When European explorers made their first tentative forays across the narrow strip of land through which the Panama Canal was eventually cut, they no doubt encountered indigenous people. It is most unlikely, however, that any of the natives in that tropical environment dressed quite like the chief pictured on the 14¢ American Indian stamp.
A bit of historical background is necessary to understand why the stamp was overprinted for use in the Canal Zone. As early as the mid 1910s, some representatives of the United States were calling for the abolishment of the Taft Agreement.1 That pact dealt largely with what tariffs the Republic of Panama could levy on imported goods, but it also called for Panama to provide stamps for use in the Canal Zone.2 3
When the U.S. finally abandoned the Taft Agreement in 1924, Canal Zone officials ordered stamps from Washington, D.C. In just over a month, several values from the fourth Bureau issue were overprinted and shipped to the Canal Zone, and the postal authorities withdrew the Panamanian stamps previously in use.
The American Indian stamp did not go on sale in the Canal Zone until 1925, and its use was largely confined to mail destined for points outside the territory. The three major varieties ultimately issued are identified by perforation size and by the type used for the overprint.
Flat top A’s
When Canal Zone officials initially ordered overprinted U.S. stamps, they requested 100,000 of the 14¢ American Indian.4 The stamp went on sale on June 27, 1925.
Perf. 11 stamps printed on flat plate presses were used as the basis for each of the first two Canal Zone overprintings. The most distinctive feature of stamps from the first run is the worn type; each “A” in the overprint has a flat top.
Pointy top A’s
Before the initial supply of 14¢ stamps ran low, the worn letters used for overprinting the stamps were replaced with new type that printed much more sharply. Overprints on stamps from the second run have well-defined, pointy top A’s.
Fewer than 56,000 copies of the perf. 11 stamp with this overprint variety were sold.5 The stamp saw its first use in December 1928.
- FAM 9 cover (Balboa Heights, Canal Zone, to Lima, Peru, 1929)
- FAM 9 cover (Balboa Heights, Canal Zone, to Buenaventura, Colombia, 1929)
- Big Four cover (1930)
Pointy top A’s, part 2
By the time the Canal Zone exhausted its second supply of 14¢ stamps, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington had begun using rotary presses to print definitives. Nearly 105,000 stamps produced in that manner were overprinted for use in the Canal Zone, and the first of those were sold on January 14, 1933.
Stamps from this final batch bear the same sharp lettering used for the 1928 overprinting, but they are perf. 11×10½ instead of perf. 11.6
- Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal 1903–1979. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Accessed 25 Aug. 2010.
- Goethals Condemns Panama Agreement. The New York Times, 12 Dec. 1916. Accessed 25 Aug. 2010.
- Postal History of Canal Zone. Panama & Canal Zone in Cyberspace. May 1964. Accessed 25 Aug. 2010.
- Detailed List of Canal Zone Stamps. The Canal Zone Philatelist, No. 18, 1971. Accessed 26 Aug. 2010.
- Detailed List of Canal Zone Stamps. The Canal Zone Philatelist, No. 19, 1971. Accessed 26 Aug. 2010.
- Plass, Gilbert N. Detailed List of Canal Zone Stamps. The Canal Zone Philatelist, No. 21, 1971. Accessed 26 Aug. 2010.