The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1969, Volume 15, Number 2
Rita Larkin, Editor

By Basil C. Pearce

Images from the article

This absorbing article about the Jackass Mail, otherwise known as the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line, was written by Basil C. Pearce, president of the Western Cover Society of the American Philatelic Society. It originally appeared in Western Express, the research journal of the Western Cover Society. We are grateful to Mr. Pearce and to Western Express for allowing us to reprint Mr. Pearce’s monograph.

Mr. Pearce, a native California, is vice president of Well Fargo Bank in San Francisco. He is a noted philatelist and a student of history of the early west.

For over twenty-five years he has specialized in the research of western postal history and frontier communications.

He is the author of many articles about early transportation and communication of "Gold Rush days." In addition he is a director of the Fort Point Museum Association in San Francisco and a member of the California Historical Society, as well as several national and international philatelic organizations.

Collectors of Western Covers probably admire the art of organizing and operating an early pioneer express company more than any other single endeavor. This, then is a story about one of those companies whose humble beginnings and shortlived  operation is buried deep in the pages of time. This famous old line, given practically no notice in the histories of pioneer transportation of the West, not only preceded the well-known Butterfield Overland, but actually outlived it.

The San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line was organized and financed by James E. Birch. This was the same Birch who was previously the head of the California Stage Company of Northern California.

Designated Route 8076, the first contract for over land service on this "Southern Route" was awarded to Birch, June 22, 1857. The contract provided for a semi-monthly service in four-horse coaches, scheduled to leave San Antonio and San Diego on the ninth and the 24th of each month, 30 days allowed for each trip.

On July 9, 1857, just 17 days after Birch concluded his contract, the first mail left San Antonio and was carried on horseback. Birch died at sea while the first mail was still en route, and was not at San Diego when the first eastern mail came through direct from San Antonio in the record time of 53 days. The second mail, however, which left San Antonio July 24 was sent by coach and arrived in San Diego 38 days later.

The San Diego Herald,Aug. 12, 1857, thus notes the departure of the mail by this route:

"The pioneer mail train from San Diego to San Antonio, Tex. left here on the 9th inst. (Aug. 8, 1857) at an early hour in the morning, and is now pushing its way for the east at a rapid rate. The mail was, of course, carried on pack animals, as will be the case until wagons which are being pushed across will have been put on the line. The first mail from the other side has not yet arrived, although somewhat overdue, and conjecture is rife as to the cause of delay."

The death of Birch was a severe blow to the project he had planned, and destined never to see in operation. With his means and ability, had he lived, his mail line would no doubt have played a more important part in the history of transportation in the southwest than it did. As it developed, the company’s working capital was nearly exhausted at the very start of actual operations, and but for the timely financial assistance extended to Superintendent I. C. Woods (formerly of Adams Express Co. in San Francisco) by a Simeon Hart of El Paso, the project would probably have collapsed.

With no knowledge of Birch’ s death, Woods managed to keep the mails moving, and it was not until he read an announcement in a San Antonio newspaper that he was aware of the tragic happening.

Woods now proceeded to Washington where he made a detailed report of the situation to the Post Office Department. Finally Birch’s contract was transferred to G. H. Giddings and R. E. Doyle. Woods was retained as superintendent with head-quarters in New York.

The Service continued to improve, and the fifth trip from the eastern terminus to San Diego "was made in the extraordinary short time of 26 days and 12 hours," and the San Diego Herald on this arrival, Oct. 6, 1857, rushed out an extra announcing "the very gratifying fact of the complete triumph of the southern route notwithstanding the croakings of many of the opponents of the administration in this State."

Service on the San Antonio-San Diego Line could never be called satisfactory, at least from a passenger’s viewpoint. Travel by day and camp by night, or vice versa, was the slow and wearisome routine. Although there were 87 stations listed on the original itinerary, only three, those at San Antonio, El Paso and San Diego, had buildings of a substantial character. Others were nothing more than a brush corral and a mud-walled hut, while the larger number were merely camping places at springs or stream crossings.

The largest and most important station between El Paso and San Diego was at Maricopa Wells in Arizona, which was the dividing point on the route, where the eastbound and westbound mails met and turned back. Here was erected an adobe house and corral.

This route was solidly backed by the southern politicians in the hope that it would encourage travel and popularize the southern route but it never met with public favor. It was said that the "line started in the middle and didn’t go anywhere." The Sacramento Union said that this mail line was a mystery and as far as it concerned California interests, it might as well have run from San Antonio to Guaymas, Mexico.

Starting at New Orleans, one could take a five-times-a-week mail steamer to Indianola, Texas?a distance of 540 miles. There transfer to a daily line of four-horse mail coaches to San Antonio?another distance of 140 miles. Then on over the San Antonio and San Diego Line to San Diego? another 1,476 miles. Once on the Pacific Coast our passenger boarded a California Steam Navigation Co. vessel to San Francisco.

The most severe test of the traveler’ s courage and strength was the journey across the Colorado Desert in California, "of 100 miles, while we cross on mule-back," as the company’s ad read. Raids on the stations and attacks on the mails by Indians were a frequent occurence in spite of protection by the local military.

On Sept. 20, 1858, the Butterfield Company commenced operation of stages over the road blazed by Birch and from El Paso, Texas, to Warner’s Ranch, California, they swung directly into the wheel tracks of the earlier line.

It is the general belief that the San Antonio-San Diego Line was absorbed by the Butterfield. It certainly was not. On Dec. 1, 1858, the portion of the route between El Paso and Fort Yuma was cut from the services because it duplicated the service over the section by the newly-inaugurated Butterfield The service on the other two ends, however, from San Antonio to El Paso and from Fort Yuma to San Diego was improved from semi-monthly to a weekly trip and its subsidy was increased.

During the year 1860, the west end of the route from Fort Yuma to San Diego was further slashed from the service, thus leaving nothing of the original route but the 367-mile portion of the east end, from San Antonio to Camp Stockton which was put on a weekly basis. Between Camp Stockton and El Paso a "star" was substituted for the coach service and it was put on a weekly basis. The service was thus improved to a weekly basis all the way from New Orleans to San Francisco.

After the final suspension of the Butterfield Overland mail, March 12, 1861, the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line reorganized and merged its interests under the title of the Overland Mail Corporation.

In May 1861, this company was given a new contract for the year ending June 30, 1862, to operate a mail service over the entire route from San Antonio via Camp Stockton, to Tucson and points in California. An attempt was made to fulfill the contract, beginning April 1, but faced with insurmountable obstacles and with the development of the Civil War, the contractors were compelled to give it up. The eastern portion of the line was curtailed June 30, 1861. The final chapter was closed when the latter part of the line was discontinued Aug. 2, 1861.

In his report of 1859, Postmaster General Holt referred to the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line as having carried the lightest mail known to the department and that by maintaining a mail service through an almost-unbroken wilderness and desert was an injustice to the postal system.

People in California were bitter that their letter sent via the Overland mail service took longer to points in St. Louis and the Mississippi region than by the roundabout Panama route.

The overland contractors were blamed for making no effort to improve the time over their routes. Unanswered was the question: Why was mail carried on horseback and valuable time lost in only traveling by day and camping by night?

Really open to criticism was the selection of the eastern terminals on two of the routes, namely Independence, Mo., on the Central route, 275 miles from St. Louis, and San Antonio on the Southern route, 680 miles from New Orleans, by the water and land routes.

During the company’s brief period of existence it employed 65 men in all capacities, and owned 50 coaches and 400 mules. The length of the route from San Antonio to San Diego was 1,476 miles, and the average rate of travel over it was about 40 miles a day. Only about 40 trips were ever made over the entire route before the service was curtailed.

The postal earnings for the one year that the company operated the entire route was $601, with the loss to the P. O. Department of $195,399.

Today, more than 100 years later, there are only a few known covers in the hands of collectors with notations indicating this route was specified by the writers. Considering that the line carried the lightest mail known to the P. O. Department may account for so few covers coming to light.

The cover in Figure 1 is the most interesting philatelic item about this old line known to the writer. It contains a letter from the Alta California (San Francisco’s leading newspaper) to a New Orleans newspaper and asks that an attempt be made to use this line in preference to the Butterfield route. Editors of the Alta were trying to speed up news service and wanted to explore the possibilities of using "The Jackass Mail." This very interesting letter is reproduced as Figure 4.

The covers shown as Figures 2 and 3 were sent out from the East to California. The military officer they were addressed to had been transferred to Fort Yuma so the covers were forwarded to that location-via San Diego. Both items traveled over the Jackass route to their destination as the Butterfield Line was not in existence at this time.