THE 1898 TRANS-MISSISSIPPI EXPOSITION COMMEMORATIVE POSTAGE STAMPS
Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Omaha Daily Bee and an organizer of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and Indian Congress, convinced Postmaster General James A. Gary to issue a set of nine stamps to commemorate the Trans-Mississippi Exposition being held in Omaha to promote development of the midwest and west. The stamps were released June 17, 1898, more than two weeks after the Exposition opened. Besides the 1893 Columbian Issue, these would be the only other U.S. commemorative stamps issued during the 19th century. Highly prized by collectors today, the finely engraved stamps depict various scenes of the west. As with the Columbian stamps, the Trans-Mississippis had double-width stamp formats to accommodate the beautiful art shown in each vignette. Stamp collectors, who were still unhappy about the high price of the Columbian Issue of 1893 ($16.34 for the complete set of 16, a princely sum at the time), protested Postmaster Gary’s announcement of the new stamp series but the Postmaster was unmoved, saying he decided on the issue “because I wanted to help the people of the west.” The complete set of Trans-Mississippi stamps had a face value of $3.80. The $1 and $2 values never sold as well as anticipated.
Favorably received by the general public, the stamps went off sale at the end of the year, and postmasters were directed to return unsold stock for incineration. Although the numbers printed are known, the numbers returned were not recorded, and so the current numbers of existing stamps are unknown.
The stamps, designed by Raymond Ostrander Smith, feature ears of wheat and corn appear in odd corners of the frame. Each center design is inscribed with its title. The frame shape is the same on each stamp. Each stamp shows the numerals of value and “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” at the top; and “POSTAGE” with a spelled-out value at the bottom up through the 50¢ denomination, the dollar values being in numerals.
All the values from 1¢ to $2 were printed from plates of 100 stamps and were printed on double-line watermarked paper.
Surprisingly, the designs of the Trans-Mississippi stamps have no direct connection to the Exposition. Unlike the Columbians, the Trans-Mississippi stamps bear no dates and the illustrations bear only the title of the painting or photograph used. There is no obvious relationship between the stamps. No element of any of the stamps bears any relationship to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
The Trans-Mississippi stamps are each printed in one color, though that was not the original plan. Meant to be printed in two colors, the borders in various colors and the vignettes in black, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing proved unable to provide the bi-color stamps in a timely manner. It was now required to produce large numbers of revenue stamps due to the Spanish-American War, putting pressure on the demands of the Bureau. It was determined to print the Trans-Mississippi stamps in single colors in order to save labor and press time.
1¢ Stamp: Marquette on the Mississippi
Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, led a small expedition from Lake Superior into the valley of the Mississippi River, following it downstream to the Arkansas and then returning north. The 1¢ stamp depicts Marquette near the junction of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers in 1674. Used to pay the 1¢ postcard rate, nearly 71 million of these stamps were printed.
2¢ Stamp: Farming in the West
The image on the 2¢ stamp includes a line of horse-drawn plows on a field of wheat stubble in the background. The team, with 61 horses and extensive machinery, is in the process of going back and forth across an entire section of land (640 acres) on what was known at the time as a “bonanza farm”. Although the 2¢ stamp violates the rule then in force that no living person could be depicted on a U.S. postal issue, farm worker Ed Nybakken, field boss Elihu Barber, and foreman Sam White are shown in the foreground. A gust of wind snatched Nybakken’s hat just as the picture was taken, covering his face and that is reproduced on this stamp. The Amenia and Sharon Land Company benefitted greatly from the use of its photograph, which served as an advertisement for the corporation. The company purchased large numbers of the 2¢ stamp and used them for all its correspondence for years afterward.
More 2¢ stamps were printed than any other of the Trans-Mississippis: a total of almost 160 million – this is because the stamp paid domestic first-class postage.
4¢ Stamp: Indian Hunting Buffalo
The image on the orange 4¢Trans-Mississippi was taken from an engraving by Captain S. Eastman that appeared in Volume IV of “Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States” by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, published in Philadelphia in 1854. The original engraving includes another Indian mounted on a horse firing his arrow at a second buffalo, but these figures were removed from the stamp design in favor of the single Indian chasing a buffalo in the foreground. The stamp’s vignette was engraved by G. F. C. Smillie. This stamp covered double the regular first-class rate. Almost 5 million of these stamps were produced. In modern times it is particularly rewarding to find the stamp in bright color, as the orange inks of the late 1800s are prone to oxidation and fading.
5¢ Stamp: Fremont on Rocky Mountains
John Charles Fremont, was one of the most colorful characters in 19th century American history. In addition to his early career as Western explorer, he was a U.S. Senator, territorial governor, Republican Party founder, and Presidential candidate in 1856 (under the slogan, “Free men, Free soil, Fremont”). He is depicted on the 5¢ stamp planting a flag on a peak in the Rocky Mountains. About 7.5 million stamps were printed with an unknown number destroyed after the stamps were recalled in 1899. Because 5¢ paid the first-class letter rate to Europe, many 5¢ Trans-Mississippis ended up there.
8¢ Stamp: Troops Guarding Train
The picture shows a long train of covered wagons, filled with emigrants and their families, slowly wending their way across the seemingly unending plains. Frequent Indian attacks made constant guarding of the trains a necessity. The violet brown 8¢ Trans-Mississippi depicts a scene highly evocative of the Wild West. This stamp was mainly used for covering the fee to send letters by registered mail. Close to 3 million of the 8¢ stamps were produced.
10¢ Stamp: Hardships of Emigration
Ten cents paid a combination of the registered mail fee and first-class postage. Slightly more than 4.5 million of the 10¢ value were printed. The 10¢ Trans-Mississippi depicts a dying horse in front of a lone covered wagon. Such a scene represented a tense moment in the lives of the emigrants, for loss of a horse under these circumstances was a serious thing.
50¢ Stamp: Western Mining Prospector
This vignette of this stamp is a classic Western scene showing an old prospector searching for gold along a mountain river. It was used as a “make-up” stamp for higher-postage items. About one-half million of these stamps were produced, with an unknown number later destroyed.
$1 Stamp: Western Cattle in Storm
While the entire Trans-Mississippi stamp set has been praised for its quality, the $1 value stands out from the rest. Considered by many collectors to be the finest United States commemorative stamp ever printed, the $1 Trans-Mississippi is also commonly known as the “Black Bull”. While the cattle pictured on the stamp are certainly representative of the American west, the scene was taken from an engraving by C. O. Murray of a painting by John A. MacWhirter entitled “The Vanguard”, which depicted cattle in the Scottish West Highlands.
Highly valued by collectors today, only 56,900 of these stamps were ever printed, an unknown number of which remained in stock after four months of sales and subsequently destroyed by the U.S. Postal Department. Although not terribly popular with collectors at the time it was first issued, the $1 “Western Cattle in Storm” has since received much praise by philatelists. In fact, this stamp consistently places in the top ten of the “100 Greatest American Stamps” surveys and publications.
$2 Stamp: Mississippi River Bridge
The $2 “Mississippi River Bridge” consistently ranks highly in the “100 Greatest American Stamps” surveys and publications. Although the Trans-Mississippi Exposition took place in Omaha, the city shown on the most costly of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Issue stamps is actually St. Louis, and the bridge is the Eads Bridge, completed in 1874. At its completion, the bridge was the longest in the world, at 6,442 feet. Only 56,200 stamps were ever printed, all in a single day’s run on June 3, 1898. Many were destroyed in March, 1899 after they failed to sell. It is estimated that only around 25,000 remain in existence today.
Families of pioneers swept westward and founded new communities throughout what is now the midwest after the War of 1812. Much of America’s attention turned to exploration and settlement of the western territory, which had been greatly enlarged by the Louisiana Purchase. Six new states were admitted to the Union between 1816 – 1821.
A major aspect of the conquest of the west was the removal of the Indians who dwelled there. Under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, the Indians who remained east of the Mississippi were cruelly and violently driven from their homes and concentrated in reservations in what is now Oklahoma. The U.S. Army crushed any resistance to removal. With the west cleared of this obstacle, American westerners focused on developing new methods of transporting their goods to market. The canal and railroad systems, which grew up in the north, facilitated a much larger volume of trade and manufacturing while reducing costs a great deal.
The land boom was fed by encouragement from the federal government and the actions of land speculators who bought up large tracts of land in order to sell it in parcels to farmers at exorbitant prices. Great cities sprang up throughout the north and northwest, bolstered by the improvement in transportation. The farmers did not mind high prices and high interest on loans due to the growing success of American agricultural cash croppers who sometimes neglected subsistence farming in order to focus on marketable commodities. Soon the farmers’ dependence on distant markets caught up with them, however, as the state bank system that had sprung up to support speculation collapsed, dragging agricultural prices and land values down with it. Many western settlers suffered greatly during the Panic of 1819, but most survived and continued the conquest of the West.
Focus turned toward the far west after the midwest had been substantially developed. The territory of Texas, controlled by the Spanish, was settled by Americans, who eventually undertook the Texas Rebellion in efforts to win independence. When the United States admitted Texas to the Union in 1845, the Mexican government was outraged, and from 1846 – 1848, the two nations squared off in the Mexican-American War. With a resounding victory, the United States gained control of Texas, New Mexico, and California. The Oregon territory was annexed in 1846 as well, and the U.S. controlled the land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
As the population of the west soared and the prospects of statehood for western territories appeared clearer and clearer, the nation battled over the future of slavery in the west. This dispute was one reason for the Civil War, which slowed the acceleration of expansion. However, the last three decades of the 19th century saw the return of accelerating expansion due to the successful struggle to contain the Plains Indians in reservations and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. By the early 20th century, the organization of the west was completed, and the United States consisted of all 48 contiguous states.
1898 THE BACKSTORY
Near the turn of the 20th century, the United States became a world power. The Gilded Age (about 1870s – about 1900) was almost over and the Gay Nineties (1890 – 1899) nearly so. Our nation was still in the early days of the Progressive Era (1890s – 1920s). The transformation of the United States from an agricultural to an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society brought about large economic, political, diplomatic, social, environmental, and cultural changes.
The late 19th century saw the beginnings of the modern U.S. industrial economy. The 1880s and 1890s were years of unprecedented technological innovation, mass immigration, and intense political partisanship, including disputes over currency, tariffs, political corruption and railroad and business trusts. A national transportation and communication network was created and the corporation became the dominant form of business organization.
The advent of new communication technologies came in the late 1890s, including the phonograph, the telephone, and radio; the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines; the growth of commercialized entertainment; new sports including basketball, bicycling, and football; and the appearance of new transportation technologies such as the automobile, electric trains and trolleys.
- February 12 – The electric car belonging to one Henry Lindfield runs away on a hill in London and hits a tree. He was the world’s first fatality from an auto accident on a public road.
- February 15 – The S.S. Maine explodes and sinks in Havana harbor, Cuba, killing 266 men. Popular opinion blames Spain and helps bring on the Spanish–American War.
- March 28 – After an investigation, the U.S. Navy publicly concludes that the U.S.S. Maine was sunk by a mine, further pushing sentiment towards war.
- April 5 – Annie Oakley promotes the service of women in combat situations with the United States military. She writes a letter to President McKinley” offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should war break out with Spain.”
- April 25 –The United States declares war on Spain.
- June 1 – The Trans-Mississippi Exposition world’s fair opens in Omaha, Nebraska.
- July 1 – American forces capture the San Juan Heights near Santiago de Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt memorably leads the charge of the Rough Riders.
- July 7 – The United States annexes the Hawaiian Islands.
- November 26 – A 2-day blizzard known as the Portland Gale piles snow in Boston, Massachusetts, and severely impacts the Massachusetts fishing industry and several coastal New England towns.
- December 10 – The Treaty of Paris is signed, ending the Spanish–American War.
THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION and concurrent INDIAN CONGRESS
The Trans-Mississippi International Exposition of 1898 and the concurrent Indian Congress were held in Omaha, Nebraska from June 1 to November 1, 1898. Business and community leaders from the 24 states and territories lying west of the Mississippi River saw the Trans-Mississippi Exposition as a way to revitalize the regional economy and to show that the West had recovered from the financial Panic of 1893. This world’s fair would showcase the developed West from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. During the four months of the Exposition, more than 2,600,000 people came to view its 4,062 exhibits featuring social achievements, economic productivity and community growth of the western region. The Exposition covered about 108 city blocks and 180 acres, including a lagoon 2,000 feet long surrounded by 21 classical buildings. The grand buildings of the Exposition no longer exist because most of the structures were built using “staff”, an intentionally temporary material, in order to keep the cost of these immense buildings down.
Opening at the time it did – at the end of nearly a decade of depression – the Exposition had wide grassroots support, and crowds were good despite official fears that the Spanish-American War would cut into the response of the public. The 1890s had been hard and difficult times throughout the country but more especially on the Plains. Within the confines of the Exposition, surrounded by beauty and splendor, Trans-Mississippi visitors could forget their worries for awhile. The fantasy of the newly constructed fairgrounds dimmed serious matters by pointing to the future and its promise. A new era seemed already at hand. TheTrans-Mississippi Exposition was a smaller event than the 1893 Columbian Exposition and would be dwarfed by the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition to be held several years later in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Trans-Mississippi International Exposition was first planned as a symbol of progress achieved in only one area of the country, but so vast and so rich was the region that the fair’s first flush of success was heralded as a triumph for the entire country. Parades, speeches, and music highlighted the Opening Day ceremonies. Orators were flushed with pride in the accomplishments of the West and starry-eyed in their predictions of future greatness. Musical and art exhibitions contributed to the cultural aspect of the fair, while the Midway offered a refreshing diversion for visitors. Of the 45 states in the Union at the time, 28 took part in the Exposition. All 19 states and three territories west of the Mississippi River participated. Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin, Montana, New York, and Georgia erected private buildings to focus on the special nature of their respective states. Every participating state placed exhibits in the various Exposition buildings in an attempt to impress fair-goers with its wealth and natural resources.
The official and high-minded rule for Midway amusements was that they should not be permitted to “descend to the low plane of questionable attractions.” Because of this rule, the Midway “maintained unusual popularity to the end.” However, the propriety of a group of girls performing at a concession known as the “Streets of Cairo” was questioned, and Abraham L. Reed, head of the concessions department, took action that forced the girls to moderate their dancing. Fair-goers had the opportunity to see several other so-called living ethnological exhibits. The Chinese Village, organized by a Chinese-owned trading company from Chicago, secured the transport of more than 200 “artisans” from China to the Exposition. At the conclusion of the Expo, it was discovered that the exhibit had been a front to circumvent immigration law. All of the “artisans” had disappeared from Omaha. An exhibit of the soon-to-be annexed Hawaiian Islands included a colony of natives occupying “primitive huts.” The Hawaiians were said to be wearing costumes and using tools from “when the Islanders were in a savage state.”
Another historically significant part of the Exposition was the Indian Congress that ran from August 4 through October 31, 1898.
Occurring within a decade of the end of the Indian Wars, the gathering allowed social and cultural exchange between tribes and educational opportunity for visitors. It was the largest Native American gathering of its kind up to that date. While the original intention of the Exposition organizing committee was to illustrate the daily life, industry and traits of as many tribes as possible, once the Congress was open, authorities realized that the average person wanted to see dances, games, races, ceremonials and sham battles. Promoters erected a 5,000 seat grandstand, and arranged the tribes in reenactments of battles which soon were the main activities of the Indian Congress along with the Ghost Dance. The photographs of the Indian Congress include up to 500 individuals from 35 tribes including the Apache chief, Geronimo.
The Indian camp was located adjacent to the Exposition grounds. According to one contemporary report, the weather “…has been trying in the extreme… Most of the time we have had extreme heat accompanied by dry, hot winds, which rendered camp life anything but pleasant, the conditions being rendered somewhat worse by our location. Following close upon the heated period we have just had a week of cold, heavy rains which made the camp and life in it more disagreeable even than it was during the hot spell.”
Frank A. Rinehart, the Exposition’s official photographer, and his assistant, Adolph Muhr, made photographs of the Native American attendees. Rinehart made several hundred pictures, regarded as one of the most complete, unstaged, realistic collections of Native American portraits in existence. Rinehart and Muhr took many of their photographs in a studio and others in the Indian camp.
Exciting sights and sounds at the Exposition
- August 31 – The organizing committee declared “Cody Day” in honor of Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody brought his “world-famous” Wild West Show back to the Omaha Driving Park where it was formally founded several years earlier.
- October 12 – was “President’s Day” at the Expo and featured a speech by President William McKinley focused on international affairs and the necessity of the U.S. not being isolationist.
- Sherman’s Umbrella, a “stupendous mechanical invention, standing 350 feet high and anchored in a stone foundation 30 feet deep and 75 feet square.” The ribs of this gigantic umbrella were 110 feet in length, with 16 cars, each carrying capacity of about 40 riders. The passengers enjoyed a merry-go-round ride at an elevation of 250 feet. At night the tower was brilliantly lit and could be seen 100 miles away.
- Cyclorama of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, a historically correct reproduction of this famous battle.
- Shooting the Chutes was one of the most healthful, invigorating and joyous amusements of the day. The plant erected at the Exposition was to cost $25,000, and be the largest in existence. It was built in the fashion of a huge toboggan slide, with boats full of passengers rushing down a steep incline and bounding over the water in the lake.
- German, Irish, Chinese, Tyrolean, Moorish and other national villages abounded, showing the “true home life, architecture, costumes, etc., of the people represented.”