Special delivery by sled dogs

In this social media world of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, everyone has heard of email (and even those of us who aren’t tech savvy understand snail mail). But have you ever heard of trail mail? Unless you live in Alaska or follow the world of sled dog racing, the answer is: probably not! Trail mail is a cache of letters carried by a dog musher during a sled dog race and delivered to the nearest post office once the race has been run. Trail mail is actually a mandatory piece of equipment mushers must carry during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race—and now I bet you’re asking why.

A musher and his sled dog team in motion
Musher Jeff King at the start of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

A little history of the trail might provide a clue. The Yukon gold rush of 1897 brought a huge influx of miners and settlers from the “lower 48” to the Alaskan wilderness. The U.S. government soon realized that these new settlers needed access to supplies, medicine, and mail, which led to the creation of the “Seward to Nome” trail in 1908.

Five men pose for a photograph in front of a mine
Gold miners in the Yukon Territory, around 1899

The trail followed the ancient paths of the Native Alaskan Indian and Eskimo tribes, and in 1910, after gold was found again in the small inland town of Iditarod, the trail grew and was renamed. As harsh winter conditions in the interior of the territory made sled dog teams the main source of transportation, the Iditarod Trail became the region’s main mail and supply route.

A busy street scene with a large group posing for a photo in front of a restaurant. In the foreground, a group of dogs pull a wagon or converted dog sled with wheels
Dog sled with wheels on the sled for summer running, Dawson City, Yukon, 1899

Sled dogs delivered mail to cities and towns throughout the territory until the airplane made its debut in the North during the 1920s. As technology advanced, the sled dog was slowly replaced by planes, snow machines, and cars, and by 1965 the mail was no longer delivered by sled dog. (Does carrying mail during the race make sense yet? If not, keep reading!)

A display sled loaded with various bags of mail
Mail sled on display at the Anchorage Museum. Courtesy of Anchorage Museum

In the 1970s, most modern Alaskans had never used sled dogs and considered their use an outdated mode of transport. However, few people like Joe Redington Sr.—whose land backed up to the Iditarod Trail—still used sled dogs for everyday travel and wanted to share this unique practice with others. Although the trail had been covered with trees and brush from years of underuse and neglect, Redington and Dorothy Page, another strong advocate for the use of sled dog, decided to clear the trail and use it to hold a sled dog race.

Map of National Historical Iditarod Trail shows various checkpoints
Map of the National Historical Iditarod Trail

The race commemorated the long history of sled dogs in Alaska and reintroduced that history to modern Alaskans. The first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was run in 1973 and, since then, has included a mandatory cache of mail to be carried in each musher’s sled bag to highlight the sled dog’s original purpose in Alaska’s rich history. Of course, even with this nod to the state’s past, the race differs in important ways from what came before. In its modern iteration as an extreme sport, the Iditarod can take an intense physical toll not only on the human competitors but also on the sled dogs.

Mail cache decorated with illustration showing a sled dog team from the perspective of a musher
Jona Van Zyle, one of the donors of these mail caches, designed this official trail race cachet in 2004 for the 32nd running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Every year, a letter and envelope is designed by a local artist and given to each musher to carry in the musher’s sled bag. The letters are usually signed by one or more of the mushers who are racing in that year’s Iditarod. If the musher makes it to the finish line in Nome, the postmaster receives the letters to be hand-canceled.

A pink envelope with an illustration of a young woman in a parka, surrounded by three white dogs. An accompanying letter has an illustration of both a sled dog team and a sleeping dog.
In 1999 Van Zyle’s design incorporated musher DeeDee Jonrowe’s fight with breast cancer, in Jonrowe’s signature pink. The letter is written and signed by Jonrowe and is sent to supporters, after being hand-canceled in Nome, or sold to raise money for the race.

The museum’s sports collection has a selection of trail mail from races in the “lower 48” and from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. These mail caches represent the vital role dogs have played in the settling of Alaska and parts of the northern United States during a time when critical goods made their way to settlers with the help of mushers and their dog teams.

An envelope decorated with various images of sled dog teams, as well as a stamp showing a group of people and a dog lounging in front of a fire
The St. Ignace sled dog race runs along the mail route from Detroit, along the lakes of Michigan.


An envelope decorated with an illustration of a musher and a dog sled team in motion
The earliest “trail mail” we have in the collections is from the 1949 world championship sled dog race from Truckee, California, which celebrated the mail run from Truckee to Sacramento to San Francisco.

I find it pretty cool how one object—a letter from a sled dog race—can teach us something new about topics as diverse as the Yukon gold rush, the different modes of transportation for delivering mail, and the origins of one of the most extreme sports races in the world.

Jane Rogers is an associate curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She has previously blogged about wheelchair basketball pioneer Ray Werner, as well as her experiences as a curator visiting Ground Zero in the months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.