A Butterfield Overland Stage departing San Francisco in 1858.
On September 15, 1858 two new Concord Coaches, one in Saint Louis, Missouri and one in San Francisco, California set off in opposite directions two cross more than 2/3s of the continent. They were inaugurating a new contract with the Post Office for transcontinental mail service operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail. It would take 23 days for the California service to arrive at its eastern terminal—two whole days before its projected time. The west bound route would make similar time. Both traveled the indirect Ox bow route that dipped south to cross Indian Territory and kitty-angle across Texas before heading west along the Rio Grande River and through the rugged mountains and deserts of the New Mexico Territory. It would actually clip a corner of Mexican Baja California before turning north traversing much of California via its central valley before finally reaching San Francisco Bay.
That route added almost 900 miles to a more northerly route via the Kansas and Nebraska Territories past Ft. Laramie, through the South Pass, into Mormon Utah, across the punishing Nevada deserts, and over the fromitable Sierra Nevadas to California.
When President James Buchanan ordered Post Master General Aaron Brown to establish an overland mail route to the West Coast in 1855 most people expected that the northern route would be picked. It was already in use as the Oregon and California Trails by immigrant wagon trains and would later be followed by the Pony Express, the transcontinental telegraph, and eventually the transcendental railroad.
John W. Butterfield was an upstate New York transportation tycoon when he bid on a transcontinental mail contract.
But John W Butterfield, a 55 year old Utica, New York businessman had other ideas. He was already and experienced operator of various transportation companies including regional stage coach lines in Upstate New York, plank roads, steam boats on Lake Ontario, ferries, and even his home town street railroad.
When Butterfield heard about the upcoming mail contract, he determined to win it despite having no personal experience in the West. And he knew just how to go about it—by exploiting the rising sectional tensions that were already straining the Union.
Tying gold rich California to the East was a high priority national objective. Other than trusting a letter to and immigrant wagon train on a risky month’s long crawl across the continent, communications with the Golden State meant the long voyage all the way around Cape Horn by clipper ship. Theoretically an overland mail service could drastically cut either time. But Northern and Southern interests were at odds. The South still had hopes making California a slave state by referendum or failing that splitting the state and taking half. It had similar objectives in expanding slavery into New Mexico Territory. A northern route would tie San Francisco more tightly than ever to New York and New England banking and business interests who already dominated the ocean trade.
Butterfield proposed his southern route—more over a southern route that even avoided the well-established Santa Fe Trail which had its head in Bloody Kansas and was subject to the abolitionists who settled there. He presented his bid to Post Master General Brown, a Tennessean and ardent Southern partisan.
A map showing the West as it was in 1858 and Butterfield's Ox Bow southern mail routes.
Butterfield knew his man. Brown announced that he would not entertain bids using the northern route because it was subject to being closed by snows. It was a plausible excuse. Certainly snow could and did close the immigrant trails on the high plains, the Rocky Mountains, and especially at Donner Pass over the Sierra Madres. But as we will see the longer southern route posed its own dangers and even it could be closed by snow in the New Mexico mountains. Since Butterfield was the only one to offer a bid on the Southern route, bingo, he was awarded the lucrative contract.
Although Butterfield was an experienced hand at stage lines, this was far bigger than anything he had ever attempted and required an enormous infusion of extra capital just to get off the ground. He would need to supply 250 Concord Stagecoaches and 1800 horses and mules and find or build 139 relay stations. In addition he would have to employ 800—almost all men but including some women cooks at relay stations.
For the necessary capital, Butterfield tuned to a number of partners and investors including William B. Dinsmore, William G. Fargo, James V. P. Gardner, Marcus L. Kinyon, Alexander Holland, and Hamilton Spencer. All were eager to share in the proceeds of the $600,000 annual mail contract plus income from express freight and passengers.
It was a near miracle that most of the infrastructure could be put in place from the official bid requests in March of 1857 to the mid-September 1858 effective starting date of the contract. And that included shipping some of those Concord coaches from their New Hampshire manufacturer to San Francisco by sea.Reporter Waterman Ormsby.
New York Herald reporter Waterman L. Ormsby was the only passenger to ride the entire 2,812 mile journey from St. Louis to San Francisco. Like other passengers who booked the entire trip, he paid a $200 fare—about $5,525 in today’s currency. He described the experience succinctly, “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.” It was a bone jarring ride over rugged terrain exposing the passengers to blistering heat by day, sometimes freezing straw pallets on the floor or beds jammed with as many as six men. Food was often awful. And passengers often had to help hitch and unhitch teams as well as switching luggage and freight between coaches.
The coach from the West Coast arrived at its destination with 6 passengers, some of whom were picked up along the way.
Two coaches in each direction were scheduled each week of the contract. There were actually two eastern terminals—St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee with the two routes converging at Fort Smith, Arkansas on the border of Indian Territory. On the eastern legs depending on the weather and the navigability of rivers, mail might go part way by river boat down the Mississippi and then up the Arkansas River and might use rail service across part of Arkansas. In dry weather the entire rout in eastern Arkansas might be made by coach. From Fort Smith west, it was all coach service.
Almost immediately the dangers and drawbacks of the southern route became apparent. The trip across notoriously violent Indian Territory exposed the coaches to Indian attacks, stock raids at way stations, and prowling outlaw gangs. Even more dangerous was the transit of Texas which was subject to raids by the Comanche, Southern Pawnee, and Kiowa and the Apache in New Mexico. On the long trip up central California there were more highwaymen. The trips became so dangerous that Butterfield had to appeal for Army protection.
The tiny ante-bellum Regular Army was spread thinly across the West. Much of it was stationed in Kansas trying to keep a lid on the virtual civil war between pro and anti-slavery forces. Shortly after taking office in 1860 the War Department assigned part of the 9th Cavalry based far to the north at Ft. Laramie under the command of Lt. Col. William O. Collins. He detached troopers to escort coaches between Independence, Missouri and Sacramento, California. This amounted to an effective subsidy of the service worth tens of thousands of dollars.
It was no surprise that the service was not profitable. On top of that the newly formed Pony Express in 1860 offered faster service for the mails. In March of that year Butterfeild’s partners foreclosed on him and ousted him from the business. Eventually via William Fargo most of the company’s assets, like those of the short lived Pony Express, ended up under the control of the Wells Fargo Company.
A year later in March of 1861 the Congress cancelled the Overland Mail contract in anticipation of war breaking out, which it shortly did with the attack on Fort Sumter in April. The last runs were on June 30, 1861. A new northern route known as the Central Overland Pacific Route began service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Placerville, California.
Meanwhile George Henry Giddings tried to keep the old route open for the Confederacy between Texas and California. The Rebel government was particularly hopeful that the coaches could supply California gold to their cash strapped Treasury. But California was soon firmly in Union hands and the Confederates destroyed stations west of Tucson. Except for local service the southern overland service ceased in early 1862.
In California Wells Fargo continued to operate coach service to gold camps and expanded service to the silver mines in Nevada until railroad service rendered it obsolete in the late 1860’s.This Concord stage coach in service in the late 19th Century was pretty much identical to those operated on the Overland Mail route.
Old Overland Stage stations were the sites of four Civil War battles—The Battle of Stanwix Station, the Battle of Picacho Pass, the Second Battle of Mesilla, and the Battle of Pea Ridge. They were also the sites of Confederate battles with the Comanche in Texas and Union fights with the Apache in New Mexico.
Stage coaches continued to serve shrinking routes in the West into the early 20th Century until they were all replaced by either railroads or motor coach service.
Wells Fargo kept getting richer and more powerful expanding to a vast express service and, of course, a fat bank.
A 1958 Overland Mail centennial commemorative First Class U.S. Postage stamp.