Idaho History

In 19th century, robbers often hit the road to target the U.S. mail

The Boise stagecoach to Silver City was robbed often.
The Boise stagecoach to Silver City was robbed often. Idaho State Historical Society

When the U.S. mail was carried by stagecoach, as it was everywhere in the West in the 1860s, robberies were common. The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of Nov. 21, 1868, reported on the trial in Portland of John Billings and Jerome Johnson, accused of “robbing the mails and putting the life of a driver in jeopardy.” They were found guilty of the robbery but innocent of jeopardizing the life of the driver. The Statesman commented: “Webfoot juries evidently have had little experience with road agents; consequently their sympathies leaned toward the poor innocent boys who were on trial. A road agent wouldn’t hurt anybody, oh no. They are harmless fellows only collecting a little toll.”

The robbery of the Oberland stage from Boise to Kelton, Utah, and connection with the Union Pacific Railroad, was reported in the Statesman on July 29, 1873: “The stage was stopped three miles the other side of Snake River, 150 miles from here by masked men armed with double-barrel shot guns. Wells Fargo & Co.’s treasure box and three sacks of mail were demanded and taken. Rev. R.M. Gwinn of this city was aboard, but the passengers were not molested, or asked to hand over. Probably this last little civility was due to Elder Gwinn; he was on the way to conference, and the agents didn’t want to have the reputation of robbing a preacher.”

The Statesman’s headline on Nov. 11, 1875, read, “Bold Stage Robbery within Two Miles of Boise City.” The stage was stopped by highwaymen who took the Wells Fargo & Co. treasure box and all of the mail sacks. Their haul amounted to about $8,000 in gold dust and bullion.

“Still Another Mail Robbery,” noted the paper on April 26, 1876. This time three mail sacks were cut open, and the Wells Fargo express box rifled of its contents. The stage was at Rattlesnake Station, north of present Mountain Home, awaiting transfer to the Boise stage.

That robbing the U.S. mail could be a serious offense we learn from the Statesman of June 9, 1881: “Mr. Froman, one of the guards at the penitentiary, left on Sunday’s stage in charge of two United States prisoners sentenced for life for robbing the mail on the Overland road and putting the life of the driver in jeopardy. At Kelton, Utah U.S. Marshal Chase will take the prisoners and convey them to the Auburn penitentiary in New York.”

Highwaymen who attempted to rob the stage just outside of Boise in August 1881 were thwarted when the driver whipped up his horses and escaped, but with a bullet hole in his hat to remind him of just how close he had come to death.

When aptly named John A. Post was reappointed as Boise postmaster in February 1885, the Statesman commented: “It is unnecessary to say anything in praise of Mr. Post. He has been postmaster in this city for nine years… We could not have a better man for the place.”

On Oct. 10, 1891, “The city marshal was upon the streets yesterday ascertaining the proper designation of lots preparatory to affixing numbers to buildings at the city’s expense, and thus pave the way for the free delivery of mail to citizens.” Daily mail delivery in Boise began on Jan. 1, 1892, with twice daily delivery to downtown businesses.

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