US Stamps

The fascinating history behind a mundane express cover

Sep 29, 2016, 3 PM
This rather unassuming cover traveled from Sumner, Kan., to Denver and then to its destination of Spring Gulch, Colorado Territory, in 1861. The author discusses three points of historical interest that make the cover a fascinating item of postal history.

By Labron Harris 

In my previous columns, I have taken a concept and shown covers to demonstrate that concept. This column will be a departure from my usual ones.

One of the most rewarding aspects of postal history is to take a mundane-appearing cover and through research learn of its exciting postal history.

Shown nearby is an 1861 cover originating in Sumner, Kan. (backstamped), traveling by “C.O.C. and P.P. Express” (Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express) to Denver, Colorado Territory, and then by Murphy’s Express (manuscript “Paid Murphy 10¢” reading up the left side of the envelope) to its final destination of Spring Gulch, Colorado Territory.

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This cover has three main points of interest: its point of origin, the method of transportation to Denver, and the forwarding of the letter to Spring Gulch.

Sumner, Kan., was a town that came into being as a result of the political instability in Kansas during the 1850s because of the slavery question. The area was called “bleeding” Kansas because of the intense feelings and destruction during this time.

Atchison, Kan., was a pro-slavery stronghold. In 1856, John Wheeler, an anti-slavery proponent, started the town of Sumner, three miles down the Missouri River. The town soon eclipsed Atchison as the largest town in the county.

However, Sumner’s prominence was short-lived. In 1859 a drought came, and in 1860 a tornado struck and demolished a large part of the town. Then the locusts came and ate the crops, and the town was no longer viable.

People took the lumber and the bricks to build structures elsewhere, and the town became a ghost town. Sumner was no more.

So the cover started its journey in Sumner and was carried by the C.O.C. and P.P. Express to Denver, Colorado Territory.

With the discovery of gold in Colorado, William Russell saw a need for supplies for the miners and started the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express to take materials and mail to the region.

The venture was not successful and in 1859 he sold his company to William Waddell and Alexander Majors. Russell joined with Waddell and Majors to form the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express to carry mail and material from St. Joseph, Mo., to either Denver or San Francisco.

When the Express reached Julesburg, Colo., it either went south to Denver or on to Salt Lake City and San Francisco.

The company instituted the Pony Express in April 1860. It was successful at first, but soon began losing money because of bad weather, costs of maintaining more than a hundred stations along the routes and the personnel necessary to staff them, and the Indian raids.

They were soon $5 million in debt and their future was in doubt. The employees began identifying the company’s initials as “(C)lean (O)ut of (C)ash and (P)oor (P)ay.”

The Civil War gave them a reprieve because when Texas joined the Confederacy, the main southern mail route, the Butterfield Overland Mail, was closed and all mail had to go the northern route.

The reprieve was soon over when the intercontinental telegraph was completed and instant communication from coast to coast was available. On March 21, 1862, Ben Holladay purchased the company for $100,000 and it became part of his Overland Stage Co.

The letter reached Denver and was sent on to Spring Gulch in western Colorado. There was no internal organized mail system in Colorado at this time; mail was carried privately.

The cover was docketed on the left side with “Paid Murphy 10¢,” which paid for the delivery to its final destination.

I could find no references to Murphy’s Express in my normal sources. Through telephone calls to people knowledgeable about early Colorado, I was able to determine that there was such an express.

The likely candidate for the operator of this express was John T. Murphy, who left Platte, Mo., in 1859 and went to Nevada City, Colo. (now Tin Cup, Colo.), which is near Spring Gulch.

There he became involved in the mercantile business and needed transportation to get his goods from Denver to his store.

Seeing the need, he probably started an express company to carry goods for himself and others. Also, he carried mail for a fee.

Thus this letter reached Spring Gulch and its historical journey ended. 

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