This post contains affiliate links. If you click & make a purchase, I receive a commission! Thanks! Questions? View my full disclosure.

I recently attended an (online) event at the Smithsonian Postal Museum about Rural Mail Carriers where I learned that the mail was once delivered on horseback. This should not have been a surprise to me and yet it was. The speaker, Emily Hilliard, was specifically interviewing Appalachian mail carriers and the horseback mail delivery immediately brought to mind the Packhorse Librarians.

Further research brought me to a Wikipedia page about other types of animals also used for mail delivery. Just like there have been a variety of bookmobiles used by libraries, there have also been a variety of animals involved in mail delivery through the years. I was so surprised by some of them that I have to share!

Camels

After learning about the US Army Camel Corps, I’m not surprised to learn that camels were used to deliver mail in Australia. Camels would be very useful in the vast desert terrain of Australia just like they were in the desert southwest of the US.

Camels arrived in Australia in 1840. When the first ship docked in Adelaide, all but one of the camels had died en route. They named the surviving camel Harry. Camels were used for inland expeditions up through the 1930s.

camel in australia loaded with mail and supplies
  • Save
Camels are very strong and can carry a heavy load!

More and more lands were settled (sparsely) over time but with no roads in the vast desert, mail delivery was nearly impossible. Camels were the perfect solution. They carried mail until they were replaced by the Overland Telegraph and the Ghan railway in about 1929.

In 1981 and 2002 Australia celebrated the final camel mail delivery with reenactments (kind of like the Annual Pony Express Re-Ride). You can see a news report from the 1981 event on Facebook.

Dogs

If you had to guess where dogs were used to deliver mail, would you say Alaska? If so, you are correct!

Not just in Alaska, but also in other snowy northern places like Minnesota, Canada, and Russia. But the most well-known dog trail is probably the Iditarod.

Delivering mail to Alaska from the lower-48 states requires several modes of transportation, even today. In the early 1900s, the mail was delivered by steamships from Washington to southeastern coastal towns in Alaska. From there, river steamers, and eventually Alaska Railroad trains, would take the mail farther inland, at least in summer. And for the most isolated destinations, the final leg of the mail delivery journey would be done with a dog sled team in winter.

dog team with sled and mushers leaving Alaska town
  • Save

Regular mail service by sled dog was established by the 1910s and was replaced mostly by small planes by the 1930s. However, the US Postal Service authorized dog sleds to be used as “emergency mail service” and the last regular-scheduled dog team route was shut down when Chester Noongwook retired his team in 1963.

The sled dogs worked hard! Teams pulled a load of 500-700 pounds which averages out to almost 100 pounds per dog. This historic footage shows a team delivering mail in Maine.

Horses

Horses have been used as a primary mail delivery method around the world for centuries. A single horse can carry small bundles quickly and horses pulling a cart can deliver much larger quantities of mail in each load. Relay routes were often used to pass mail from one rider to another. One of the most famous mail relay routes was the Pony Express.

four white horses pulling a US Mail carriage in winter
  • Save

One of the last mailmen on horseback was Irvine Pratt who delivered mail in Knott County, Appalachia, until the 1970s. He retired at age 77. Shortly before his retirement, he was featured in a Sesame Street clip about horseback mail delivery.

While mostly a thing of the past, there are a few very remote places in the world that still deliver mail by horse, and in the Grand Canyon, mail and supplies are carried by mule train to the bottom of the canyon five days a week.

Birds

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages for centuries. Taking advantage of their natural homing abilities, the birds are taken in a cage to a destination then given a message to carry back to where they came from.

The most famous pigeon post came during the siege of Paris in 1870-1871. The Germans had blocked all communication in and out of the city. Pigeons were the only ones to successfully deliver messages during the siege.

Cher Ami the carrier pigeon is now a taxidermy display in a museum
  • Save
That’s one tough pigeon!

Pigeons have been used to carry mail in peacetime but they have also been essential to message delivery during wartime as well. Cher Ami is one of the most famous wartime carrier pigeons. He is famous for carrying a message from an encircled Allied battalion despite being seriously injured in flight by the Germans during WWI.

Reindeer

Reindeer are famous for their work with Santa, delivering toys every Christmas. But they also had a brief career with the US Postal Service in Alaska. For about 10 years at the beginning of the twentieth century, reindeer were used to deliver mail in Alaska, primarily north of the Arctic Circle.

Why were reindeer used instead of sled dogs? Reindeer mail routes were proposed because reindeer can pull more weight than the dogs and could forage food for themselves along the trail while the dogs required food to be brought along or cached in advance.

The first reindeer route began December 1, 1899, and ran between St. Michael and Kotzebue – a 1,240-mile round trip that took more than 60 days to complete.

reindeer and men at station in Alaska
  • Save

In 1903, the mail contractor on the route from Barrow to Kotzebue only used reindeer on the first round trip before switching to dogs. He said, “The round trip of 1,300 miles over roadless plains without change of animals, in the limited time allowed by the Post-Office Department, was too much for the deer.”

Ultimately sled dogs became the primary mail delivery method in Alaska winters. One of the reasons for this was the lack of trained reindeer available on the route for relayed relief. Dogs could be found in villages along the way.

Cats

In 1870s Belgium, a group decided to train cats to deliver mail. The New York Times article written about this venture was quite entertaining. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the article:

“Those who are intimately acquainted with the domestic cat must sometimes wonder why no effort has been made to develop his intellectual powers. … The fortunate few who have broken through the disdainful cloak of cynicism, in which the underappreciated cat has wrapped himself…will be pleased to learn that certain Belgians have formed a society for the mental and moral improvement of cats.”

“It has long been known that the cat cannot intentionally be mislaid” and because of “this wonderful skill in traveling through unfamiliar regions without a guide-book or a compass,” the society was confident they could train the cats to do the job of homing pigeons.

Thirty-seven cats were taken out to the distant countryside for the first experiment. The first cat arrived home less than five hours later and all of the cats were home safely within twenty-four hours.

The society considered their experiment a success and immediately made plans for regular mail delivery between neighboring villages.

“Messages are to be fastened in water-proof bags around the necks of the animals, and it is believed that, unless the criminal class of dogs undertakes to waylay and rob the mail-cats, the messages will be delivered with rapidity and safety.”

As far as I can tell, these are the only cats that were used for mail delivery. All other postal cats were kept as mice deterrents in the office. I’m Team Dog myself.

red and white cat inside a green mailbox
  • Save
All cats love boxes and postal cats love mailboxes!

Sharing is caring!

These peculiar postmen deserve more attention! Save it to Pinterest and share with your friends!

collage of cat, one-legged pigeon, and horse carriage with title Postal Cats and other mail delivery animals
  • Save

Follow me for more!

You just never know what I might discover next. Join my email newsletter to stay up-to-date!

squirrel next to text reading Curious? Join the List so you don't miss a thing plus signup button

  • Save

Similar Posts

One Comment

  1. This article was so fascinating, Sheila! I especially liked the links to supplementary material like the Sesame Street video about the Appalachian mail carrier. Thank you so much!

Comments are closed.