Grinnell Missionaries

Hawaii Postal History and the Grinnells

(Ken Lawrence, August 3, 2006)

Fred Gregory has asserted during the Frajola board discussion that no mail was postmarked at Honolulu between December 1851 and  February 20, 1852 . The paltry sample of datable covers from a time when the Honolulu post office was sending out about 1,000 letters per month is insufficient to suggest a typical practice, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So these arguments fail to discredit the hypothesis that the JAN, FEB, and MAR red cancels on some Grinnell stamps may have been applied at Honolulu in 1852. Richard Frajola has advanced a strong argument against this hypothesis, based largely on the analogy to United States postal practice of the 1850s, but it falls short of proof in my opinion.

The alternative theory advanced by Jeffrey K. Weiss proposed that the postmarks and cancels were applied to the Grinnells at Waialua: “When William [Emerson] went to Waialua in November 1851, might Whitney not have said to him something like: ‘Will, since you have been working for me and the Post Office for some time, why not take a batch of stamps and a canceler or two with you, and run an informal office there for a few months, until you feel better and return to Honolulu?’ After all, such informal offices happened in many other places in the world at that time. Then when William did not return, but left on the voyage, the device(s) might well have remained in Waialua, forgotten.” [Po’oleka O Hawaii 72, page 10] But I'm skeptical that any Honolulu postmarks wereused outside Honolulu, and especially at a time when Whitney refused to allow mail to be processed and dispatched at Lahaina, which was the most logical post office after Honolulu, and the next one to be formally established. Even if mail could have been stamped and canceled (with killers) at Waialua, it should not have received a Honolulu date and rating (Hawaiian or Hawaiian & U.S.) mark there.

On December 25, 1850, Henry Whitney announced that “A mail will be made up once a week for the above port [San Francisco], which will contain all letters and papers for different parts of the U.S. except such as are marked to be sent via Cape Horn .” [M-H page 16] Thus bagging mail was not dated according to ship departures at that time when the straightline was in use.

Meyer and Harris state that Whitney used the Honolulu straightline postmark “until he secured a circular handstamp,” [page 17] which seems logical to me, and makes it probable that manuscript-canceled covers in the period between the latest recorded straightline and the earliest recorded CDS were probably dispatched from another port.

M-H wrote [page 22], “No foreign mail was accepted from the other Islands . It would perhaps be more correct to state that no such mail left with official sanction; undoubtedly ships touching at Hilo on the large Island of Hawaii, Lahaina, and other Hawaiian ports would take the foreign-going mail unofficially. The actual mail, however, bearing the Hawaiian postmark, wherever originating in the islands, went through Honolulu and received the postmark Honolulu

Whitney’s October 1, 1851, notice stated, “MAILS FOR SAN FRANCISCO are made up and dispatched about every fortnight. Due notice of the closing of each mail will be given. Mails are made up at the San Francisco P.O. for this port, on the 5th and 20th of each month, and are due at this port about the 8th and 24th of each month.” [page 20]

Yet Fred Gregory wrote that he has recorded 1852 covers dated February 20, 21, and 25, and "March 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, 15 (x2), 27 and 31 all with a Honolulu postmark.” How can that be? Did mail close twice or more weekly during those months instead of twice monthly? I think there must be a different explanation. (Fred has not stated that all these were San Francisco bound, but I assume that if any had been endorsed otherwise, such as via Cape Horn, he would have reported that.)

The difficulty of analysis is that if the Grinnell stamps and cancels are genuine, no covers of proven Honolulu origin exist that were posted during most of that early 1852 period prior to February 20.  

Frederic Wheeler rejected the Meyer-Harris assignment of cover dates to particular ships: “The only basis for such assignment is the coincidental nature of a cancellation date.”

(Siegel auction of the Advertiser collection, lot #2131)

An example of the Meyer-Harris fallacy can be studied by viewing a stampless cover in Thurston Twigg-Smith’s exhibit (shown above), postmarked HONOLULU * U.S. Postage Paid * MAY 23. Here is the Twigg-Smith’s caption:

“Honolulu, May 23, (1851) to New York
“The ‘Honolulu * U.S. Postage Paid’ marking — Meyer-Harris 236.05 — was in use from early 1851 to June, 1857 to indicate to the San Francisco post office that U.S. Postage had been prepaid. It helps us date covers in that period. Presence of the fourth and fifth period rate of 8¢ for prepaid mail to
New York ties the date down to between December 21, 1850 and March 31, 1855 . The San Francisco July 1 mark further dates it prior to April 1, 1855 when the normal sailing dates became the 5th and 20th. Presence of the circle 8 mark — 6¢ for the U.S. and 2¢ for the ship — in the orange ink used in San Francisco shows the rate markings were applied there. (We think the crayon markings may have been applied in Honolulu , particularly for unusual ratings. Otherwise, how would San Francisco know how much had been collected in Hawaii?) Ships’ sailing data helps pin this letter to 1851. The May 23 postmark indicates the ship sailed that day or a day or two later. The American ship ‘Loo Choo’ cleared Honolulu May 24, 1851, with mail for San Francisco .

“Although May, 1851 was a third period sailing, the rate was 6¢ + 2¢ in both cases, and the San Francisco office anyway would have been guided by the July 1 cancelling date, the start of the fourth period. No known sailings in 1852, 1853, or 1854 fit that bill. By May, 1855, of course, the March 31, 1855 rate change would have called for a ‘12’ marking instead of an ‘8’.”

Scott Trepel’s description for that cover as lot 2131 in the Advertiser sale stated: “Although using sailing dates it can be argued this is a 1851 usage, it is more likely 1852, as in May 1851 Postmaster Whitney ordered this canceling device from New York through J.W. Gregory of San Francisco.” If Trepel is correct, that was a Sunday closing.

Mail processing was never exactly according to the book, especially in the 1850s. Hawaiian mail that transited
San Francisco normally was postmarked there on the date when the steamer was scheduled to depart for Panama, which was the first or 15th/16th on each month in 1852. But numerous exceptions are recorded when Hawaiian mail transiting San Francisco
was instead postmarked on the day of arrival or the next day, not on the date of departure for Panama. Examples are Advertiser lots 6, 8, and 9 (the fabulous Dawson cover) in the Missionary volume, and some stampless covers in the second volume. Further study is needed on this aspect also.

(Addendum August 5, 2006)


After Honolulu , post offices were established at Lahaina (1850), Hilo (1851), Kawaihae (1852) and Waiohinu (1852, actually the Kau district office). Customs collectors were required to act as postmasters without additional compensation, and postmark devices were not issued until 1860, but some customs seals were used to cancel stamps. Inter-island mail was free until 1859, but there were no carriers until 1856. Masters of coastal watercraft were required to pick up and deliver letters at ports of call along their routes, also without compensation.


By custom, a person or family or business in each coastal town and village became responsible for accepting and dispatching letters, and postal historians tend to regard these individuals as informal postmasters and the places as informal post offices. As for stamps, I doubt that any were officially supplied to locations other than those announced in the government newspaper The Polynesian, but it’s possible that some of the individuals acquired personal supplies of stamps that they made available to other members of their communities. Absent contrary evidence, these must have been accounted as private transactions, so one should not exaggerate the responsibilities of these so-called postmasters where no post offices had been officially established.


In an October 26, 1970, Linn’s article, Edward J. Burns, president of the Hawaiian Philatelic Society, wrote, “Within another three years [after 1852], by 1855, four additional post offices were established. . . . Maui’s new office was at Wailuku town while Oahu ’s was also designated by the district name, Waialua, with the office located in Haleiwa town.


“During these early years, overland mail routes were established on three of the major islands, Hawaii , Maui, and Oahu , with carriers paid for the strenuous work of transporting the mails by mule pack over trails traversing lava flows, mountainsides, gorges, and streams. Postmaster General Joseph Jackson noted in his report to the minister of the interior for the 18-month period July 1, 1856 to December 31, 1857 that $1,340.25 had been paid for mail carrier services on three islands.”


In Additions to Hawaiian Postal History (1972), the first update and revision of Meyer-Harris, Burns reported that S.N. Emerson was the Waialua postmaster 1858-75, but he listed no earlier postmaster. That appointment is confirmed by the 1859 first distribution of Numerals stamps to Emerson.


In Additions volume 2 (1980), Burns listed the Waialua post office 1856-1900, and “A manuscript cancel has been noted on a Numeral.” His earliest reported Waialua datestamp is 1882.


If Waialua had an established post office as early as 1855 or 1856, but S.N. Emerson was not its postmaster until 1858, it’s possible that his father Rev. John Emerson was the first postmaster, as Patrick Pearson wrote, but I have seen no documentation to support that claim. Either way, the evidence provides no support for Jeffrey Weiss’s theory that young William Emerson performed postal services at Waialua in 1852, nor that such extraordinary service as postmarking foreign mail occurred anywhere outside Honolulu .


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