This page offers a summary of information known about the famous Galápagos Post Office. Further details about the ships mentioned below can be found on this site's Ships Page. Post office barrel images are in the Post Office Barrel entry on the Ephemera page.
James Colnett (1753-1806), captain of the merchant ship Rattler is often mistakenly credited with setting up the first Galápagos post office on Charles Island [Isla Floreana] in 1793, probably because of a series of charts by Aaron Arrowsmith, the first of which was inserted in the 1798 edition of Colnett's Voyage. However, the “Post Office” phrase does not appear on this chart, and in fact does not appear until Arrowsmith reprinted the chart in 1820. At that time, he apparently used John Fyffe's 1815 chart as his source when he added “Post Office” and other details to the Colnett chart. It may be worth noting that by 1815, Colnett had been dead for some nine years—further “evidence” that he had nothing to do with the Post Office nomenclature. And if even more evidence is wanted, Colnett himself wrote that he did not land on the island:
In the early part of the evening we got close in with the South end of the island; we then shortened sail, and stood off and on during the night, with the design of going on shore in the morning. … At day-light the current had set us so considerably to the Southward and Westward, as to have lost sight of the island, …
As a final bit of evidence, Colnett's 1798 chart shows the track of the merchant ship Rattler, which further indicates that the ship did not stop at Charles Island. In other words, the post office was not established by Colnett, but is the work of someone else who visited the island prior to the April 1813 arrival of Captain David Porter on the United States frigate Essex.
§ Notwithstanding Colnett's own text and chart, a Google search will turn up more than 400 sites that parrot the following mis-information:
On the north side of Floreana is the Post Office, so-named because in 1793, Captain James Colnett installed a wooden barrel which served as an informal post office for sailors passing through, …
Porter may be the first author to mention the Galápagos post-office in print. However the famous landmark had not yet become the barrel that it is today. In his Journal of a Cruise Porter wrote that Lieutenant Downes went ashore and returned to the Essex
… with several papers, taken from a box (emphasis added) which he found nailed to a post, over which was a black sign, on which was painted Hathaway's Postoffice.
Mr. Hathaway has not yet been identified, but was perhaps a whaler.
When HMS Beagle visited Galápagos, Captain Robert FitzRoy described his visit to Post Office Bay on September 24, 1835 in his Narrative … (pp. 489-90):
Post-Office Bay is sheltered, easy of access, has excellent anchorage, and only wants fresh-water to make it a most desirable harbour for shipping. Its name is the result of a custom established by the whalers: a box (emphasis added) was placed on a post, to receive letters, and homeward-bound ships examined the directions [addresses], taking with them all which they might have means of forwarding; but since the island has been peopled the box has been empty, for letters are now left at the settlement.
Note that like David Porter before him, FitzRoy also refers to a box, not a barrel.
Notwithstanding FitzRoy's “the box has been empty” remark, the June 23, 1835 log of the whaleship Hector shows this entry:
… at Charles Isle. Boat come[s] off from ship W[illegible] for letters at 5 PM.
Although this entry is rather vague, it does suggest that the Galápagos post office was still in use at this time.
There is a curious anecdote about Charles Darwin and the Galápagos Post Office: In Darwin biographer Janet Browne's 2008 introduction to The Beagle Letters, she writes (p. xxiii) that
Ironically, one of the very few letters in the Beagle correspondence that was lost in transit and never reached its destination was the letter Darwin wrote on the Galápagos Islands and left behind in the postbox for the next passing ship to take on its way. Darwin mentioned these details in his next letter home.
Darwin's next letter home was to his sister Caroline. Written from New Zealand on 27 December 1835, it begins:
My Dear Caroline,
My last letter was written from the Galapagos, since which time I have had no opportunity of sending another. §
§ As Dr. Browne notes above, this letter has not been found.
Notwithstanding Dr. Browne's “Darwin mentioned these details” remark, note that in fact he offered no details about the Galápagos Post Office in his letter. And so, given FitzRoy's remark that the box was not in use at the time of their visit, it is unlikely that Darwin would have left a letter in it, even if—as the Hector log implies—FitzRoy was mistaken and the box was still in use.
In his Nimrod of the Sea, (Chapter XIX), William M. Davis wrote the following account of the Galápagos Post Office:
A curious feature of the Galapagos is the novel post-office, established there by Commodore Porter, during the last war with England, while the Essex harbored in the island which bears the name of her worthy captain. He placed a large terrapin shell on a conspicuous point of Black-lava Rock. As round and white as a huge skull, it is a prominent landmark to vessels coasting among the islands. The enormous shell forms the roof of the letter-box, and it is the custom of ships to send a boat ashore and overhaul the mail for any letters that may have been left there for them, and to deposit any letters they may have directed to ships long out which may touch at the islands.
Of course Captain Porter did not establish the Galápagos Post Office, but merely took advantage of it to determine what British ships had been in the area. Also, the island which bore his name [i.e., Porter's Island] is the present Isla Santa Cruz, not Santa María where the Post Office box/barrel was—and still is—located.
From the above reference to “Porter's Island,” it might be inferred that Davis is describing something he saw on Isla Santa Cruz. However, the previous chapter makes it clear that he was indeed at Post Office Bay on Isla Floreana in December, 1835. In the few months since FitzRoy's visit in September of the same year, perhaps someone had placed the “large terrapin shell” over the post office box, and it was again in use as described by Davis. However, if his “prominent landmark” remark is correct, then the shell-topped post office box was in a location other than where one finds the barrel today, because the latter cannot be seen from the water.
In his Voyage Around the World …, Abel de Petit-Thouars writes that on June 23, his ship Venus “… went to anchor in the bay of the Poste …” and adds an explanatory footnote:
Post Office Bay, name given by whalers before the island was inhabited; they took care, when they put into port there, to leave in a bottle, buried or hidden near a tree on which they made a noticeable mark, a note which ordinarily told the name of their boat, of the captain and the number of barrels of oil already taken; it was a way for the whalers to send their news to the United States, as the vessels whose fishing was finished would never fail, before their departure, to touch at this island to take on a supply of tortoises.
From the author's description, it would seem that the post office box mentioned earlier by Porter and FitzRoy was no longer in use.
In company with HMS Virago, HMS Leander visited Galápagos in 1897. At Post Office Bay, the Leander put up a post office barrel. It is unknown if this was a replacement for an older barrel (or box) which had deteriorated, or was the first barrel to be placed here. When the 1905-06 voyage of the schooner Academy visited the same location, the barrel bore a sign that read “Erected by HMS Leander.” The names of HMS Virago, USS Oregon and others were also seen on the barrel. The Oregon visit was in 1898.
A sign beneath the barrel reads “Erected by British Scientific Expedition, S. Y. (Sail Yacht) St. George in August, 1924.”
Heinz Wittmer took a photograph of the barrel in 1935, showing a sign created by the ship's company of the Polish vessel Dar Pomorza which restored the barrel in 1934. A 1938 photo of Captain G. Allan Hancock shows the barrel and the sign were still in place.
Since the earliest days of Galápagos tourism, Post Office Bay has been a popular visitor site, where visitors follow the tradition of dropping off mail (now, mostly post cards) in the barrel and retrieving mail addressed to locations near their home. If possible, such mail should be delivered by hand to the intended recipient.
Visiting ships have also left signs identifying the ship and sometimes, the date of the visit.
A ca. 1990 brochure for Casa Wittmer at Isla Floreana's Black Beach shows a sketch based on Heinz Wittmer's 1935 photo. At the base of the barrel is seen a sign reading “Deriska Turkey.” This sign is not seen in any photos taken until 2007, when a sign is seen with the following:
If the sailing yacht Deriska did indeed visit Post Office Bay in 1990, it is unknown why the sign indicating its visit did not show up at the barrel until 2007. Perhaps it was retrieved by the Wittmer family when the brochure was being produced, and not returned to the site until 2007.
A selection of Post Office barrel sketches and photographs is available on our Ephemera page.