Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Was a “River Agent?”

Steamboats are as rare as hens’ teeth today; so too are postal history items related to steamboats as carriers of the mail. When most of us think of steamboats, we think of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the movie Showboat, or at least hum a few bars of Ol’ Man River. But at one time, steamboats, or packet boats, were a critically important link in delivering mail around the Union

On the Delcampe website, I recently found this cover. [Figure1] The seller (in Bangkok, Thailand!) was advertising a cover addressed to Powell Brothers in Springboro, Pennsylvania. Docketing showed the cover was mailed by one N. Beeker of Ripley, Ohio. More on them later, but it was the postmark that caught my eye. Only half legible, it showed enough to read that it was cancelled on a steamboat by a “Riv. Agt.” or River Agent. A more legible CDS backstamp CDS reads “Cincinnati, O. April 5, 1884 - Transit.”.

What need for correspondence did this cover represent? What could it tell us about steamboating? Why was it in Bangkok (OK, that one is really none of my business)? To answer some of the questions this cover raises, let us look at some of the clues.

A “river agent” was the aquatic version of a route agent. In Fred MacDonald’s book Postal Markings of U.S. Waterway Routes, 1839-1997, he quotes:

“These route agents were employees of the Post Office Dept . . . sorted mail, accepted mail bags containing letters….and postmarked letters outside the mail bags. . . .
Down to about 1875, the postmarks used by these route agents were of almost any style and in almost any wording which pleased the route agent. . . . the presence of such words, abbreviations and expressions such as S.B., Steamer,… Riv. Agt…..”

The river agent had a miniature post office on board the steamboat. “It contained a sorting desk with a bank of pigeon holes….a small supply of stamps…ink pads, canceling devices, and a supply of lock pouches.” The agent even had a mail slot for customers who wrote letters during their voyage. The agent never charged any fees beyond standard letter mail rates for his work. At landings during the trip, a steamboat employee humped the mail bags down to the dock or “way landing.””

Identifying the job of a “river agent” can thus be reconstructed. Before the Civil War, steamboat captains acted in a semi-official capacity to care for the onboard mail. In 1880, there were still 6,797 passengers a year on Ohio Riverboats, and 348 new boats constructed. When our cover was mailed, riverboat traffic was shrinking due to competition from railroads, but far from dead.

The steamboat line on the postmark begins with “M,” leading a previous owner to believe that the original cancel probably referred to Maysville. Maysville, Kentucky, in Mason County, was from early on a steamboat port. Caleb Atwater, in 1829, wrote: “A steamboat runs daily between Maysville and Cincinnati.” There does not appear to have ever been a steamboat line devoted solely to the Maysville-Cincinnati route, but, as with railroad RPO cancels, a Maysville/Cincinnati cancel may not refer to a steamboat line so much as a Post Office designation of a postal route. Maysville and Ripley are only 18 miles apart on the Ohio River. The backstamp “Transit” leads me to think it was applied after the steamboat leg of the trip. I could easily see the letter mailed in Ripley, put on the steamboat and carried to Cincinnati, where it joined the everyday mailstream and eventually winding up in Pennsylvania.

No “N. Beeker” of Ripley appears in the Census. The “Powell Brothers” who received the cover was a large livestock handler near Erie, Pennsylvania. The Powell Brothers owned 3000 acres, starting as a nursery operation, and changing to livestock after the Civil War. “Their fine stock comprises Clydesdale horses …To all those who want to buy fine stock you can obtain it of the Powell Brothers, the celebrated stockmen, who will at all times extend to you fair dealing and courteous entertainment, which is a characteristic of these gentlemen, and on the of attributes to their wonderful success in the stock business. [1891]” “This business was so extensive, it included its own Post Office, Western Union Telegraph, railway station and both Adams and Wells-Fargo companies.”

Although the enclosure is long gone, Mr. Beeker was probably inquiring about horses or cattle. Little did he know that his envelope would have traveled by steamboat, evoking romantic memories of packet boats on the Ohio River.

[Besides the sources mentioned in the article, I also used Timothy H. Lewis, Transportation of Mail by Steamboat in the Nineteenth Century (Master’s thesis, University of Toledo, 1992), “Spring Township”[; accessed November 20, 2010]; M.P. Sargent, Pioneer Sketches: Scenes and Incidents of Former Days (Erie, Pa: Herald Printing & Publishing Co., 1891).]

“What to Do With Ghum Wah?”

[A Bend of the River article]

In the March 27, 1905 Toledo Blade, a story ran under the headline, “What to Do With Ghum Wah?” Part of that article describes the problem:

“Ghum Wah, of Toledo, was found guilty of being a Chinese person unlawfully in the country, and was ordered to be deported some time ago. Judge Taylor, of the United States district court, Saturday, confirmed that order giving the custody of Ghum Wah to the United States marshal, with instructions to return the celestial to the Chinese empire with all convenient dispatch.”

Yet the case was not as cut and dried as it seemed. Colonel Isaac H. Marrow, “Chinese inspector for Ohio,” wanted Wah to be held on forgery charges and tried in the United States. “It is alleged Wah secured the papers of a dead …man and changed the photograph and his own identity.” Marrow, a colonel in the Civil War, wanted Wah to serve time here, then, “I will see to it that a marshal is at the prison gates ready to take him back to China, where he belongs.”

In 1882, Congress passed a bill known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” Under this law, Chinese immigration to the United States was stopped for ten years. When it resumed, there were many restrictions applied that slowed Chinese citizens from entering the country. The Act providing for “Chinese inspectors,” responsible for keeping unwanted Chinese out of the country. “[S]tate boards or commissions enforced immigration law with direction from U.S. Treasury Department officials. At the Federal level, U.S. Customs Collectors at each port of entry collected the head tax from immigrants while ‘Chinese Inspectors’ enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act.” []

One of the ways Chinese could get around the exclusion policies was by assuming the name, papers, and identity of a Chinese already residing here who had died or returned to China. The Ghum Wah mentioned in the Blade story in 1905 may have actually had a different birth name. In the Census of 1900, there is a Ghum Wah working in a laundry on Cherry Street. Same Ghum Wah, or one man borrowing another’s name?

Whatever his name actually was, Ghum Wah was arrested in February of 1905. On the 25th, his bail was set at $700.00. On March 25, a judge ordered “that a “U.S. Marshal deport defendant to the Empire of China.” [Blade, March 30, 1905] Wah pleaded not guilty, but it is not clear whether to the charge of forgery, being in the country illegally, or both. But the court apparently decided to deport Wah immediately, rather than try him here on the forgery charge. In any event, the Blade reported on April 20, 1905 that Ghum Wah and another Chinese man, No Wing, of Cleveland, were escorted to Washington by two United States Marshals. They were then to be moved to Norfolk, Virginia, from where they would be shipped home to China. On June 19, the court received word that the deportation had been carried out

We have no further trace of Ghum Wah. What we don’t know about him could fill a book. Did he stay in China, or join the revolution that rocked China only a few years later in 1911? We cannot say. We do know that for a few weeks in 1905 he was the focus of a court case in Toledo. “What to do with Ghum Wah?” We might as well ask, “Whatever became of Ghum Wah?”

[I would like to thank Marianne C. Mussett, librarian for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio--Western Division (Toledo, Ohio), for her help in digging Gum Wah’s files out of a vault in the Toledo Federal Courthouse. Not an easy task!]

Friday, January 25, 2013

President's Son, President's Father: John Scott Harrison

In 1804, William Henry Harrison, then territorial governor of Indiana, was carrying his newborn infant son around the Governor’s Mansion. Suddenly, a shot rang out; the bullet only narrowly missing the father and son. John Scott Harrison avoided death that evening, as did his father. The similarities between William Henry and John Scott Harrison continue. They both cultivated large farms, but were always looking around for public employment to bolster their fortunes. They were both Southerners in temperament if not in actual residence. They both served terms in Congress. They both fancied themselves writers, although their writings are filled with nineteenth century hyperbole. John Scott Harrison never reached the White House, as both his father and his son did, but he carried on a Harrison tradition of being landed gentry, penniless though proud.

John Scott Harrison (1804-1878) was born in Vincennes, Indiana, but spent most of his life in Ohio. He was raised listening to tales of pioneers and Indian wars. In 1834, he took a flatboat of farm produce to New Orleans, only to see the boat wrecked. Like his father, he briefly studied medicine, but also like his father, gave that up to become a farmer. William Henry Harrison owned 2,800 acres in western Hamilton County, and when John Scott came of age, the elder Harrison cut off 600 acres and gave them to John Scott. The new farm, which would be called “The Point,” or Point Farm, was as far to the southwest as one can go in Ohio, where the Great Miami River ends at the Ohio River.

600 acres was a huge farm by the standards of that time. Harrison raised corn, wheat, and hay, hunted bear and deer, and caught fish. “Hogs, cattle, and sheep were raised and marketed….much of the family clothing was woven on the premises.” A surviving latter mentions two fat steers sent to Cincinnati in 1845; livestock was shipped to Cincinnati or New Orleans. Peach and apple butter was homegrown and home processed, as was hominy and Johnny cakes, both a corn product. John Scott himself wrote,

My lot in this life has been to raise hogs and hominy to feed my children and I have devoted but little time to fancy articles. (January 21, 1856).

Harrison could not have done this alone. Farm records are spotty at best, but Harrison employed farmhands, shepherds, and household servants. In 1860, Harrison had two “Domestics,” three “Day Laborers,” and two “Servants” resident on his acreage, plus a full-time farmer, and the labor garnered from his children. He had twelve children in all from two successive marriages, and after this father died in 1841, brought his mother, the former First Lady Anna Harrison, to live with him and help with the children.

But even with the help, John Scott barely made a go of it. He frequently wrote to his brother-in-law asking for money. Floods were a problem, living close to two major rivers. His family was prone to sickness, and the low price of agricultural products and financial panics made the family finances unenviable.

There were happy moments, however. John Scott’s children grew up as typical mid-century farm kids. Future President Benjamin and his siblings helped feed livestock, took corn to the mill, hunted and fished, and explored the farm. The Point Farm had many apple orchards, and the Harrison children freely pilfered apples. John Scott’s farmhouse faced the Ohio River, and like many farmhouses, had a large dining room which also served as the family room. “In this room it was the custom of the family to assemble, particularly on winter evenings, around a central table.” There, with old Mrs. President Harrison darning socks, the family would listen to someone reading aloud by the light of tallow candles.

Being the son of one farmer-politician, John Scott Harrison perhaps could not help but feel the call to politics. On December 6, 1851, John left for Washington to serve as a Whig congressman for Ohio. As a Congressman, he gained some notoriety as an opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which allowed new states to vote on whether to allow slavery or not. The passage of this bill broke up the Whig Party, and John Scott served a second term in Congress as an “Oppositionist” (the Republican party not yet having organized) until 1857. Defeated for reelection, he returned to Point Farm.

There was some talk of a Harrison presidential candidacy, but Harrison did not press the issue. Although he never embraced the Republican Party as his son Benjamin did, John Scott followed the political news carefully. Late in life he became a public speaker of some note. He gained some local fame with speeches such as, ”The World’s Race for Wealth,” and “Pioneer Life at North Bend.” He was working on a new speech, “The Lay Element in the Church,” when he died at his desk, May 25, 1878.

John Scott Harrison is buried next to his father in the William Henry Harrison State Memorial in North Bend, partly as a security measure. Shortly after his death, his body was stolen and sold to medical students. The body was recovered, and state laws were strengthened to make penalties for body-snatching more rigorous. Just as his father is perhaps best known as the first president to die in office, John Scott also achieved posthumous notoriety as the central figure in what the newspapers of the time called “The Harrison Horror.” In death as in life, John Scott Harrison and William Henry Harrison were cut from the same cloth.

[John Scott Harrison’s papers are in the Library of Congress. Many are quoted in Harry J. Sievers, S.J., Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior (New York, 1952).]

From Waldo to Amana: Pietism and Community Building

[Wrote this for the Ohio Postal History Journal]

“…[P]rior to 1883, U.S. fourth-class offices – those with less than $1,000 annual revenue – had to furnish their own postmarking devices…”
{Richard B. Graham, United States Postal History Sampler (Sidney, Ohio, 1992), p. 24.)

My great-grandmother, Lyda Bensley Rathbun (1879-1973) was born in a Marion County village called Waldo. She had been left at an orphanage at a very young age; her mother died and her father could not or would not take care of the children. She spent a long life believing she was born somewhere in northern Ohio. It was only after she died in 1973 that I used census data to figure out that she had been born in Waldo.

Great-grandma, who I knew as a child, has nothing to do with postal history, but the story of figuring out the place from which you came does resonate. By and large, Americans are a rootless bunch. Few of us live in the same town we were born in, and making connections between point A and point B is half the fun of genealogists, essayists, and of course philatelists. Given my mysterious connection to Waldo, it is not surprising that I picked up this cover on eBay. But there’s another story connected with this cover.

The clear, manuscript date stamp, has no date beyond “Mch 4” (?), so we cannot pin the handwriting on a particular postmaster. The stamp is the issue of 1873 (Scott). The enclosure is long gone. We can assume that Waldo of the mid 1870s was one of those fourth-class offices not provided with the mechanical date stamps that were becoming common. But the address – the address was interesting.

The cover is addressed to one John Esterle, of East Amana, Homestedt [sic] Co., Iowa. There was a John Oesterle in the 1880 Census of 1880 living in Amana, Iowa. A German-born farmhand, we can be fairly sure we have the right man, especially since there were any number of Oesterles is Waldo, Ohio. But what is special about East Amana?

East Amana, Iowa, was and is one of America’s longest running “intentional communities.” Here in Ohio we may be more familiar with Zoar and Gnadenhutten in Tuscarawas County, the Amana Colonies were founded by German pietists called “Inspirationists.” Founded in Germany in 1714, the Inspirationists came to America in 1843, settled near Buffalo, New York, and in 1855 relocated to Iowa. They founded six villages, of which East Amana was one. They lived, ate, and worked communally. No one was paid and all did farmwork or work in support of the residents

In 1932, as the Depression dragged on, the Amana colonies gave up the communal lifestyle, but not their religious or agricultural ways. To keep the binds of their community, the Amana people kept their church and also created the joint-stock Amana Corporation, tying themselves in a new way while preserving the sense of community.

To many Ohioans, Amana is just an appliance company, although its origins can be found in the Amana Colonies history. But is America is about connections across time and space, that cover hand postmarked Waldo, Ohio, does connect us with those hardworking farmers who started a collective farm out on the Iowa prairie.

[For more about Amana and their history, see:]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Ram Named Bumper, 1865

The name makes sense. If you ram something, you bump into it – hard. A male sheep is called a ram, and he spends part of his time butting head with other males (butting – ramming - bumping). If I was looking around for a clever name for my boy sheep, “Bumper” would be a good choice.

In May of 1865, an Otterbein University student from Green Village, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to his brother. William B. Oyler (who apparently never graduated) wrote:

hold the bumper when pap clips his mother. You take hold of the tail and leave Ben hold tight to the horns and if he goes to ram … hold tight it makes no difference if you pull all the wool off his tail hold tight anyhow.

Oyler gave more advice regarding Bumper to another brother:

… he had one little wee lamb which he calls bumper, now I suppose this bumper is a fine old feller. I want you to be careful and don’t let him bump you whatever you do, keep him chained…

If there is a lesson to be learned from Bumper the Sheep (and some might argue that this is the difference between history and nostalgia), it is that, in the 1860s at least, Otterbein students often came from rural backgrounds. This is not surprising, since the United Brethren Church, the parent organization of Otterbein University, had a largely rural membership. Oyler’s swapping of farm gossip with his brothers illustrates this.

Yet Oyler himself was waxing nostalgic. When we go off to school, we bring a bit of our old home to our new home. Oyler writes from “O.U. Westerville, Ohio.” But his letter makes it clear that a sheep back in Pennsylvania was on his mind in what may have been a homesick student’s reverie. Yet Bumper, his wool, and his antics thus became a part of the collective memory of Otterbein University.

[The Oyler Papers are in the Otterbein University Archives, Westerville, Ohio.]

Friday, January 18, 2013

Christmas in Perrysburg, 1880

[The Champney House, 302 E. Second Street, Perrysburg, Ohio]

[From Bend of the River, December 2012]

Christmas has taken some time to emerge into the gigantic holiday it is today. A religious holiday at first (and still for many of us), it took some clever marketing in the late nineteenth century to rebrand the holiday into a commercial hurricane.

One of those marketers was A. R. Champney (1831-1908). Champney was a pharmacist in Perrysburg in the last half of the 19th century. He was also, according to advertisements preserved in the Perrysburg Journal in December of 1880, a “special agent” of Santa Claus. How did Champney, who lived a very ordinary merchant’s life beside the Maumee River 130 years ago, understand that Christmas could mean sales?

A. R. Champney had plenty of excitement as a boy. Details are sketchy, but his 1908 obituary declared:

When a boy he went on the [Great] lakes and worked his way up until he became Master and many years sailed the great inland seas, his staunch little schooner making many trips to the Perrysburg dock.

He married a Toledo girl, Frances J. Hancock, in 1859. He continued as a mariner until 1865 or 1866, when he settled in Perrysburg an “engaged in the drug business.”

The Champney Drug Store was located 114 Louisiana Avenue. Originally called Inscho & Champney, Champney bought out his partner and operated the store independently until 1900, when he sold it to his son Charles. By that time, the “Champney Block” housed the drugstore, a dentist’s office, a cigar maker, a barber shop, and a “confectionary.” In 1880, Champney installed the first telephone line in Perrysburg, connecting his home and his business. Champney lived long enough to witness the building burn down in 1904.

Like modern drugstores, A. R. Champney sold a variety of goods and services. This allowed him to attract Christmas shoppers at a time when malls were in the far distance. His 1880 Christmas advertisements show that he sold “toys and holiday goods, hobby horses, wagons, carts, sleds” and a number of other items suitable for gift-giving.

Did Champney use Christmas decorations to draw in more customers? This was before the days of recorded Christmas carols, robotic Santas, and credit cards. But with a little imagination we can see and smell A. R. Champney’s dusty store, smelling of chalky medicines, Christmas candy, and displaying such wonders as rocking horses and sleds that no doubt were used on the frozen Maumee in front of the Fort Meigs precipice. Don’t be afraid of old Mr. Champney, mothers would whisper to children grown bug-eyed at the sight of the toys; he is a special agent of Santa Claus.

[Material in this essay came, in part, from Perrysburg Revisited by Ardath Danford (Perrysburg, 1992). The quote from Mr. Champney’s obituary came from the Perrysburg Journal of March 25, 1908.]

Letter From a Stamp Engraver

[This first appeared in the Ohio Postal History Journal.]

I collect stamps on a very limited budget. At stamp shows, I face the dilemma of dealers who steer me toward their expensive (and most profitable) stock, even as I try to make myself invisible and head for the “bargain basement” lots. “See our 1869 Pictorials,” they call, even while I look for their three-for-five dollar “miscellaneous” offerings. Yet I persevere, hoping to find treasures the dealer missed. I found one recently; not valuable, but one that I enjoyed finding and also tested my knowledge of postal history.

The cover I spotted was a folded letter. [Figure 1] The stamp, a common as dirt Scott #11, was missing part of its right side. The cancel was also not terribly unusual, a CDS from “New-York” without a year date. The addressee was “Hon D. Morgan”, “Acting Commissioner” of Columbus, Ohio.

Hmm. Not exactly Ohio postal history, as there were no postal markings from Ohio beyond the address. But, since I live near enough to Columbus to hear the noise of I-270, I thought I’d take a quick look at the (mostly) intact letter sheet. It was a bill, but the letterhead of the bill made my heart skip a beat.[Figure 2]

The bill was from an engraver. Not just a printer, but an engraver, the artisan who engraved a negative image on steel or wood and used it to print fancy illustrated letterheads, certificates, and, yes, stamps. And I immediately knew the company sending the bill from my childhood stamp album. The bill was from the New York firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson. The engravers of U.S. Scott #1 & #2.

Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson (hereafter referred to as RWHE) had printed some canal stock certificates for a Mr. Bull in Columbus, the state capital. The bill was for $169.50 and mentions a “seal,” perhaps of the type that seals documents. The details may never be found out. The Bull family was prominent settlers of the Clintonville area of Columbus, and one of their number, James G. Bull, was mayor of Columbus in the 1860s and 70s. The State of Ohio did sell canal stock in a “canal fund” in the nineteenth century.

But my concern here is more about RWHE and their work as engravers. I was a bit surprised the company has never had a book length study. The best information on RWHE that I could find in a less than exhaustive study was on Arago, the Snithsonian National Postal Museum []. Their website is worth quoting:

In 1845, the New York engraving firm Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson began printing postmaster provisionals, early stamps issued locally by the New York postmaster. That experience made them the logical choice for printing the first nationwide U.S. stamps, the 5-cent and 10-cent stamps of 1847.

The firm’s partners included three engravers, Freeman Rawdon, Neziah Wright, and George Hatch, but it was Tracy Edson, a former engraver turned business manager, who led the way. In 1858, Edson arranged the merger of Rawdon, Wright with six other firms to form American Bank Note. He became president of that company in 1860.

So is this the story. It may not be postal history, depending on your point of view. But I got a kick out of adding a piece of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson work to my collection.

[Sources: ]