So I’m working up a presentation for the good folks down at the Chapel on the Green down in Yorkville, and got enmeshed once again in the era when the mails were carried by stagecoach.
Here in northern Illinois, that started on Jan. 1, 1834, when a young lawyer named John D. Caton drove the first Concord coach southwest from Chicago to Ottawa, following the old Indian trace called the High Prairie Trail.
The coach, and the mail contract that made its journey possible, were both owned by a young, politically-connected physician named John Taylor Temple. Temple used his political connections to obtain the contract to carry the mail from Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Ottawa. Of course at that season of the year, the mails were carried much farther overland south down the bank of the Illinois River to Peoria.
Anyway, the concept of the mail itself is what has fascinated me for some time now. During that era, the mail was defined as matter carried inside the official portmanteau, which itself was a bulky carpet bag sort of thing with a lock that could only be opened by each postmaster’s special key. In fact, during that era, the key pretty much defined the postmaster himself—without the key, he wasn’t a postmaster.
That sounds sort of odd and iffy, but it actually kept the village of Montgomery from getting their own post office in the 1830s. Using subterfuge, officials in neighboring Aurora managed to somehow purloin the official key that was meant for Montgomery. With no key, the official portmanteau could not be opened, and as a result, Aurora got its post office in March of 1837. Montgomery wasn’t given a second chance at a post office until 1848.
In 1908, Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora.” One of the events at the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”
So the official mail was matter carried inside the portmanteau from post office to post office. When the mail coach arrived, the portmanteau was carried inside the post office, the mail inside was sorted, with local matter separated and other matter added, the lock secured, the portmanteau loaded aboard the coach, and the driver, whipping up the team, rushed out of town to the next stop.
In between arriving and leaving, passengers got to stretch their legs and maybe even have a bite to eat, horses were changed, and local folks exchanged news and gossip with the driver. And, of course, there was the thrill of hearing the actual news for the first time. Newspapers were carried free from town to town so that news was spread up and down the stage routes. Local papers of the day had special columns for news from exchange papers, spreading news of interest. This was considered a vital governmental service, and the government considered it vital as well. The feeling at the time was that an informed electorate was an absolute necessity for democracy to work.
One of the interesting things about the stagecoach era for me is how thoroughly integrated federal governmental financing was embedded in the process. Without a mail contract, stage companies literally couldn’t exist since somewhere upwards of 30 percent of their revenue was provided in that way. And in fact, in the early 1840s, when a stage company lost their mail contract to a competitor, they were required to sell their rolling stock and livestock to the successful contractor.
Eventually, a web of roads spread west of Chicago, heading southwest to Ottawa and Peru at the head of steamboat navigation on the Illinois River and northwest to busy, growing Galena on the Mississippi. It was a vibrant, although relatively brief. Rails began to be pushed west of Chicago in the late 1840s, and by the 1850s stages were only operating on short routes connecting post offices not on a handy rail line. But while the stages ran, it was an exciting time in northern Illinois.