US Trans-Mississippi Exposition Stamps – 1898

(By Hank van der Linde)



A set of nine stamps were issued in conjunction with the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition held in Omaha, Nebraska. The Exposition was to showcased the West with a focus on the First Americans, which were its most popular exhibits. Visitors to the Exposition exceeded expectations in large part due to the excellent rail services to Omaha.


Although the Exposition opened on June 1, 1898 the nine stamps were not issued until June 17, 1898. The production of these stamps was actually a very quick endeavour compared to the time it takes to produce stamps today. Edward Rosewater, the publisher of the Omaha Daily Bee, who was in charge of publicity for the Exposition, suggested to Postmaster-General James A. Gary on December 13, 1897 that special stamps be issued. He agreed 10 days later promising that a series of five stamps ranging from one cent to one dollar would be issued. Philatelists protested because they were still upset at the high price of the Columbian Issue of 1893 (combined value of $16.34). Gary rejected their complaints with a statement that he wanted to help the people of the West. He subsequently made the set more expensive by adding four additional stamps including a $2.00 denomination.


The original plan was to produce the stamps with coloured frames and black centres, which would have required a two stage printing process. However, as a result of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April, 1898 the decision was made to produce the stamps in single colors. This decision by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing resulted from the need to produce large numbers of revenue stamps hence it was necessary to reduce the printing time of the Trans-Mississippi Issues. Despite the short cut, the stamps did not go on sale until two weeks after the Exposition opened.


The stamps were very favourably received by the general public, if not by philatelists. The number of stamps printed for each issue is known but as all unsold stock was returned and destroyed but not recorded after December 31, 1898, the number of sold stamps is not known.


The stamps were designed by Raymond Ostrander Smith all have the same frame with wheat in the top corners and corn in the lower ones. Each centre is titled at the bottom of the design.


On June 18, 1998 the USPS reissued the set of nine commemoratives as they were originally intended to be issued; in two colors. A second change from the 1898 issue was a switch of the 2-cent and 2-dollar designs; more about that later.




Each stamp in the set has a story behind it.


One Cent – Dark Green - Marquette on the Mississippi


The design was inspired by a painting by William Lamprecht currently in the library of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Originally this was to be entitled “Marquette discovers the Mississippi” however it was erroneous as the French fur trader Louis Jolliet discovered the upper Mississippi and De Soto, a Spanish explorer, discovered the lower Mississippi. The error was corrected before the printing.


The one cent rate was mainly used for post cards frequently with a Flag Cancellation which has the date on the left. Consequently stamps off cover normally do not show the date. Some also have cork cancellations which are fairly scarce as those cancellations were largely no longer being used.




Two Cent – Copper Red – Farming in the West


This design was inspired by a 1893 photograph taken on the Amenia and Sharon Land Company’s Bonanza Farm near Amenia, North Dakota. It is the first depiction of living men on a stamp. Originally the 2-cent design was to be the one which is the 2-dollar design. However the designs were switched as it was thought that this design gave the best impression of the West and it would receive wider circulation as the 2-cent rate was for 1st class letters.





Four Cent – Orange – Indian Hunting Buffalo


The design was taken from a drawing entitled “Buffalo Chase” in Captain S. Eastman’s 1854 book “Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States”.


The ink on this stamp has often oxidized making it difficult to find fresh examples.


An alternative design was a Cheyenne Warrior on horseback.
An alternative design was a Cheyenne Warrior on horseback.

Five Cent – Dark Blue – Frémont on Rocky Mountains


This design is a composite of three designs, one of which was John C. Frémont’s 1856 campaign poster. He was the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party. This design was originally proposed for the 8-cent issue, then for the 2-cent and finally for the 5-cent.

This rate was used for registered letter and heavy letters hence the cancellations are frequently heavy and ugly.



Eight Cent – Violet Brown – Troops Guarding Train


The design was taken from Fredric Remington’s painting “Protecting a Wagon Train”. After the Civil War, the US was awash in soldiers. Consequently many were stationed in the West as part of cavalry units to protect the immigrants flooding in to West. Two units of African American soldiers, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed in the West.



One of the designs considered showed such a cavalry unit in full gallop.
One of the designs considered showed such a cavalry unit in full gallop.

Ten Cent – Slate – Hardships of Emigration


Based on a 1892 painting by Augustus Goodyear Heaton. The migration west was often by inexperienced people who loaded their Conestoga Wagons with possessions instead of food for the horses. Consequently when they arrived in the desert areas in the west, the animals died for lack of food and water. By then the emigrants were also low on food consequently they carved up the dead horse. As one horse could not pull the wagon, it had to be abandoned. Wagon trains typically travelled two miles per hour slowing to one mile per hour in the mountains.


The painting was burned as a result of it having been stored in a tin-roofed barn in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. The heat caused the painting to blister to the extent that it was unable to be restored. No photographs of the painting exist.


This rate was used for registered letters and heavy letters hence the cancellations are often heavy and ugly. As revenue stamps were in short supply, some of these stamps were used as revenue stamps. They have IR written on them.



Fifty Cent – Olive – Western Mining Prospector


Based on a painting “The Gold Bug” by Fredric Remington. Although the California gold fields were played out by this time, those in Oregon were still attracting prospectors.


This rate was used for registered letters and heavy letters hence the cancellations are often heavy and ugly. As revenue stamps were in short supply, some of these stamps were used as revenue stamps. They have IR written on them.



One Dollar – Black – Western Cattle in Storm


This stamp is considered one of the finest US stamp ever issued. The stamp was apparently chosen to represent the ruggedness of the American West. When it was chosen, it was apparently being used by an American cattle company as a trademark, having been copied without permission from a painting. In reality it was a 1887 painting of cattle in a snow storm in the West Highlands of Scotland by James McWhirter entitled “The Vanguard”, which was owned by Lord Blythswood. A full apology was subsequently issued to the owner when the error was discovered.


This rate was used for registered letters and heavy letters hence the cancellations are often heavy and ugly.



Two Dollar – Orange Brown – Mississippi River Bridge


This design is based on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri, which was completed in 1874. It was built to assert St. Louis’ claim as the gateway to the West over that of Chicago. It was built by James B. Eads and was the longest arch bridge in the world at the time; 6,442 feet long. It was also the first bridge to use true steel instead of iron, the first to incorporate cantilever supports and the first to use pneumatic caissons. Fifteen workers died during its construction from “the bends”. It was an expensive project due to the need to place the footing on bedrock deep below the embankments and to raise it high enough to allow riverboats to pass under it. The company that built it was bankrupt within a year of its completion as a result of the lack of vehicle and rail traffic.


The actual design was taken from the 1896 Republican National Convention tickets. As mentioned above, originally this design was to have been on the 2-cent issue.


Very little mail at the time would have needed a $2.00 stamp. It essentially was created to sell to philatelists. A most uncharacteristic thing for a post office to do!



Quantities of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Issues


 Value                                  # Printed 
 $       0.01                          65,000,000 
 $       0.02                        160,000,000 
 $       0.04                             4,924,500 
 $       0.05                              7,694,180 
 $       0.08                            2,900,000 
 $       0.10                              4,629,760 
 $       0.50                                530,400 
 $       1.00                                   57,000 
 $       2.00                                  25,000 


All unsold stamps were retuned to US Post Office HQ in Washington after December 31, 1998 and were destroyed. As no count was done of the stamps returned, it is not possible to know how many of each issue were sold.


The above article was presented to the United States Study Group on Thursday, October 6, 2011 by Hank van der Linde .  It is being offered here, in its entire original form as it was received with minor adjustments made to conform with the layout design elements of this website. TS