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Great Days Of The Overland Stage

July 2024
11min read

Opening the mail route to California, the Butterfield coaches flew across the rugged, wild Southwest in twenty-five exhausting days

For a town which had been surveyed only a few months earlier, Tipton, Missouri, began life with a creditable little bang on October 9, 1858. That was the day the first Overland Mail stage arrived, twenty-three days and four hours out of San Francisco—a day that marked the beginning of regular mail service across the continent. Tipton was 160 miles west of St. Louis at the end of the Pacific Railroad, and from this tiny dot on the map, mail and passengers from the West were put aboard the trains to St. Louis, Cincinnati, and New York, completing a transcontinental journey in approximately four weeks. What had once been a fantastic dream was now a reality, and the occasion did not go unnoticed in the press.

Harper’s Weekly observed that California was no longer “a colony of the East,” and the London Times described the opening of the Overland Mail route to California as “a matter of greatest importance to Europe, inasmuch as it will open up a vast country to European emigration, will be the precursor of the railroad and land telegraphic communication from New York to San Francisco, and will greatly facilitate intercourse with British Columbia.”

The man who made much of this possible was John Butterfield, a gentleman of 57 years, comfortable fortune, and enormous energies. Born in Berne, New York, Butterfield acquired an abiding love of horses and was known in his youth as one of the best drivers in Albany. A broad-shouldered man with prominent nose, heavy brows, and dark hair, he left his mark on the West’s costumes as well as its transportation. For years stores in that area sold long yellow linen dusters, high leather boots, and flat-crowned “wide-awake” hats patterned after those that Butterfield wore.

Actually, it was the contract John Butterfield and his New York associates made with the Post Office Department that made possible the first semiweekly mail service to and from California. When Butterfield guaranteed to deliver the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco in 25 days or less, he was awarded a $600,000 annual Post Office subsidy. As in the case of so many transportation developments in Americaland, sea, and air—carrying the mail was the decisive factor. Passenger freight, even at full capacity, would not defray operating expenses over Butterfield’s 2,800 mile route.

Soon after the Mexican Cession of 1848, pressure had been exerted from both ends of the country for transcontinental communications. The safest route to California was by water, and before the end of the year contracts were awarded for semimonthly service by sea between New York and San Francisco. In this way letters were carried to Panama by the United States Steamship Company, carted across the isthmus, loaded on vessels of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and then forwarded northward. The trip took thirty days, but the cost of a single letter varied from twelve to eighty cents per ounce.

The discovery of gold brought a virtual flood of settlers to California, and before long the people of the newly admitted state demanded faster and cheaper overland mail service. Pressure reached a climax in 1856 when 75,000 Californians signed a petition to Congress, requesting daily mails over a road through South Pass.

This action had the effect of the proverbial egg tossed into a whirling fan, injecting the sectional issue into the discussion. Southerners wanted the proposed overland route to terminate at some southern city, instead of Chicago or St. Louis, since the overland stage route would undoubtedly be followed soon afterward by a railroad. Congress dodged the sectional jealousies by authorizing the Post Office Department to call for bids on carrying the mail semiweekly from “a point on the Mississippi to San Francisco.” The route was to be “selected by the contractor.”

Since the postmaster general, Aaron Brown, was a southerner, it surprised no one to learn that the successful contractors—John Butterfield, William G. Fargo, and other New York expressmen—had proposed a southern route. Actually, the Postmaster General threw out all bids from companies advocating routes that bypassed the South. Therefore, before Butterfield signed the contract, he reluctantly agreed to a route nearly 600 miles south of his original proposal.

The route approved by Aaron Brown was a compromise. Starting at St. Louis and proceeding west on the railroad to Tipton, Missouri, it ran southwest to Springfield, Missouri, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, then along Randolph B. Marcy’s old road to El Paso. Passing through Tucson, it went on to Fort Yuma, California, and to San Francisco via Los Angeles.

On September 16, 1857, the contract was signed, and exactly one year later stages left simultaneously from Tipton, headed west, and from San Francisco, headed east. Operating regularly until the southern route was abandoned at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Butterfield stages nearly always completed the journey within the stipulated 25 days.

The route was a semicircular one which the northern press derisively dubbed the oxbow, and most of the eastern papers predicted that the venture would be a total failure. There was no doubt that Postmaster General Brown’s sympathies were bound up in the South. His choice of the southern route, although touching both North and South in its semicircular trail, was aimed particularly at the latter region. It did have certain advantages over more northerly routes: grass and water were available for the livestock, the trail was passable any day in the year, and at this period there was no trouble anticipated from the southwestern Indian tribes. Four other overland mail routes were in operation by the beginning of 1859, but the Butterfield coaches were the only ones never halted by weather or mountain passes.

At first John Butterfield’s company carried letter mail exclusively, but newspapers and small packages were transported later. A strict rule by the stockholders prevented shipments of gold or silver, thus practically eliminating holdups by highwaymen, and on only one occasion was there any interference by the Indians. From the outset, passenger service was available; but few people took advantage of the opportunity until the coaches had been in operation for several months. Twenty-five days of constant jolting over washboard roads, mudholes, deserts, and swollen streams were not likely to be anticipated pleasantly by even the most experienced traveler, and the available food was something to curdle a goat’s stomach. From St. Louis to San Francisco the throughfare was $200. Local or wayfare was ten cents per mile for the distance traveled. Passengers were allowed forty pounds of luggage—the same, incidentally, as that allowed by modern airline companies. But food, such as it was, came out of the traveler’s own pocketbook.

There were crude stations approximately twenty miles apart along the 2,800-mile route, each outpost being under the charge of an agent who, with four or five helpers, cared for the stock, changed relays, and prepared meals for the dusty passengers, drivers, and conductors. A New York Herald reporter, Waterman L. Ormsby, accompanied the first westbound coach for its entire journey and facetiously remarked that “the fare could hardly be compared to that of the Astor House in New York.” Generally it consisted of bacon, beans, bread, onions, and what passed tor coffee: but milk, butter, and vegetables could sometimes be had toward each end of the line. In addition, some writers referred to a strange and mysterious concoction known as slumgullion. Mark Twain described this drink as “a pretense of tea, but there was too much sand and old bacon rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”

An ancient tale still makes the rounds describing a New York dude who took the Overland stage through Texas in 1858. At a particular station he found the food less than appetizing, consisting of stale sourdough biscuits and rancid bacon, floating in its own grease. Timidly the traveler pushed back his plate as he cast a glance at the burly proprietor, the corners of his mouth revealing what his tongue dared not utter. “All right, dammit,” growled the short-tempered host, “help yourself to the mustard.”

After the contract was awarded, the Butterfield Company had a tremendous task ahead of it. The route had to be surveyed, roads built or improved, grades leveled, ferries and bridges constructed, wells dug, and the stations erected. Butterfield personally inspected much of the route, while 1,800 horses and mules were purchased and distributed over the trail, test runs made, a regular schedule planned, and forage and food deposited at the various stations. Orders were placed for 250 regular coaches, special mail wagons, water wagons, harness sets, and accessories.

These preliminary expenses alone amounted to nearly a million dollars, and one thousand or more employees were hired before the start of the first mail. They included divisional superintendents, conductors, drivers, station keepers, blacksmiths, veterinarians, wheelwrights, mechanics, helpers, and herders.

Two types of coaches were used, the Concord coach made at Concord, New Hampshire, and the “celerity” wagon manufactured at Troy, New York. The former, a regular full-bodied coach, weighed 3,000 pounds, had a capacity of about two tons, cost approximately $1,400, and could accommodate six to nine passengers inside and an unlimited number on top. These stages were made of the finest white ash, oak, elm, and prime basswood grown in New England forests. Fashioned by the famous Abbott-Downing Company, makers of horse-drawn carriages and buggies for more than a century, the light, elegant, and durable vehicles revolutionized western travel. Along with the Colt revolver, another New England export to the frontier, the stage so permeated the Old West that no horse opera is complete without it.

The Abbott-Downing coaches made for the Butterfield Company were painted in bright colors, usually red, green, or canary yellow. The wheels were heavy, with broad iron tires that would not sink in soft sand, and set wide enough apart—five feet two inches—to keep the coach from tipping. The body, reinforced with iron, was swung on leather straps or thorough braces stitched three and one-half inches wide. The cab rocked back and forth as the coach bowled forward, the thorough braces serving as shock absorbers. The more elegant Concord coaches were used only at each end of the route, but on the rougher sections of the road, from Fort Smith to Los Angeles, passengers and mail were shifted to carriages, or the specially built celerity wagons.

These were much like the regular coaches in appearance except for smaller wheels and a frame top structure covered with heavy duck. Also, they had three seats inside which could be adjusted to form a bed where passengers could sleep in relays. Heavy leather or duck curtains protected the occupants from rain and cold. The interiors of both types were lined with russet leather, with cushions of the same material. Illumination was furnished by wire-pattern candle lamps.

Eventually, nearly 200 stations were erected along the route, some at a minimum of nine miles and others at a maximum of sixty miles. The stations were built of log, adobe, or stone, depending upon the locality. Four or five well-armed men tenanted each station, but in Indian country the personnel might be increased to as many as eight or ten, since the isolated outposts tempted raiding bands of Indians and Mexicans. In 1858 three of the four men at work on Dragoon station in Apache country were hacked to death by Mexicans. The only survivor, whose arm had been cut off by an ax, endured four awful days, during which he was attacked by buzzards and wolves, before help arrived. Because of the constant danger, Texas and Arizona stations were fort-like stone and adobe structures, similar to the inns built in Mexico by the Spanish. Eleven-foot walls formed a rectangular corral, and small rooms were attached to the interior of the stockade. The single entrance was wide enough to admit a coach and team.

Ormsby wrote that the employees without exception were courteous, civil, and attentive. A few years later Mark Twain took the Central Overland stage to Carson City, Nevada. His observation of the drivers, conductors, and station keepers, most of whom had worked for Butterfield on the southern route before it was shifted north, was anything but flattering. The driver he acidly described as a contemptible, swaggering bully, “the only one they bowed down to and worshipped”; the station agent, a profane cutthroat, was wanted by half a dozen vigilante committees. And the district agent or superintendent, who supervised the various stations along his 25O-mile division, differed from his subordinates in that he was quicker on the draw: “It was not absolutely necessary that he be a gentleman, and occasionally he wasn’t.”

The conductor’s beat was the same as that of the divisional agent, and frequently he rode the fearful distance night and day without rest or sleep. He had absolute charge of the mail, express matters, passengers, and stagecoach until he delivered them to the next conductor and got his receipt.

The vehicles were pulled by four to six horses or mules and rolled day and night except for brief stops for meals and a change of relays. Their speed varied from four miles in rough country to spurts of twelve miles per hour over level stretches of prairies or down long straight slopes. The drivers were proud of the time they made, and Ormsby wrote feelingly of “the heavy mail wagon whizzing and whirling over the jagged rock … in comparative darkness.” Inside, “to feel oneself bouncing—now on the hard seat, now against the roof, and now against the side … was no joke.” Each driver drove a sixty-mile run, stopped for a few hours’ rest before taking the next opposite-bound coach back over the same stretch of road.

Except for the meal stops twice each day, the coaches lingered only ten minutes at each station to obtain a fresh relay of horses or mules and to pick up and discharge mail sacks. The conductor sounded a bugle two or three miles from the station, announcing the coach’s arrival, so that everything was in readiness for a quick change. In 24 hours the stage covered approximately 120 miles, and after the first three or four days the passengers became inured to the discomfort of the hard seat, jolting road, and insufferable dust—catching a few winks of sleep when they could.

There is a record of only one attack by Indians which halted the mail along the southern route. It happened at Apache Pass, or Puerto del Dado, Arizona, early in February, 1861. At nearby Fort Buchanan, the commander had received word that Apaches had raided a beef contractor’s cattle and had also abducted a young boy. Lieutenant George Bascom and sixty men of the 7th Infantry were sent in pursuit, and in the Dragoon Mountains met Chief Cochise of the Chiricahua tribe, who insisted his tribe did not have the boy. Apparently Bascom did not believe the Chief, and there was a brief fracas in which one Indian was killed and four taken prisoner.

After Bascom and his men went on to Apache Pass, the Indians on February 5 planned a mass attack on the station. The Butterfield mail from the east was due the next evening; but luckily it arrived two hours early, left shortly after changing teams, and reached the west end of the pass while it was still light. Here, about a mile and a half from the station, dried grass was piled in heaps across the road to form a fire ambush. The Butterfield men cleared the road, and had proceeded for another half mile when they came on what was left of an emigrant train. Amid the smoldering embers of the wagons were the mutilated bodies of the victims. Eight of them, who had not been fortunate enough to be shot, had been chained to the wagon wheels and burned alive.

By this time it was too dark to go back through the dangerous pass to inform the station about the massacre, so the stage pushed on to the west. About halfway to the next station, they met the eastbound stage and warned them of what lay ahead. Aboard were nine passengers, including a superintendent inspecting the line; the conductor, A. B. Culver, brother of the station keeper at Apache Pass; and the driver. All were armed, and they decided to risk an attack and proceed.

Entering the pass after dark, the driver whipped the mules to greater speed, and as the stage clattered down the eastern grade shots rang out from ambush. Two mules went down, and the driver was wounded, but the passengers kept up a steady fire in the direction of the shots while the superintendent and Culver cut the two mules out of the traces. With the animals that remained, they fought their way to Apache Pass Station, where they spent the night.

Knowing they were outnumbered by at least 5 to 1, the station agent, C. W. Culver, decided to make terms with the enemy. Next morning he and his helper Welch and the driver, J. F. Wallace, went out of the little fort under a flag of truce. Some distance from the station the Indians rushed them, capturing Wallace. The other two men turned and ran; Welch was shot down, but Culver, although badly wounded, made it to the station. Several days later Wallace’s body and the corpses of five prisoners from the luckless wagon train were found staked out on the plains west of the pass, half-eaten by vultures and coyotes.

After John Butterfield stepped down as president of the Overland Stage Company in 1860, the morale and discipline of the employees declined. On March 12, 1861, Congress ordered the route permanently discontinued and the service transferred to the central section of the country via South Pass and Salt Lake City. A year later Ben Holladay took over the company, selling it in 1866 to Wells, Fargo and Company. It continued in operation from the Missouri River to Sacramento, California, until completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. From then until the close of the century, overland staging was relegated to a secondary place in frontier life. Eventually even the local stage disappeared completely from the American scene, to be revived only by Hollywood and the commercial rodeo.

After being practically abandoned for a quarter of a century, the southern overland road laid out by John Butterfield soon became crisscrossed and paralleled by highways, railroads, and airlines, each profiting from the labors of those early road builders. In many places the railroad grade follows the very ruts of the old trail, and trains take on water today from wells dug by the Butterfield men. Even now the best all-weather highway from St. Louis to San Francisco approximates the thin line across prairies and mountain passes over which the Concord and Troy coaches once kicked up dust, and the best year-round air route follows the same low passes over which the Butterfield stages “flow” a century ago.


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