The famous Southern Overland Mail Route, better known as the Butterfield Stage in romantic Wild West movies, actually operated its twice-weekly mail and passenger service for less than three years from September 15, 1858 until March 1, 1861. Two trails from the east started from St. Louis and from Memphis, Tennessee. When the trails met at Fort Smith, Arkansas, they joined and continued west. The line swooped south through Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) in what was called the “Ox Bow” to avoid the snows and mountain passes of the central regions of the country. The stages crossed the Red River into Texas on Colbert’s Ferry near present Denison and headed west for the 740-mile, eight-day trip to Franklin (present El Paso). The stages ran night and day averaging speeds of five to twelve miles per hour. Primitive stations offering water and a change of horses lay about every twenty miles along the flat, desert-like trail and were spaced between stops at Fort Belknap, Fort Phantom Hill, and Fort Chadbourne. The route crossed the Pecos River, skirted the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, and reached the dividing point between the route’s east and west divisions at present day El Paso.
Passengers who did not want to make the grueling trip straight through could lay over, get some rest, and take a later stage. However, if the next few stages were full, a traveler might be marooned for up to a month. Almost everyone agreed the food was awful. Waterman Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald was the only passenger for a portion of the first trip from St. Louis. He sent dispatches along the way to his paper describing the journey. He wrote, “…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 described another meal of shortcake, coffee, dried beef and raw onions. He said that often there were not enough plates or tin cups to serve the passengers. Mail delivery took top priority, which often resulted in mailbags being crammed into the coach with the passengers. On the stretch from Fort Belknap in Texas to Tucson, Arizona, the handsome
Concord-made coaches weighing more than two tons were replaced by lighter-weight “celerity” or mud wagons and the team of four to six horses stepped aside for mule power that proved to be a lot less attractive to Indians. The mud wagons had light frames that made it easier to maneuver the deep sands and mud. The roofs were made of thick duck or canvass and the open sides allowed the free flow of air as well as dust and rain.
Until Congress authorized the U.S. postmaster general to offer a contract to deliver mail from St. Louis to San Francisco, all mail bound for the West Coast had to be shipped through the Gulf of Mexico, freighted across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific and shipped up the coast to California. John W. Butterfield and his associates won the U.S. government contract in September 1857 to haul mail and passengers across the southern part of the country to California. It took a year to assemble the necessary equipment–a huge investment in 250 Concord Stagecoaches, 1,200 horses, and 600 mules. They dug cisterns or water wells and built corrals at 139 relay stations and hired 800 employees, including drivers, conductors, station keepers, blacksmiths, and wranglers. The government contract called for the Butterfield Overland Stage Company to receive $600,000 a year, plus the money it earned on passenger fares and the receipts for mail. Postage cost ten cents per half-ounce and passengers paid $200 for the one-way 2,795-mile trip. The coaches departed each Monday and Thursday morning in the east from near St. Louis and in the west from San Francisco for the 25-day journey.
At the conclusion of that first trip west, Waterman Ormsby, the New York Herald correspondent wrote: “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.”
Despite passengers complaints of discomfort the Concord coaches, unlike other conveyances that rode on steel springs, were suspended on thoroughbraces, leather straps fashioned for each coach from over a dozen oxen hides that were cured to be as tough as steel. In 1861, when Mark Twain’s brother Orion Clemens was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, Twain accompanied him on the trip west and wrote of the journey in Roughing It. Twain describes their stagecoach as “a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description—an imposing cradle on wheels.”
Continued debt and competition from the Pony Express that proved mail could be delivered cross-country in ten days forced Butterfield out of the Overland Stage Company. Wells Fargo took over the operation and in anticipation of the Civil War, the southern Ox Bow route through Texas made its last run on March 21, 1861. With the start of the Civil War on April 12, Wells Fargo moved all the equipment north and continued the operation as the Central Overland Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California.
On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Congressional legislation authorizing the study of the designation of the Butterfield Overland Trail National Historic Trail.
For additional information about what it was like riding on Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company stagecoaches go to the California Stage Parks site and pick my report “Butterfield Overland Mail Company Stagecoaches and Stage (Celerity) Wagons on the Southern Trail”:
I am looking forward to reading your report. I find the images very interesting. Thanks for sharing.
An overall good article, but the bottom paragraph for why the Overland Mail Company ceased operations on the Southern Trail is erroneous. In the hand-written minutes of the March 17, 1860, John Butterfield was voted out of office and replaced by William B. Dinsmore. Butterfield remained a director and the company he formed to meet the contract, the Overland Mail Company, remained in place. Although Wells, Fargo was behind the scene as an investor, they did not completely take over control until 1866 (on the Central Trail) in what was known as the “Great Consolidation.” It was not competition from the Pony Express that forced Butterfield out. This can be shown by the fact that when the Overland Mail Company contract continued on the Central Trail it overlapped the Pony Express by two months and then the OMC contact continued on until 1864 three years after the Pony Express ceased its service. Wells Fargo did not take over the operation in anticipation of the Civil War. The contract was for six years and it was Congress that order the Overland Mail Company to transfer all equipment, livestock, and personnel to the Central Trail. And indeed, it was Overland Mail Company employee Edwin Purple, who was stationed at Fort Yuma, that took all the equipment from Los Angeles to Tucson to Salt Lake City, to continue the contract from there going west. Again, Wells Fargo only had partial control over the Overland Mail Company. You will also note that Wells, Fargo & Co. never operated as a stage line until mid-1867 well after the six year overland Mail Company Contract. You will also not the not stagecoach for the contract ever used the name “Butterfield” on the side of the coaches. There never was a “Butterfield Stage Line.” Only the official name “Overland Mail Company” was used on the stagecoaches and all equipment. The most professionally written articles, with complete primary source references, were written by Ken Wheeling, “The Abbot-Downing and Company’s Famous 30,” and W. Turrentine Jackson’s “A New Look at Wells Fargo, Stagecoaches and the Pony Express.” My recent book “The Butterfield Trail and Overland Mail Company in Arizona, 1858-1861,” also explains some of these points. Gerald T. Ahnert
Thanks, Gerald, for adding so much to the post, Butterfield Stage Across Texas. Good luck with your recent book, “The Butterfield Trail and Overland Mail C ompany in Arizona, 1858-1861.”
Usually five or six passengers traveled in a coach; however, more could be squeezed in or mailbags could be shoved in beside the passengers. Ormsby, the newspaper reported said after three nights without sleep, he finally had enough space to stretch out and he completely forgot the banging of his head and bouncing.
Myra, how many passengers could fit in the coaches and mud wagons? It looks like four or six would be the maximum. Twenty-four days of Hell, indeed!