On Monday, July 1, 1850, the first stage-transported U.S. mail left Independence, Missouri for Santa Fe, New Mexico with eight men guarding the mule-drawn coach.
This was the first Congressionally authorized four-year contract for mail transported by vehicle between Independence and New Mexico. It had initially been set to leave Fort Leavenworth but the contract was modified to send it out of Independence instead, reducing the route distance from 885 to 840 miles.
The mail contractors in 1850 were Dr. David Waldo of New Mexico and Jacob Hall of Independence. The stage not only carried the mail, it also provided passenger service, with fares of $100 in the summer and $150 during the winter. A letter of less than half an ounce cost $0.10 and could be sent collect, postage to be paid by the recipient.
The company that Waldo and Hall formed in 1850 dissolved four years later, when Hall bought Waldo out and teamed up with John M. Hockaday to transport the mail for the next contract period. In 1857, service moved to semimonthly and the following year Hall again placed a successful bid, this time as sole proprietor. In 1862, he bid again, but the contract was awarded to George H. Vickroy and Thomas J. Barnum.
The Eastern terminus for the stage also shifted that year, moving west to Kansas City. Now the shortening of the line that had begun on the first run accelerated, responding to the growth of the railroads. Stage service to Santa Fe would end completely in 1880 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. But the idea of the stage and its symbolic connection to the American frontier would linger much longer.
Throughout the month of September, 1855, the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette informed its readers that the U.S. mail contract had recently been transferred to Hockaday and Hall and was providing mail and passenger transport to and from Independence, Missouri for a mere $125 per passenger.
Packages and extra baggage could also be sent via the Hockaday and Hall coaches, at a cost of 25 cents per pound, although there was a minimum charge of $1.00 and the contractors could not be held responsible for anything worth more than $50.
These rates remained the same two years later, even when service increased to twice monthly. This may have been because, no matter how often the mail left Santa Fe, it took about the same length of time to travel to or from its destination. Round trip to St. Louis was still about three months and delivery from the Atlantic seaboard to Santa Fe remained around six weeks. Letters and packages continuing from Santa Fe on to El Paso were transferred to George H. Gidding’s service south and could take an additional week to ten days.
Interestingly, the front page items about the new contractors and their service are not set off in a box or with any other markings to indicate that they’re advertisements. They’re treated like news items. Repeating news items—the same language shows up in every September 1855 issue of the Gazette.
While news of the mail was critical to the functioning of business and politics in New Mexico Territory, the decision to promote its service and fees in this way may have been the result of other factors. The Hockaday and Hall agent in Santa Fe just happened to be W. W. H. Davis, the newspaper’s editor.
Sources: Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, 1855; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1971.