The Butterfield Overland Mail — stitching the country together

On a time line, the two and one-half year operation (1857-1861) of the Butterfield Overland Mail was but a  flash in the history of transportation in the United States.  But this short-lived operation captured and held the imagination of Americans because it stitched together the growing country from sea to sea.

Map of Butterfield Mail Stage Route.  To test the system, a mailbag was transferred from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco, California in 24 days.
Map of Butterfield Mail Stage Route.

Prior to 1857, there was no organized, commercial system of transportation west of the Mississippi River.  Although many people had crossed the United States by land, the word “overland” had not come into the American vocabulary.  On the historical scale, the Butterfield Overland Mail was symbolic of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which held that it was the duty and right of the United States to expand across the continent.

Adding to the national pride engendered by this symbolism, was unadulterated awe - still felt today - at the rapidity with which the endeavor got under way.  The backing of the federal government was obtained, trails were laid out, stations were set up and manned, coaches and wagons were manufactured and put into operation, and the many obstacles of travel across long stretches of pure wilderness were surmounted.

Several names were associated with the enterprise, but the major credit goes to one man, New  Yorker businessman and financier John Butterfield.  After much political log-rolling by Congress, he obtained a $600,000 government contract to establish and run the Overland Mail Company from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California.  Butterfield had already proven his ability in organization and administration by erecting the first telegraph line between New York City and Buffalo.  He had built and managed several passenger stagecoach lines and had constructed the first steam railroad and first street horse railway system in Utica, New York, a city of which he also became the mayor.  The American Express Company owes its formation to Butterfield.  Here was a man who was uniquely qualified to spearhead the first transcontinental stage line, stretching 2,800 miles from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast.

A Butterfield Stage coach with extra back seat. Photo courtesy Bill Kelly.
A Butterfield Stage coach

The building and the short life of the Butterfield Overland Mail were dictated by important events in history.  The Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 added territory that needed to be incorporated into this country.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and California became a state in 1850.  The flood of gold-seekers heading for the Pacific Coast, along with the U.S. Mail, embarked from the East Coast and sailed to the Isthmus of Panama.  Here passengers and cargo went ashore, crossed the mountainous strip of Panama, and took another ship up the West Coast of Central America, past Mexico, and thence to California.

Year-round operation of the Butterfield Overland Mail dictated the choice of a route through the  milder climate of the southern tier of states and territories.  This choice, by routing the trail through Texas, led to its short life as the Civil War commenced.  Confederate sympathizers threatened violence to the line even before Texas seceded from the United States.  Union troops were pulled out of the Southwest to engage in battle in the East.  Some Indians further endangered the stage line by taking advantage of the lack of military strength in the area.

In 1861, operation of the twice-weekly mail and passenger service was effectively stopped. In establishing the service, Butterfield had said, “Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!”  And nothing did.  During its two and one-half years of service, every eastbound and westbound stage arrived within the 25-day contract time.  Sometimes the trips were reduced to 21 days.  It was an unqualified success.

The beginning of the Butterfield Line was officially in St. Louis.  However, since the railroad extended west a short distance from the Mississippi, passengers and mail traveled on the train as far as Tipton where they encountered the first of the Butterfield Overland’s stations and a new coach.  This vehicle was described by a reporter, the only through passenger on the inaugural westbound journey, as “quite expensively built.”  From Tipton, the route lay southwest through a corner of Arkansas, cutting diagonally across what was then Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and across a broad expanse of Texas.  A swing up the east side of the Pecos River found a favorable crossing point at Pope’s Camp, then it was north along the Rio Grande into La Mesilla. From there, the route ran westward on a line roughly paralleling present-day I-10.  Stations were spaced from 15 to 20 miles apart.  In the arid terrain of then-territorial New Mexico, the stations had to be spaced further apart, either at existing springs or where wells were successfully dug, until the way reached the Gila River and followed it into California.  There it wound northward to San Francisco.

Even the road through settled country west of St. Louis and through California was rocky and rutted.  By the time the Llano Estacado was reached, the passengers were riding in and on a “celerity wagon” which was set on leather straps rather than springs.  Because stages traveled  day and night, these wagons converted to a sleeping car at night.  Each wagon had three seats, which folded down to make one bed which accommodated from four to ten persons.

In long stretches, the road on which these wagons traveled had only recently been hacked out of the wilderness by crews of surveyors, engineers, workers and teams of draft animals, supervised by Butterfield.  Passengers reported that root snags and boulders were treacherous for the unwary.

Overall, though, the Butterfield Trail was an accomplishment to excite wonder and pride.  John Butterfield had to build about 150 stations and corrals, dig wells and cisterns, grade fording sites, open new roads or improve old ones, establish supply bases and repair shops, purchase and distribute 1200 horses and 600 mules, procure several thousand tons of hay and fodder, build hundreds of coaches, and hire 750 to 800 men.

At river crossings, if there was a convenient passage, the wagons forded the river.  At night the lanterns carried by the wagons were augmented by a man riding horseback, also carrying a lantern, who guided the drivers across the fords.  Where the rivers were too deep or swift, there were ferries - rafts which were poled across.  At the crossing of Red River - the boundary between Texas and the Indian Territory - the ferry business was run by a very prosperous Chickasaw Indian named Benjamin Franklin Colbert.  The man owned 25 slaves, and used these road gangs not only to pole the ferry across the river, but to keep the roads leading in to Colbert’s Ferry in good condition.

The only through passenger on the first westbound stage was Waterman L. Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald.  His stories, mailed back to the paper and published in six issues, were later published as a book.  Other passengers and some of the many employees of the Butterfield Overland Mail have left reports of conditions of travel along the way.  All describe the stations as meant for utility not comfort.  According to one passenger, the floors were “much like the ground outside, only not nearly so clean.”

Usually ten minutes were allowed for a stop at the stations, with only a few providing accommodations for feeding passengers.  When the horses or mules had been changed, the stage was underway again.  The wag
ons did stop morning, noon, and night for meals.

Almost everyone agreed the food was abominable.  Ormsby said, “…the fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts.  It consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh - the latter tough enough.  Milk, butter, vegetables were only met with towards the two ends of the trip.”  He reported another meal of shortcake, coffee, dried beef and raw onions.  Often there were not enough plates or tin cups to serve the passengers.

The fares for passengers were set at $100 from San Francisco east, but $200 from St. Louis or Memphis going west.  This amount was to be paid in gold.  The fare did not include meals which ranged from 75 cents to a dollar.  The baggage allowance was 40 pounds per passenger, a figure that is echoed in the baggage allowance on international flights today.

Passengers were, in a way, a burden and the passenger traffic was never heavy.  The Butterfield Overland Mail was meant to carry the U.S. Mail.  In the month of July 1860, 6020 pieces of mail were carried from San Francisco.  The service was so reliable that the British government sent official correspondence destined for British Columbia by the Butterfield Overland Mail.

To remove temptation from the outlaw element along the way, Butterfield refused to carry payrolls or other valuables.  There were plenty of other dangers - stages overturned, untrained animals were used to pull the coaches.  Some of the drivers and conductors got “on the job training.”  Passengers had a difficult time sleeping the first week.  After that, they seemed to settle in, and their biggest complaint was boredom.

Today, there are a few physical reminders of this undertaking.  The building which houses La Posta restaurant in La Mesilla, south of Las Cruces, was used as a station.  Foundations of the station at Fort Bowie in Arizona are extant.  In some places that have not been paved over by highways, there are still traces of the trail.

It is in the memory of Americans that the Butterfield Overland Mail lives.  The postmaster’s report said of it, “…with energy, skill and perseverance the vast wilderness was first penetrated by the mail stages of the United States and the two great oceans united by the longest and most important land route ever established in any country.” This may seem like hyperbole now.  But at that time, his statement was not an exaggeration.