10 The Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Los Angeles Region in the Nineteenth Century

Saturday, January 9, 2010
Elizabeth Ballroom E (Hyatt)
Karen Jenks , University of California, Irvine
The Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Los Angeles Region in the Nineteenth Century

Karen Jenks

PhD Candidate, History, UC Irvine

A common thread that links the Los Angeles region and the Pacific is the central role of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  The daily operations of the nation’s top container ports affect competing interests in the littoral zone, including the economy, environment, migration, and the nationalization of ocean space.  My poster presentation explores the role of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in southern California’s oceanic connections during the nineteenth century.  Exchanges of people, goods, and information in the Pacific contributed to the escalating growth of the Los Angeles region in the early twentieth century.

Recovering relationships between the Los Angeles region and Pacific commerce is an important part of my dissertation on entrepreneurship and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in the nineteenth century.  Begun with a contract to carry the U.S. Mail, the Pacific Mail was the first American-flagged steamship fleet in the Pacific and a decisive step toward pervasive steam transportation in the world’s largest ocean.  My dissertation examines impacts of trade and government funding across the company's routes.  The Pacific Mail is most known today for its Gold Rush voyages between Panama and San Francisco in the mid-nineteenth century and for its role in Asian immigration and transpacific communities after 1865.  Company directors took the firm into bankruptcy in 1915 and its ships became part of other steamship lines. 

My poster presentation discusses why the Pacific Mail’s relationship with Los Angeles and southern California was uneven and intermittent.  Although Pacific trade was important, the company’s steamers bypassed Los Angeles during the Gold Rush, calling at San Diego instead, and in the early 1850s Los Angeles merchants complained that unreliable steamer service was damaging their business with San Francisco, a global destination.  Using newspaper accounts and correspondence, I discuss the Pacific Mail’s attempts in the 1850s and 1870s to run a coastal line that called at Los Angeles and smaller California ports.  The ventures ended after a few years with the company selling steamers to competitors who went on to create profitable niches in the shipping business. 

My study of the Pacific Mail and southern California overlaps with themes relevant to other fields of study.  A framework of ocean-based connections contributes to a new literature on the interconnections of southern California, the U.S. West, and the Pacific.  I inquire into the meanings of relationships and hierarchies among ports and situate a region within a group of ports and trading patterns.  My study gives attention to the material connections of the ocean and recognition of the littoral zone as a distinct region.  The visual qualities of a poster lend themselves to my topic:  maps convey the scope of the Pacific Mail’s coastal route and the use of color clarifies the company’s involvement over time.

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