Philately and the Mayflower

By David H. Hunt

ussmayflower postcard

1909 USS Mayflower Postcard

I will not tell you that one of the Pilgrims brought his stamp collection along on board the Mayflower. The damp conditions on board would have wreaked havoc with it, but even more important, he would have had to wait 220 years until the postage stamp was invented before obtaining any examples to put in this album.

Nonetheless, we philatelists are of stout heart and can find ways around this problem. One of the more popular niches in philately during the 1930s was collecting ship's cancellations, especially those of the 1908, U.S. Navy ships were provided with a canceling hand stamp consisting of a circular date stamp incorporating the ship's name, plus three "killer" bars to cancel the postage stamp used on a letter or postcard. Each ship also had a crew member assigned as a postal clerk to process the outgoing and incoming mail to the ship's crew and officers. Until the 1920s, this mail was primarily the crew's personal mail and the ship's official mail. Starting about 1920 and lasting until 1941 it became popular for shorebound collectors to prepare commemorative envelopes and send them to the ships to bet the ship's postmark and to be mailed back to the collector.

My first example is a postcard mailed from the USS Mayflower in 1909. The USS Mayflower was originally built as a steam and sail powered yacht for Ogden Goelet, and was acquired by the Navy in 1898 for emergency service as a gunboat in the Spanish-American War. After the war, it was refurbished as a yacht and in 1905 it hosted the Russo-Japanese Peace Conference. It then served as the presidential yacht until it was sold in 1929. It was reconverted to a yacht, but was taken into service by the Coast Guard during World War II as a patrol vessel. Postwar it was sold and secretly outfitted to carry Jewish refugees to Palestine. In September 1948 it arrived in Haifa carrying the refugees from Exodus, which had been turned back from Palestine previously. The ship's subsequent fate is unrecorded.

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USS Breese 1933 Commorative Letter

The USS Breese (DD122) was named for Captain Kidder Breese who served with distinction with the US Navy during the Civil War. Captain Breese was a descendant of John Alden, and now many of his descendants are members of the Society. The USS Breese was a flush-decked four stacker destroyer built just as WWI ended. She was too late for service in that war, but lasted to perform with honor in WWII even at the advanced age of over twenty. The USS Breese was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 9141, received ten battle stars for WWII service and participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The USS Alden was a ship similar to the Breese, and also was completed too late for WWI, but served proudly in WWII, earning three battle stars. She was involved in the 1942 Allied debacle of the Battle of Java Sea where two of five Allied cruisers were sunk and a third severely damaged. In company with three other WWI era destroyers, she made a torpedo attack on the Japanese squadron and while the torpedoes were unsuccessful, the four destroyers sank one Japanese destroyer by gunfire. The USS Alden was named for Rear Admiral James Alden, a 3rd great-grandson of the Pilgrim, John Alden.

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1957 Mayflower II Ship's Mail

This little display would not be complete without showing a cover carried across the Atlantic by the Mayflower II in 1957. The back of the envelope is postmarked with a Boston, MA receiving stamp. this particular cover is also signed by Alan Villers, captain of the Mayflower II on that historic voyage.

There are other Navy ships named for people who likely have Pilgrim connections, but that I have so far been unable to find. USS Bradford (DD545) was named for Captain Gameliel Bradford of Duxbury, MA (born November 4, 11748). He commanded the American private armed ship Mary in 1799, and in July 1800 in command of Industry, he routed four French privateers at Gibraltar. He died in Cambridge, MA March 7, 1824.

There has also been a USS Winslow (DD53) and USS Fuller (DD297).

You may expand your search beyond Pilgrim ancestors, and look for other ancestral names. I have found covers for USS Hunt (I) (DD194), USS Hunt (II) (DD674), and USS Goff (DD247).