Updated: Jun 21
Stamp collectors, especially those who specialize in classic covers, are, for all intents and purposes, curators of historical artifacts. The items we acquire are ours only for a short period of time. It is incumbent on us to not only celebrate what we have in our collections, but to safeguard those items for future collectors and historians. I was reminded of that duty when I acquired the stampless folded letter shown in Figures 1 and 2 at a stamp show in June 2023.
This three-page folded letter has some interesting philatelic features, but the contents are quite remarkable. It contains the names of eight individuals who played parts - some minor, some prominent - in the history of Green Bay, Wisconsin and the westward expansion of the United States.
This letter was posted from Green Bay, which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory, to New York City on 16 September 1842. It has a red circular date stamp (CDS) that measures 30 millimeters in diameter. This CDS is listed on page 442 of the 5th edition of volume 1 of the American Stampless Cover Catalog published in 1997.
The cost of mailing this letter from Green Bay to New York City in 1842 was 25-cents (note the manuscript "25" in the upper right-hand corner), a considerable sum of money at the time. That would be equivalent to paying almost $10 to mail a letter in 2023!
The letter likely departed Green Bay by steamboat and sailed through the Great Lakes before arriving at the Erie Canal. From the western terminus of the Erie Canal, it was a quick trip across upstate New York and then down the Hudson River to New York City. From the dates scribbled on the back of the folded letter (see Figure 2), it appears the letter was received in New York City on 29 September 1842, just two weeks after departing Green Bay. Another date on the back of the letter is 5 October 1842; that could be the date the letter was responded to or filed away.
That's all very interesting, for sure, but the "wow" factor for me comes from the people mentioned in this letter. They are a "who's who" of Green Bay and American history.
Let's start with the recipient of the letter - John Jacob Astor (Figure 3). Born in 1763 in Germany, Astor arrived in the U.S. shortly after the American Revolutionary War. As Americans expanded west, he saw great potential in the fur trade and formed the American Fur Company (AFC) in 1808. By monopolizing the fur trade in America, Astor became incredibly wealthy. When he died in 1848, he was the wealthiest man in America, and if his wealth were measured as a percentage of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, he would rank as one of the richest Americans of all-time. As the popularity of furs in fashion declined, Astor withdrew from the AFC in 1834 and devoted his considerable wealth to real estate development, primarily in New York but also in, of all places, Green Bay.
Green Bay is one of the oldest cities in America. A French trading post was established there in 1634, but the town really came into its own as a trading center when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825. Between then and when Wisconsin became a state in 1848, its economy was inextricably linked with the fur trade and specifically with Astor's AFC. Astor took great interest in ensuring that Green Bay would attract settlers from the east, and towards that objective, Astor along with his business partners Ramsey Crooks (Figure 4) and Robert Stuart (Figure 5) founded the town of Astor in 1835. Both Crooks and Ramsey are mentioned in this letter.
Crooks was born in Scotland in 1787 and immigrated to Montreal in 1803. He was deeply involved in the fur trade with Astor and was president of the AFC from 1834 to 1839. He passed away in 1859 in New York City. Like Crooks, Stuart was born in Scotland and immigrated to Montreal. He became associated with Astor in 1817 or 1819. He developed the Pacific Fur Company for Astor and was manager for the AFC's Northern Department based on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Stuart passed away in Detroit in 1848.
In 1838, the town of Astor combined with the town of Navarino to form the borough of Green Bay. Astor built a fine hotel named the Astor House to attract future settlers to the area. He also erected the Astor Warehouse and built a dock nearby the hotel to accommodate the arrival of goods.
Astor needed someone to manage his holdings in Green Bay and that was the role that Nathan Goodell (Figure 6), the letter writer, took on.
Goodell was born in Connecticut in 1798. He first visited Green Bay in 1831 when he passed through on his way to supply goods to Fort Winnebago, which was situated on the Fox River about 120 miles southwest of Green Bay. He returned to Green Bay in 1840 and would remain there for the rest of his life. In addition to being an agent for Astor's estate, he kept a store and worked as a steamboat agent at the Astor Warehouse. He was a prominent figure in Green Bay politics and was elected mayor twice - in 1859 and again in 1864. He also served as superintendent of streets, a position he held for most of the time he resided in Green Bay. Goodell died in 1883. His obituary in the 4 June 1883 Green Bay Press-Gazette was profusive in its praise of his contributions to the city.
The letter that Goodell penned to Astor (Figures 7 through 9) is written in a crisp and clear hand. Goodell is amenable to working as agent for Astor but explains that he would prefer a cash salary rather than having, as proposed "by yourself, Mr. Crooks & Mr. Stuart," occupancy of the "public house," which would be the Astor House, or receiving the rent on the Astor House. With respect to the former, Goodell feigns that his family would not be up to the task. As far as receiving the rent on the Astor House, Goodell argues that "it would be impossible to rent the house for much" given current economic conditions. Goodell is likely referring to the Panic of 1837 that devastated the United States's economy. That economic downturn was one of the most severe in American history, and its effects were still being felt in places like Green Bay as late as the mid-1840s.
Unlike his own family, Goodell praises a "Mr. Green" as being "well qualified" to manage the Astor House. That would be Thomas Green who was born in New York in 1789 and passed away in Green Bay in 1862. Green was a famous landlord in Green Bay in the 1840s, and his stewardship of the Astor House, including details on a New Year's Ball hosted in 1846, is described in some detail in an early 20th century edition of the Green Bay Historical Bulletin (volume 3, number 6, pp. 1-10).
Goodell informs Astor that as he "told Mr. Woodruff & Mr. Stocking," he would be more than happy to attend to Astor's interests but for a salary not for in-kind income. "Mr. Woodruff" was Norris Woodruff, who was born in Connecticut in 1792 and died in New York in 1857. When Woodruff passed through Green Bay is not known, but he was there in 1836 when he acquired some land with Astor and obviously in 1842 when he and Stocking had their conversation with Goodell.
"Mr. Stocking" was probably Samuel Stocking, who was born in Massachusetts in 1799 and passed away in Ohio in 1860. Like Woodruff, I'm not sure when Stocking was in Green Bay, but he was certainly there in 1842 and his name also appears in a 25 June 1844 issue of the Green Bay Republican together with Woodruff's in connection with a civil lawsuit.
Goodell is not done name dropping in his letter. He informs Astor that "Gov. Doty has long been acquainted with the services required" to perform as agent and Goodell is "perfectly willing to leave it with [Gov. Doty] to say or state the sum" that Goodell should receive as agent.
"Gov. Doty" was James Duane Doty (Figure 10), who was born in New York in 1799 and died in 1865 in Utah. Doty was a land speculator and politician. In 1842, he was governor of the Wisconsin Territory, a position he was appointed to by President John Tyler in 1841 and would hold until 1844. He represented Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849 to 1853, and in the last two years of his life, he served as governor of Utah Territory, an appointment made by President Abraham Lincoln.
As the very end of the letter are pencil inscriptions. The speculation is those are notes made by Astor, but they also could have been made by a clerk or one of Astor's associates.
Several of the individuals mentioned in this letter are memorialized in places throughout the country:
Astor bequeathed a major sum to build the Astor Library, which was consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to form the New York Public Library in 1895.
The neighborhood of Astoria in Queens, New York, Astor Place street in Manhattan, the town of Astoria, Oregon, and the neighborhood of Astor in Green Bay are all named after John Jacob Astor.
Goodell Street in Green Bay is named in honor of Nathan Goodell, an apropos designation given his many years serving as superintendent of streets.
One of the historic buildings at Fort Mackinac is named The Robert Stuart House, and the Robert Stuart Middle School in Twin Falls is named after him.
Both the community of Dotyville, Wisconsin and Doty, Wisconsin were named in honor of James Duane Doty.
At some point, I can see this letter being added to the Baker Library Special Collections and Archives at Harvard Business School. That library holds a large number of Astor's business records, as well as Goodell's papers from 1842 through 1861.
I'm a philatelist, and I enjoy learning about the design and printing of stamps and how postal items have been transported throughout the world from the stampless era through today. But for me, philately is so much more than that. It's learning something about people from long ago who used stamps and the postal system and then preserving and sharing that knowledge with future generations of collectors. I consider that a privilege but also a duty, and I'm sure many stamp collectors feel the same.
Transcription of letter:
Astor Sept. 15, 1842
J.J. Astor Esq.
Your communication under date of 31st ultimo has just come to hand. I would respectfully inform you that upon the receipt of your letter bearing date 19th July signed by yourself, Mr. Crooks & Mr. Stuart I wrote you as follows viz:
Astor 17th 1842 August
On my return yesterday after a few days absence I found a communication signed by yourself, Mr. Crooks & Mr. Stuart authorizing me to take the supervision of your interest at this place upon conditions that I were willing to do so and receive the occupancy of the public house and appurtenances, or the rent of the same for my services. I must by leave to decline your proposition as I could not occupy the house myself, my family being very feeble and perfectly inadequate to the task. And as business is at present so perfectly at a stand that it would be impossible to rent the house for much in case Mr. Green should leave it. There must have been some misunderstanding between Mr. Woodruff, Mr. Stocking & myself if they understood me to say that I wish for the house and in our conversation I observed to Mr. Woodruff that if I had a family as well qualified to keep the house as Mr. Green has, I could make money by keeping it & further that such a house so well furnished ought to rent for something even [in] these hard times. I think so still. Nevertheless, I do not want the house. Neither could I rent it for anything like a sum equivalent to fair compensation for the services required, to look after & protect the interest of the company at this place. Had I the charge of the house I of course should do the best possible for the interest of the company as well as in everything else. I am satisfied that by next spring I can get somebody into the house that would pay rent. I should be glad as I told Mr. Woodruff & Mr. Stocking to receive the agency & attend to your interest & should you feel disposed to favor me with your
business, I should wish for a salary & of course I should look after the interest of the house spoken of and your interest in general. As attentively I endeavor to promote your interest in this country as much as I should were I confined to the rent of the house and that $1000 per year.
From my observations since I have been in this place in relation to the services required to take care of your interest here, to secure your property & keep (illegible) three hundred dollars per year would be no more than a fair compensation. For this sum I am willing to do the best that I can do to promote your interest here. At the same time I would respectfully inform you that I only want what shall be considered a fair compensation and as Gov. Doty has long been acquainted with the services required, I am perfectly willing to leave it with him to say or state the sum that I shall receive should you prefer consulting him in preference to closing with my proposition.
But should you not choose to do either permit me to acknowledge the receipt of another letter from you this day under date 3rd inst. desiring me to redeem certain lots which have been sold for taxes. This service I will attend to with pleasure whether you think proper to employ me as your agent or not.
I will find you the voucher for the payment of the taxes when I draw upon you for the amount.
With much respect,
I am dear sir
Astor Sept. 15, 1842
J.J. Astor Esq.
Since the receipt of your letter under date of 19th July appointing me your agent upon conditions & at the same time securing authority from Gov. Doty to act while my appointment should be settled, I have taken to a certain extent the supervision of your interest here and have sold (illegible) lots for $250 payable $50 on or before the middle of October next and the remainder one year thereafter with interest which I consider a very good sale & I am offered $100 for one other lot payable $50 on this sale & the balance one year thereafter with interest.
I have also leased two lots for 10 years upon conditions (illegible) that the proprietor pay all taxes and encloses the same with a good post and board fence (illegible) on a good building for a blacksmith shop & a good framed dwelling house. The lots are enclosed already with a good fence. The shop is (illegible) on and the man at work in it daily and a good frame is already up for the house and will be enclosed this fall and I can rent the Astor House for $100 for one year which I prefer to do but decline leasing it at that rate for a longer time for I believe at the expiration of one year it will rent for $200 if not three. Mr. Green the present incumbent is going to leave in a few days. I hope my letter of the 17th (illegible) has reached you ere this.
Your obedient servant
[Pencil writing; maybe Astor?]
What lots they above 2 are
We know not what lot for which $50 is offered is give particularly.
What are the lots he has leased for ten years.
Letting Astor House at $100
(illegible) out inventory of furniture with (illegible) value
Figure 1 - Front.
Figure 2 - Back
Figure 3 - John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) by John Wesley Jarvis. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
Figure 4 - Ramsay Crooks (1787-1859). Source: Milwaukee County Historical Society.
Figure 5 - Robert Stuart (1785-1848). Source: Wikipedia.
Figure 6 - Nathan Goodell (1789-1883). Source: Mayors of Green Bay, Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
Figure 7 - Page 1 of letter.
Figure 8 - Page 2 of letter.
Figure 9 - Page 3 of letter.
Figure 10 - James Duane Doty (1799-1865), photo by Matthrew Brady. Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.