Idaho History

In the Wild West, even delivering the mail could be a wild adventure

Lewiston was originally located in the Washington Territory.
Lewiston was originally located in the Washington Territory. Idaho State Historical Society

Idaho’s first newspaper, the Lewiston Golden Age, appeared on Saturday, Aug. 2, 1862, when that new town was still in Washington Territory and Idaho Territory had yet to be created.

The paper’s name was a natural, since gold was on everybody’s mind in what was still a very wild West and far from the bloody Civil War raging in the East.

An ad in the Lewiston Golden Age of Oct. 2, 1862, tells us how mail and packages were moved at the time: “MOSSMAN & CO.’S EXPRESS. The undersigned, having extended their express from PORTLAND TO NEZ PERCE, SALMON, ELK CITY, JOHN DAY’S AND POWDER RIVER MINES. Running from Portland to Wallula on the opposition line of Steamers with efficient and reliable messengers through to the above mining camps, we are prepared to transact any business entrusted to our care with promptness and dispatch. James Mullany, Agent”

Howard Dennee & Co.’s ad in the Golden Age of Jan. 8, 1863, tells us of the Montana places they served from Lewiston: “BITTER ROOT, AMERICAN FORK, DEER LODGE, HELL GATE, BIG HOLE, BEAVER HEAD & FORT BENTON. Connecting with Wells Fargo & Co. at Lewiston. All business entrusted to their care will be faithfully and promptly attended to.”

Carrying the mail on foot or on snowshoes in winter anywhere in the West was dangerous. The Owyhee Avalanche of Silver City reported on April 27, 1865, that the body of mail carrier J.T. Myers had been found about 3 miles from Booneville. “He was in a sitting posture: doubtless he had become fatigued, and sat down and froze to death. The mail bag, as yet, has not been found. A dog first discovered his body.”

In 1866 Greathouse & Co. had the contract to carry the mail between Boise City and Idaho City three times a week. They had, however, carried the mail daily. The Idaho World commented: “They have got tired of doing extra mail service without pay, and who can blame them? Our people are grateful to them for past favors. It now rests with the Department to give us a daily mail between here and Boise City. Congressman Holbrook will certainly attend to the matter.”

There was occasional humor in describing mail service, as in the Statesman on May 15, 1866: “There is a letter in the Boise City Post Office directed to ‘Mr. W.M. JOHNSON, Boyes River, Idaho Oregon, Colorado Territory.’ The letter has evidently had difficulty finding all those places at once, for it has been since February traveling from Chandlerville, Illinois. 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 November 1868, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman complained about the present handling of the mail: “Wells Fargo & Co. have the contract for carrying the mails between the termini of the railroad at their own price. The previous contract being forfeited there was virtually no competition, and the postmaster general was obliged to pay W.F. & Co. what they asked. The outrageous manner in which they are performing the service is becoming notorious.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email