The Story of... America's 1898 issue Trans-Mississippi stamps

It's often the case with collectibles, including stamps, that the most coveted pieces begin with issues and examples which aren't initially popular.

There are a number of well-known examples such as the Double Geneva - which is worth a great deal partly as a result of its limited initial success - whilst the 1c Z-grill of Bill Gross's famous swap was never valued in its time.

In the world of coins, the 'Washlady Dollar' received its nickname from a contemptuous remark about its appearance.

The Trans-Mississippi issue was released in 1898 to coincide with the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha, which was held from June 1 to November 1, 1898. There were no complaints about the way the stamp looked.

The William McKinley-appointed Postmaster General, James A. Gary, authorised the release of the commemorative set, which originally comprised eight stamps and was expanded to nine with the addition of the $2 value.

The full set was placed on sale at post offices on June 17, 1898. The stamps were intended to capture the spirit of the Western frontier, with depictions of farming, buffalo hunting, mining, and westward expansion among its themes.

Today, the Trans-Mississippi stamps represent the pinnacle of the engraver's art. The $1 Trans-Mississippi, depicting "Cattle in Storm," has often been called the most beautiful United States stamp ever produced.

However, the stamp-collecting community protested strongly against the new issue at the time. With the high cost of the Columbian issue fresh in collectors' minds and those stamps still available at a few branches, many felt that the Post Office Department was taking advantage of collectors with yet another expensive new issue.

This sentiment was further reinforced when the $2 denomination was added to the set. At the end of 1898, deliveries to post offices of the Trans-Mississippi issue were discontinued. Post offices with remaining stocks of the issue on hand returned them for credit, and most remaining stocks were destroyed.

Unfortunately, records were not kept of the quantity of each denomination destroyed, and so the number sold is not known. The set was originally intended to be the Post Office Department's second bi-colour stamp issue, after the 1869 definitive series.

Due to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and the need for revenue stamps, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing could not meet the production requirements of the new issue and so the bi-colour plan was abandoned and the stamps were issued in single colours.

The 1¢ value, depicting Father Jacques Marquette, originally depicted a herd of bison. The Marquette vignette is based on a painting by William Lamprecht, located at Marquette University.

The 2¢ also underwent a design change, first appearing as the James B. Eads Bridge design in the bicoloured die proofs and then being switched with the $2.00 for the Farming in the West scene, which was based on a photograph taken on one of the farms of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

Trans-Mississippi stamp Western Cattle
Trans-Mississippi stamp: Western Cattle

The 4¢ originally depicted a Cheyenne warrior based on a drawing by Frederick Remington, but instead the "Indian Hunting Buffalo" vignette was used. The 5¢ depicts "The Pathfinder," explorer and Army officer John C. Fremont.

The 8¢ and 50¢ values depict troops guarding a wagon train and a western mining prospector, both based on drawings by Remington. The source for the 10¢ stamp, showing the hardships of emigration, was discovered by Gary Griffith while visiting the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1992.

It is based on a drawing that was derived from a print of the painting Hardships of Emigration by Augustus G. Heaton, who also painted The Recall of Columbus, the basis of the 50¢ Columbian stamp. The $1, titled "Western Cattle in Storm," was derived from a painting called The Vanguard by Scottish painter, John A. MacWhirter. Ironically, the painting actually depicts a herd of Scottish cattle.

Trans-Mississippi stamps are well-worth looking out for at auction as high-quality examples can make good investments, as was seen in 2010, notably in March at Spink.


Join our readers in over 200 countries around the world - sign up for your free weekly Collectibles Newsletter today

Featured products

Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Sale price£399
In stock
Fidel Castro signed certificateFidel Castro Signed Certificate
Fidel Castro signed certificate
Sale price£2,995
In stock
King Henry VIII Autographed DocumentKing Henry VIII Autographed Document
King Henry VIII Autographed Document
Sale price£55,000
In stock