The Journal of San Diego History
April 1957, Volume 3, Number 2
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Stuart N. Lake

United States mail which arrived in San Diego, California, on August 31, 1857, by way of James E. Birch’s San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line was by no means the first to reach Southern California from the East.

Birch did provide the first scheduled overland mail service from the East into San Diego under formal contract with the Postmaster General, but transport of mail over the trails which his messengers followed had been commonplace for ten years prior to their initial trip.

Military couriers had maintained letter service between the Atlantic seaboard, way stations, and the Army posts at Fort Yuma and San Diego from 1847 on, and had carried some civilian mail. Nevertheless, James Birch’s venture was truly a pioneering enterprise of far greater significance than was understood in his time, or is generally appreciated a century after his death.

In the light of history the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line merits something better than flippant treatment and there can be no valid excuse for Twentieth Century reference to the service as “the Jackass Mail,” the disparagement employed originally in 1857 by an envious San Francisco editor. Mules did serve as saddle-animals for messengers and passengers between Fort Yuma and San Diego, and to haul the coaches between the Colorado River and San Antonio; but a mule is no jackass, as any skinner will testify. The editor, however, was hellbent on belittling.

James Birch, a Swansea, Massachusetts man, who had operated stage lines in Northern California, submitted one of the nine bids for the Overland Mail contract over Route 12,578 (the Southern route) eventually awarded to John Butterfield, representing Wells Fargo & Company. Financial resources of bidders and bondsmen had substantial bearing on the award and it is doubtful that Birch could match Butterfield’s backing.

Whatever that case, had Birch obtained the contract for Route 12,578, he intended to by-pass San Diego by a full 100 miles. His bid shows that he expected to follow the Emigrant Road from the Mississippi country to Fort Yuma, and then by the surveyed route of 1853 through San Gorgonio Pass to San Bernardino. Service under Birch’s contract was authorized over Route 8076 on July 1, 1857, the day before bids for Route 12,578 were opened and eleven weeks before the contract for the latter route was awarded.

Eastern mail for Route 8076 was collected at New Orleans and sent to Indianola, Texas, either direct or by rail to Berwick’s Bay, thence by steamer to the Texas port. It was hauled in wagons from Indianola to San Antonio — an overall trip of 680 miles, in five or six days. At San Antonio Birch’s associate, George H. Giddings, took over the pouches. Giddings held the original contract for Route 8076 as a mail service is between San Antonio and El Paso; Birch’s line from El Paso to San Diego throughout its short life was handled by Post Office accountants as additional mileage under the Giddings contract.

Giddings sent the first San Diego-bound mail out of San Antonio on July 9 in charge of James E. Mason; the second was dispatched on July 24 under Captain Henry. Skillman. Mason’s party was delayed by Indian attacks, and Skillman caught up with him near El Paso, so that the Birch’s first two Westbound mails entered California and Sail Diego County together at Fort Yuma. (Imperial County was not set off from San Diego until 1907.)

Differences of opinion have arisen in recent years over the exact route which Birch’s messengers followed between Fort Yuma and San Diego, but study of a daily log kept by Woods, of old army maps, of Wells Fargo records and testimony given in 1873 by two men who had carried the mails over the disputed section leaves little room for argument.

Mason and his assistant, Samuel Ames, with the freshest mules available, left Fort Yuma with the two batches of mail on August 29. (Woods, with 14 worn out animals, was to follow in their tracks seven days later.) The messengers headed westerly around a bend in the Colorado River for about 10 miles to the neighborhood of Pilot Knob, then turned South to cross the Mexican border near today’s location of International Boundary Marker 207. Thirteen miles to the Southwest they reached Cooke’s Wells, in Baja California, rode West to water at Alamo Mocho, then northerly to cross into the United States and San Diego County again at about the western limit of modern Calexico.

Indian Wells, of which all trace has been destroyed by New River but which was just west of today’s Seeley, was the next waterhole. Here they headed northwest for 32 miles to Carrizo Creek. Vallecito was another 18 miles along the route; at the half-way point, opposite the mouth of Canebrake Cañon there was good water at Palm Springs (not Palmitas Spring, as error often puts it). In Mason Valley, about 8 miles beyond Vallecito, the messengers turned west off the Emigrant Road toward the eastern slope of the Cuyamaca Mountains, and it is over the next 9 or 10 miles of their route to Lassator’s that controversy has arisen. However, there appears to have been but one route from the desert floor to the Cuyamaca rim that agrees with Wood’s description in detail.

Isaiah Woods was experienced in frontier travel and could follow a trail. It is quite evident that upon leaving Mason Valley he followed Oriflamme Cañon up the Cuyamaca slope to a small plateau near the top, where he camped for several hours to rest his tired mules. He resumed his journey by moonlight about 11 o’clock on the night of September 7 and reached Lassator’s at 2 o’clock the next morning. By his own reckoning he must have crossed over the rim in what would show on modern maps as either Section 24 or Section 25, Township 13 South, Range 4 East. From this point, he must have traveled west for a short distance, then southerly across Cuyamaca Valley to Green Valley and Lassator’s.

It was 7 miles from Lassator’s down the Green Valley to Guatay Valley and the next station, Julian’s, (Sandoval’s); 7 miles farther to Williams’ in Valle de las Viejas; then 14 miles to Ames’s at Los Coches, 16 miles to Mission San Diego, and a final 5 miles to the western terminal of the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line at the Plaza in Old San Diego.

James Birch’s contract for Route 8076 was to run for four years from July 1, 1857 with an annual payment of $149,800. Service was to be semi-monthly, with a thirty-day time allowance for the trip each way – a schedule often bettered by four to six days. During 1857 and 1858 the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line was in regular operation. Changes were made for more frequent trips and payments increased to a rate of $196,000 per annum. But James E. Birch never knew what success had marked his undertaking.

Birch left San Francisco by sea on August 20, 1857, at a time when his first overland mails were miles short of their destinations; he was headed for Panama and another sea voyage to New York. On the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, Birch embarked on the side-wheel steamship Central America, hoping to reach Washington before the final award of contract for Route 12,578 on September 16. The Central America never made port, and Birch was one of 400 persons who lost their lives when the ship went down in a gale south of Cape Hatteras during the night of September 12.

After Birch’s death his mail line passed through several ownerships and as many vicissitudes, but continued to operate until 1860. John Butterfield was on the way and soon after his coaches started rolling. On September 15, 1858, the Birch contract was amended to eliminate service between El Paso and Fort Yuma. Only 831 miles of Birch’s original 1475-mile route was left for his successors — the San Antonio-El Paso section and the rugged stretch from Fort Yuma to San Diego.

Even in the year of its greatest activity, in 1858, the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line bad been far from successful as an economic operation. During that period, with a contract from the Post Office Department for $196,000, the total receipts for postal service over the line had totaled just $601 — percentage-wise, the poorest in the United States.

There is evidence of relief between the lines of the report of Postmaster General Joseph Holt, dated December 1, 1860:

“Within the past year that portion of the route between San Diego and Fort Yuma was discontinued as entirely useless.”

Note: Documentation for this paper, unless otherwise indicated in the text, is in Reports of the Postmaster General for the years 1855-1861. inclusive; Executive Documents and Maps for the same period, and Hearings Before The Surveyor General of The United States, 1873; Wells Fargo & Company reports, 1857-1861.


James E. Birch

Among the incidents demonstrating the coolness and courage of individuals may be mentioned the conduct of James E. Birch, ex-president of the California Stage Company. Seeing him without a life preserver, a few minutes before the last plunge, Gabriel Brush, the baggage-master … supplied one to him, and offered to buckle it around his waist. Birch refused – saying that there was no chance to preserve life by such means – that he would perish from the cold, and that it would but prolong his Misery to float upon the waves . . . Lighting another cigar, he turned aside – and was never seen after the ship went down.

S. F. Bulletin, Oct. 24, 1857


So died, at the age of twenty-nine, James E. Birch, founder of the first regularly scheduled transWntinental mail line. He was lost in the sinking of the steamer Central America in a gale off Cape Hatteras, Sept. 12, 1857, just four days after the first mail reached San Diego. It is interesting to note that the Bulletin chose to identify him as “ex-president of the California Stage Company” rather than as president of the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line. Selection of San Diego as western terminus of the Birch mail was not popular in the Bay City.