John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Co. kept the American West connected with the East before the Civil War.
Fort Smith, Arkansas, knew how to put on a party. This one was a humdinger by anyone’s standards. When John Butterfield’s first eastbound stagecoach rolled into town on October 13, 1858,four weeks after leaving San Francisco,the citizens of Fort Smith pulled out flags and buntings to drape their buildings in patriotic fashion. Winding through town, a ticker tape-style parade led by“Old John” himself featured ranks of Fort Smith soldiers and a brass band tooting“Camptown Races,” “Old Dan Tucker,”“Turkey in the Straw” and rounding outwith the ever-popular “Hail, Columbia.”Circus performers who happened to be in town joined the festivities. Gaily decorated floats rolled along the streets, firemen paraded in their helmets and red shirts, and city officials and other dignitaries waved from various wagons pulled by matching horses.
Butterfield reveled in the accolades,having spent the past year filled with uncertainty, his thoughts consumed by maps, financial figures, hirings, firings,schedules, company organization and other matters. A workhorse by nature,Butterfield had managed to pull off one of the greatest American transportation achievements. The Overland Mail route is “the longest and most important route ever established in any country,” Postmaster General Aaron Venable Brown wrote in the company-issued record and schedule book, which it distributed to conductors, agents, drivers and station managers along the trail.
The parade wound up in a clearing near a grove of trees on the grounds of the fort. Naturally, speeches were made—for several hours. Following the pomp,the crowning glory was a banquet and ball attended by all the influential gentlemen and ladies for miles around.As if leading the parade wasn’t enough,Butterfield rode triumphantly into the banquet hall on the shoulders of four strapping youths, like a modern-day football coach after winning the championship game. But Butterfield’s venture was no game.
Indeed, when land and opportunity in California beckoned, and Americans answered, the only way to send and receive mail coast to coast was by sea. Mail sent down either coast to Panama was freighted across the boggy, tropical isthmus, a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Loaded onto a steamer, mail, parcels and people then continued to their respective destinations. A trip of four months was not unusual. Not good enough, people complained.
Congress took note and on March 3,1857, authorized the Post Office Department to contract for mail service from a point on the Mississippi River to San Francisco. Newly appointed Postmaster General Brown advertised forbids that April. The contract required the winning bidder to (1) begin operation within one year; (2) operate for no more than $600,000 annually; (3) provide semimonthly, weekly or semiweekly service; (4) deliver mail within25 days for each trip.
John Butterfield, a friend to incoming President John Buchanan, submitted the winning bid. He and his associates signed a six-year contract on September 16, 1857, and the stage was set for what would amount to the first efficient transcontinental mail service (since mail was collected from the East Coast), although another overland service got under way first. On June 22, 1857, stage line entrepreneur James E. Birch won a government contract to carry mail on a semimonthly basis on a 1,476-mile route between San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, Calif. Each trip was supposed to take 30 days, but the first westbound mail, carried via horseback on July 9, 1857, took 53 days. Birch’s San Antonio– San Diego Mail Line ultimately employed 65 men, 50 coaches and about 400 mules, and the service picked up the unflattering nickname “Jackass Mail.” The enterprise was not in the running for long—only about 40 trips in all.
Born in Berne, N.Y., on November 18, 1801, John Warren Butterfield drove his first stagecoach at age 19, first in Albany and then in Utica, N.Y., which became his hometown (he would be elected its mayor in 1865). After establishing various mail and passenger lines in upstate New York, he organized Butterfield, Wasson & Co. in 1849. The next year he merged his business with Wells & Co.and Livingston, Fargo & Co. to form the American Express Co. By 1857Butterfield’s unparalleled work ethics made him the right man to head up the Overland Mail Co.
Postmaster General Brown, who hailed from Tennessee, called for a southerly route with spur lines to both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The two starting points, St. Louis and Memphis, would converge at Fort Smith, Ark.The route would then run through Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma),across the plains of Texas to Franklin(present-day El Paso), into arid New Mexico Territory (Arizona Territory did not yet exist) to Tucson and then enter California at Fort Yuma on its way to Los Angles and, finally, the western terminus at San Francisco. Naturally, those who lived north of the line objected. The Sacramento Daily Union—published out of the California capital, which lay well north of the route—called it a “foul wrong,” “an outrage upon the majority of people of the state” and“a Panama route by land.” The Chicago Tribune condemned it as “one of the greatest swindles ever perpetrated upon the country by slaveholders.” Postmaster General Brown noted but disregarded such opinions and pressed forward.
The official eastern terminus of the southerly route (also known as the “Oxbow Route”)was St. Louis, as that was where the company gathered all the mail from the East and sent it by train 160 miles to Tipton, Mo., the end of the rail line. From Tipton the mail and any passengers boarded coaches headed south to Fort Smith. The total mileage from St. Louis to San Francisco was 2,795(2,635 miles covered by stage).
In mid-September 1858 the first two Overland Mail Co. stagecoaches set out from the opposite ends of the line—the eastbound on the 15th, the westbound the next day. Butterfield was on the first westbound stage, driven by son John Butterfield Jr. Tipton provided little in the way of a send-off; Butterfield would have to settle for the Fort Smith festivities on the eastbound leg. New York Herald special correspondent Waterman L. Ormsby rode all the way with the mail on that first westbound stage, which completed its run in 23 days, 23½ hours.“The journey,” he wrote after arriving in San Francisco, “has been by no means as fatiguing to me as might be expected by a continuous ride of such duration, forI feel almost fresh enough to undertake it again.” In the following days almost all of the stage runs would beat the25-day allowance for travel. Butterfield’s credo resonated through the company:“Remember, boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail.”His employees responded with timely delivery of letters and packages (never payroll or valuables). By the outbreak of the Civil War, Overland stagecoaches were delivering more mail (at 10 cents per half ounce) to and from the West Coast than all the ships at sea. Early on Butterfield and his associates decided the deliveries would be more profitable if they took on passengers as well. Travel was not inexpensive—10 cents ($2.80 into day’s dollars) per mile, or one-way for$150 ($4,200 in today’s dollars). Although the line was often referred to as the Butterfield Overland Mail, “Butterfield”was not part of the official name and not written on the sides of the stagecoaches.Instead, Overland Mail was painted over the doors.
The Overland Mail used both Concord and celerity stagecoaches. Concord coaches, made in Concord, N.H., by the Abbot Downing Co., were the luxury liners of the day. These 2,500-poundbehemoths accommodated as many as12 passengers on three benches inside with sometimes as many as 10 souls perched on the wooden roof. Interior glass windows helped tame the whirling dust, rain and wind. They are the classic, oval-shaped coaches seen in Western movies. On rougher sections of the route, the company would transfer its passengers to the lighter but more durable celerity wagons, sometimes also called mud wagons. The celerity’s wider wheels allowed for better traction in sand and mud. Instead of glass,canvas curtains covered the windows and doors, blocking out dust but also air and light. A canvas roof kept people from perching on top. In 1857 James Goold’s factory in Albany made 100 of these wagons for the Overland Mail.
“The ‘celerity’ wagon,” wrote Roscoe and Margaret Conkling in their 1947 book The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857–1869, “was an innovation on the part of Butterfield to provide a lighter and faster type of vehicle for use on the rougher sections of the route, and also to furnish something like an overland mail coach sleeper.…The three inside seats were so constructed that they could be adjusted and made into a bed. With its low center of gravity this wagon was less liable to an over set than the regular coach.” Raphael Pumpelly, who traveled by overland coach to Tucson in 1860, recalled years later: “As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room for only 10 of the 12 legs, each side of the coach was raced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support. An unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constant ly bent forward, thus, by taking away all support from our backs, rendering rest at all times out of the question.”
Butterfield had more than 800 employees and about 1,800 head of stock to keep the mail and passengers moving. Relay stations, 139 of them, were set up with fresh horses about every 20 miles. To keep the stage on schedule, station managers allotted just five minutes to switching teams, and they prodded passengers to “wash your face quickly.” Drivers would trade off about every 60 miles at the home stations, where families cooked meals for the weary travelers.Typical fare—at a cost of 75 cents to $1a plate—included bacon, beans, onions, available meat (antelope, venison or mule), slumgullion (a stew-like concoction made with questionable ingredients) and what passed for coffee. On one occasion in the 1860s, when a station host served a passenger a plate of “fat pork,” the diner begged off with, “Thank you, I never eat it.” “Very well,” replied the stationmaster in stride. “Just help yourself to the mustard.” That was the extent of the menu at the time. Another passenger on the Overland complained at being served “doughnuts, green and poisonous with saleratus [baking soda], suspicious eggs in a massive greasy fritter, and rusty bacon intolerably fat.”
These more leisurely home station stops lasted about 45 minutes. Those passengers too exhausted to continue right away were allowed to “stay over”until the next coach arrived. “The fatigue of uninterrupted traveling by day and night in a crowded coach, and in the most uncomfortable positions, was beginning to tell seriously upon all the passengers and was producing in me a condition bordering on insanity,” recalled Pumpelly of his journey.
Travel in Missouri and Arkansas proved relatively pleasant, thanks to established roads and towns along the trail.Often the home stations along this stretch were established inns, and the way stations had livery stables. In Indian Territory, however, accommodations were rudimentary, the road arduous,and towns few and quite far between.Leaving Arkansas, the route crossed the Arkansas River and headed south across Choctaw land. Near the relay station at Sherman, Texas, on the Indian Territory border, the coach traversed a patch of road that was “tortuous and stony,”recalled Ormsby, who commented,“To feel oneself bouncing—now on the hard seat, now against the roof, and now against the side of the wagon—was no joke.” Strung beneath the passenger compartment, wide leather straps called“thorough braces” cradled the coach,causing it to swing front to back. Motion sickness was a common complaint, and ginger root was the favored curative.
Crossing Texas required a full eight days at an average speed well under4 miles per hour. Sand, chaparral, dust and lack of water defined west Texas.No town stood between Sherman and Franklin (renamed El Paso in 1859)—a haul of nearly 700 miles. Instead, from east to west, Forts Belknap, Phantom Hill, Chadbourne, Stockton, Davis, Quitman and Bliss dotted the Texas landscape. Franklin was the halfway point of the Overland route. Its post office(established in 1849) served as Butterfield’s divisional headquarters, and a grocery store operated out of one of the 20 adobe buildings that made up the town. The Overland Mail Co. was directly responsible for the growth of El Paso, whose downtown streets stillreflect the paths traveled by its coaches and those of smaller, regional lines.
From Franklin the road ran north to Mesilla (pop. 3,000), New Mexico Territory. By 1858 Mesilla was an established farming community and the regional transportation hub. Three stage lines met there, and wagons loaded with produce and building materials rumbled through. Regardless, Mesilla did not impress Ormsby in 1858: “Their houses were built of adobe and sticks,looking more like miserable dog kennels than human habitations.…I never saw such a miserable set of people in my life.” Apache raids were a constant concern. Cochise, Mangas Coloradas and others regularly swooped into town or its outskirts to run off livestock and steal the occasional child. The Apaches left the Overland Mail alone, however,as Butterfield had assured them through intermediaries his coaches were merely“passing through.” At Apache Pass, in what would become far eastern Arizona,the Indians brought firewood to the station in exchange for goods brought on the stagecoaches.
Once in Tucson the stage still had more than 1,000 miles to go to reach San Francisco. Some 280 miles down the road were the few scattered adobe buildings that made up Arizona City(renamed Yuma in 1873). There the stage crossed the Colorado River, courtesy of a flatboat ferry, to Fort Yuma in California. “We arrived at Los Angeles in five days and four hours from Tucson,”wrote Ormsby, “making nearly six miles an hour on the average, in spite of the sandy desert and craggy hills.” Los Angeles boasted 6,000 inhabitants and several fine buildings, but Ormsby and the mail changed coaches and hit the road again in short order. At Tejon Pass in the Tehachapi Mountains, the coach,according to Ormsby, encountered “the steepest hill on the whole route.” The coach reached Visalia just shy of midnight, yet the residents turned out in droves and delivered an anvil salute (which involved setting off gunpowder in a cavity atop a 100-pound anvil, thus sending a second anvil stacked atop it shooting skyward to eventually crash to earth). “This was the first evidence of any enthusiasm along the route since we left Fort Smith,” Ormsby noted.
But things were different early on Sunday morning, October 10, 1858, when that first westbound coach rolled into San Francisco less than 24 days after the overland journey began in Tipton. “Swiftly we whirled up one street and down another, and round the corners, until finally we drew up at the stage office in front of the plaza, our driver giving a shrill blast of his horn,” recalled Ormsby. At the post office door the driver against blasted his horn, then howled and shouted for someone to come and take the mail. Not until a half-hour later, at 7:30 a.m., did a yawning, bleary-eyed postal worker finally unlock the door. “You’re early,” he grumbled. Still, history had been made.
Subsequent Overland passengers found plenty more to com- plain about, from drunken and profane stage drivers to disagreeable but high-priced food. The length of the Oxbow Route continued to draw the strongest complaints. And John Butterfield’s reign as transportation king did not last as long as he may have wished. Stagecoach service was developing on the central route (from Missouri to Denver and Salt Lake City and on to California) and the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell kicked off its Pony Express service in April 1860 on the shorter, faster central route. By then Old John was nearing 60, his health was declining, and there was growing dissention in the company, as the Overland Mail was in substantial debt to Wells,Fargo & Co. Next to Butterfield, the three biggest Overland Mail shareholders were directors of Wells, Fargo. The partners mounted a takeover in March 1860, and Butterfield resigned under pressure. The motives remain unclear, but hints that a couple of his partners wanted to run“express” shipments—payroll, gold,valuables, which Butterfield had never allowed—played a role in his ejection.Once Old John was out of the picture,morale sagged, service turned unreliable, and profits plummeted. Butterfield returned to New York to pursue various business interests. In October 1867 he suffered a stroke, and on November 14,1869, he died at his Utica home.
It didn’t help the future of the Overland Mail Co. when in February 1861Cochise had a run-in with U.S. Army2nd Lt. George Bascom up by the Apache Pass station. In the exchange of hostilities the Chiricahua leader lost members of his family and also his trust in the United States. After attacking a stagecoach at Apache Pass and killing three white hostages, Cochise went on a rampage lasting more than a decade.
The Civil War proved the final straw.After Texas seceded from the Union on February 1, 1861, the Overland Mail had to abandon that stretch of road, fully one-third of the overall route. On March 2, 1861, when Texas joined the Confederate States of America, an act of Congress formally discontinued the southern route, and the Overland transferred its operations to the central route.Although the great bend of the Oxbow was off-limits, a few hardy souls made last runs across the Lone Star State that month. On one the coach met up with Texas Volunteers about 35 miles southwest of Fort Chadbourne. The man riding shotgun, either out of ignorance or pure habit, blew his bugle and cried out,“Make way for the United States mail!”Not a good idea in Confederate territory.The Texans cursed and promptly seized the stage wheels, keeping it at a dead stop, cajoling the driver, “Go ahead—let’s see you ‘make way’!” Try as he might, the driver could not get the team to drag the stage any farther. After several minutes of this “horseplay,” the volunteers finally released the wheels, and amid their catcalls, jeers and profanity the coach proceeded. On March 15 the Confederates stopped another coach at Colbert’s Ferry, on the Texas/Indian Territory border, confiscating valuables and leaving the passengers marooned.
What had started as an amazing patriotic enterprise ended rather unceremoniously. No pomp and circumstance, no bands, no circus performers, no cheering crowds as the last stage on the Oxbow Route rolled through a divided nation. But at least for a while the longest mail route in the world had kept Americans connected, from coast to coast, more than they had ever been.
Melody Groves, who writes about the Old West from Albuquerque, grew up near Mesilla, N.M., listening to stories about John Butterfield’s amazing undertaking. Her 2014 book, Butterfield’s Byways: America’s First Overland Mail Route Across the West, is recommended for further reading along with The Butterfield Overland Mail: Only Through Passenger on the First Westbound Stage, by Waterman L. Ormsby.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.