it. On July 7, 1894, a short distance from Walters Ferry on the south side of Snake River, two men who “rifled the mail sacks” and took the driver’s pocket watch were sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary. Robbing the U.S. mail was then, and still is, a federal offense.

A lone masked bandit with a pistol in each hand stopped the Silver City-DeLamar stage in August 1895 and ordered the driver to throw down the Wells, Fargo treasure box. When the driver explained that there was no treasure box aboard, he was told to drive on. What the holdup man missed was more than $7,000 in the mail sacks, money to pay off the miners at DeLamar and Silver City. J.H. Millzner, a traveling man from San Francisco, who said he had been in 11 previous stage holdups, then took a seat beside the driver armed with his own two pistols and rode there the rest of the way to DeLamar.

That same month, former Owyhee County Sheriff E.L. Ballard received a $1,500 reward from the U.S. Postal Service for having captured three men who had robbed the mail on the Silver City stage a year earlier. But it wasn’t over. “Another Daring Robbery,” reported the Statesman on Oct. 30, 1895. “This makes about half a dozen holdups on the Silver City route this year.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.