In early colonial times, correspondents depended on friends, merchants, and Native Americans to carry messages among the colonies. In 1639, Richard Fairbanks’ tavern in Boston was designated the first official repository of mail brought from or sent overseas (consistent with the European practice of using coffee houses and taverns as mail stations.)
On July 26, 1775 (shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775,) the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War,) members of the Second Continental Congress agreed that a Postmaster General be appointed for the United Colonies. That year, Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General of the Postal Service.
A couple years later (January 20, 1778,) Captain James Cook, made ‘contact’ with the Islands and anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River on Kauai’s southwestern shore. After a couple of weeks, there, they headed to the west coast of North America.
Like early mail exchange in the American Colonies, following Cook’s contact, mail in Hawaiʻi was handled privately by employing forwarders or by making arrangements directly with a ship captain; most letters were folded inward and sealed so the address could be written on the blank outer side. (HawaiianStamps)
Hawaiʻi and the United States agreed on a ‘Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation and Extradition, December 20, 1849;’ among other things, Article 15 of the Treaty created an arrangement for delivery of mail. (State Department)
“Whereas a treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation, between the United States of America and his Majesty the King of the Hawaiian Islands, was concluded and signed at Washington, on the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-nine”.
“Mail arrangements – So soon as steam or other mail packets under the flag of either of the contracting parties shall have commenced running between their respective ports of entry, the contracting parties agree to receive at the post-offices of those ports all mailable matter, and to forward it as directed …”
“All mailable matter destined for the Hawaiian Islands shall be received at the several post-offices in the United States, and forwarded to San Francisco, or other ports on the Pacific coast of the United States, whence the postmasters shall despatch it by the regular mail packets to Honolulu …”
“It shall be optional to prepay the postage on letters in either country, but postage on printed sheets and newspapers shall in all cases be prepaid. The respective post-office departments of the contracting parties shall in their accounts, which are to be adjusted annually, be credited with all dead letters returned.” (US Statutes at Large and Treaties, 1845-1851)
On November 2, 1850, The Polynesian, “Official Journal of the Hawaiian Government,” announced it was keeping a letter bag open to receive letters and promised to place on board reliable vessels any letters deposited in its letter bag.
By 1850, almost all mail was being sent to/from Hawaiʻi via San Francisco to enter the mail stream there and be carried in the US mail via Panama to New York. (HawaiianStamps)
Hawaiʻi opened a post office at Honolulu and Henry Martyn Whitney (who worked at the Polynesian) was appointed Postmaster of Honolulu (December 22, 1850.) The location of the new post office was at the office of The Polynesian. (Whitney later left the Polynesian and started his own newspaper, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (forerunner of Honolulu Advertiser.))
During the fifty years of Hawaii’s independent postal system from 1850 to 1900, the post office occupied three premises: a room in The Polynesian Office (1850-1854;) rooms in Honolulu Hale, situated next door to The Polynesian Office (1854-1871;) and about half of the ground floor in the “New Post Office” (Kamehameha V Post Office, 1871-1922,) situated on the former site of The Polynesian Office.
On June 14, 1900, the Kamehameha V Post Office officially became a unit of the United States Post Office (the year that Hawaii became a Territory of the US.)
In 1922, the United States Post Office was moved to the Federal building and control of the old building was returned to the Territory of Hawaii. It was remodeled as a postal substation and for use as the Territorial Tax office. (NPS)
When Whitney was postmaster, he conceived and produced Hawaiʻi’s first stamps, issued in 1851 (the stamps are now called ‘Hawaiian Missionaries,’ all printed locally by letterpress at the Government Printing Office.
The stamps were in three denominations: a 2-cent stamp paid the newspaper rate, a 5-cent stamp paid the rate for regular mail to the United States, and a 13-cent stamp paid the rate to the US East Coast.
The first three stamps in the issue were announced for sale on October 1, 1851, at the Honolulu and Lahaina post offices. By early April, 1852, the fourth stamp was printed to correct confusion and state clearly the 13¢ value was to pay both Hawaiian and United States postage through to any East Coast United States destination.