Legacy of the Butterfield Overland Stage Company

This Blog is dedicated to my high school classmate and lifelong friend:

Fern (Butterfield) Frazier

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Waterman Lily Ormsby III left his home and family to become the first person to complete – as sole passenger – the first trip on the Butterfield Overland Mail coach.

On the afternoon of September 28, 1858, the conductor of the first westbound Butterfield Overland Mail Coach sounded his bugle to announce the coach’s arrival at the Pinery. The station was named for nearby stands of pine. With abundant water from Pine Spring and good grazing, it was one of the most favorably situated stations on the original 2,800-mile Butterfield route. Located at 5,534-foot Guadalupe Pass, the Pinery was also the highest.

After a meal of venison and baked beans and a change of horses, the weary travelers jolted slowly down the pass on their rough-riding stage. Shortly after sunset, near the base of Guadalupe Pass, the westbound coach from St. Louis pulled alongside the eastbound from San Francisco. The excited passengers and drivers exchanged comments about their history-making encounter. For the brief space of a conversation, the ends of the continent were connected. But there was mail to deliver; the stages rolled on as contracted, traveling an average of five miles an hour around the clock, and averaging 120 miles a day. The Butterfield contract called for semi-weekly runs, covering 2,800 miles in a maximum of 25 days. In its two and a half years of operation the Butterfield never broke its contract.

Imagine the feeling of isolation experienced by the station masters and their crews, and the sense of excitement and companionship brought by the stages. Between Fort Chadborne and El Paso, a distance of 458 miles, there was no sign of habitation other than outpost stage stations. The stage route between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and San Francisco, California, passed through only two real towns: Tucson and El Paso. One stretch of route had no settlements for 900 miles; another had no water for 75.

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One of the best preserved stagecoach stations on the Butterfield Overland mail route between Memphis and Fort Smith is the Potts home in Pottsville Arkansas. This fine example of antebellum architecture, built in the 1850’s, occupies a large block in the town in Pottsville. The Potts family lived in this home until it was sold to Pope County in the early 1970s. Extra barns were built on the premises to house horses and extra harnesses, etc., for the stagecoaches to change out when they stopped.

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People liked to stop at the Potts home, whether on the stage or just traveling through by buggy or horse. Mrs. Potts was well known for her clean beds and good food. Of course, you could also get a bath. The first person would pay the most for his/her bath and each person thereafter would pay a little less. The last person would pay the least and have to empty the tub. The Potts Home is now managed by the Pope County Historical Foundation.

A quarter of a million men and more rushed west to California during the bonanza years of 1849-53, most of them leaving their wives, sweethearts, children, parents, and other relatives behind. Up until this time, mail had been conveyed by private companies some under federal contract, using various routes, including ocean steamer around South America, or overland across the Isthmus of Panama. But new settlers in Oregon and California were not at all happy with sporadic mail service–at best once or twice a month.

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In 1857 Congress voted to subsidize a semi-weekly overland mail service. The line was to run “from such point of the Mississippi River as the contractors may select, to San Francisco.” Further, this service was to be performed with “good four horse coaches or spring wagons suitable for the conveyance of passengers, as well as the safety and security of the mails.” And the distance each way had to be traveled in twenty-five days or less, “the service to commence within twelve months after the signing of the contract.” John Butterfield, who had been a stage driver for some eastern stagelines, and had started the American Express company, bid successfully for the six-year contract. The famous Butterfield Overland Express Company carried the mail from St. Louis, following a southerly route through Texas and Arizona and then up the California Coastline to San Francisco.

Friends of John Butterfield were appalled when they learned of the contract he had signed calling for him to begin operating this line within one year. However, Butterfield had long experience in the staging business, and knew what he was doing. Born in New York in 1801, he had received little formal education; he had gone into staging, becoming a driver while still in his early teens. Through hard work and ability he had risen to ownership of several lines in New York, and in 1850 he had been one of the founders of the American Express Company. His prominence was such that by 1857 he was a personal friend of President James Buchanan and of many of the most influential men of the day.

Butterfield, after signing the contract, began working with a vigor that defied his fifty-six years. His first necessity was men; mainly he hired old and experienced frontiersmen to work for his company, men friendly with the various Indian tribes that would be encountered along the right-of-way. Then, using the most capable men he began laying out the road to be followed and erecting way stations along the line. From Tipton, Missouri to Fort Smith Arkansas, he used existing roads. From Fort Smith west to California he used Marcy’s road and the Gila Trail, while inside California he again used existing roads. This gave him a route of generally hard surface and gentle grades, even over the continental divide. The route was divided into eastern and western divisions, with El Paso the dividing point; then these were subdivided into five minor divisions in the East and four in the West. Each of these minor divisions was under the direction of a superintendent. And it was these men on whom Butterfield relied to keep his stages rolling.

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Beyond hiring employees, creating the route, and establishing the way stations, Butterfield also had to purchase the animals and rolling stock for his line. These totaled more than a thousand horses and some seven hundred mules, eight hundred sets of harness, and about two hundred and fifty Concord stagecoaches and spring wagons. He and his eight hundred employees worked feverishly to stockpile hay, grain, and other supplies, along with food, at each of the nearly two hundred way stations, just as arrangements had to be made for regular deliveries to each of them after the coaches began rolling. And drivers set out to familiarize themselves with their 60-mile stretches of the road. To make the necessary 25-mile daily run the coaches had to roll both day and night. Therefore, each driver had to know his 60-mile stretch extremely well. Conductors, who would ride beside the drivers, made a 120-mile route, and it was they who had absolute charge of the coaches.

John Butterfield, who wore a long yellow linen duster, a flat-brimmed hat, and tucked his pants into high boots, told his drivers, “Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the mail!” He at first had planned to carry four passengers. Soon he was carrying nine passengers, knees locked tightly together, with a few more perched on the roof. As the Butterfield coaches sped though towns, bands played, guns were fired, and men flung their hats high into the air. But the Westerners were still unhappy.

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The Butterfield Stage route had two eastern termini, Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California. The routes from each eastern terminus met at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then continued through Indian Territory, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Baja California, and California ending in San Francisco. Because of the untamed nature of the Mississippi River and its Arkansas tributaries in those years, the southern route necessarily utilized various alternative routes and methods of travel. There was no Mississippi River bridge at Memphis, and the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad ran from Hopefield near present-day West Memphis, Arkansas only to a point 12 miles east of Madison, Arkansas on the St. Francis River. From there the route headed overland by stagecoach. When the Arkansas River was high enough, the mail could instead travel from Memphis by steamboat down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River, navigate up that river to Little Rock, and on from there by stagecoach. When the Arkansas was too low for steamboat traffic, the Butterfield could take the White River to Clarendon, Arkansas or Des Arc, Arkansas before switching to the stagecoaches. Sometimes the entire route across eastern Arkansas would be by stage.

However successful Butterfield was, his route did not please northern Californians, or Oregonians. They wanted a line that ran directly west from St. Louis, passing through Salt Lake City and then on to Sacramento and San Francisco. In support of this, they argued that the run over this northern route could be made in several days less time. Butterfield agreed with their statement as it related to the summer months, but said that during the winter the northern route would be closed by snow. The northern Californians insisted such was not the case and that the northern route could be kept open year round, but Butterfield continued to insist that this was the best and most usable route to the Pacific.

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Nevertheless, the Butterfield Overland Mail was a reality. It became a day-to-day part of the southwestern scene, its presence taken for granted. Yet the Butterfield, with its high cost of moving the mail, could not carry freight at a reasonable cost. When it first began operating, the Overland carried only letters; later it would transport newspapers and small packages. However, the goods that Southwesterners wanted and needed were bulky and were ordered in quantity. Thus they would have to come from the East in freight wagons, not stagecoaches, and at a much slower pace.

In the winter of 1859, the idea of the Pony Express was conceived to demonstrate the advantages of the much desired central route to transport the mail. By spring of 1860, the Pony Express was put into action between St. Louis and Sacramento. It promised unprecedented speed in mail delivery over almost 2000 miles. Utilizing a string of riders, some as young as 14, and chosen for their nerve and light weight, a relay was run on galloping horses changed approximately every 15 miles. The pay for pony express riders was from $50 to $150 a month and board. Those who rode though Nebraska and Colorado, which at this time was seeing more and more Indian troubles, were paid $150 for their services. The riders, who carried up to 10 pounds of mail rode for an average of seventy-five miles. The letters the riders carried were wrapped in oil silk as a protection against the weather, being placed in four pockets of a leather pouch, in order that the weight might be more evenly distributed.

The Pony Express continued to operate until the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. Even though it lost money due to unexpectedly high operation costs, the rate for a half-ounce letter taken the entire distance was $5.00, and with the small volume of mail one rider could carry, it dramatically demonstrated the practicality of the central route.

In 1859, an additional overland mail route was established under the ownership of the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express. It left Atchison, Missouri, and followed a more central route directly to Denver, a trip that would take 6 days traveling day and night, over 700 miles. very few stations were located along either route, and all of the mail service was definitely lacking in dependability and regularity, let alone speed. In 1860 the Leavenworth Express was almost defunct and sold to new owners who named it the “Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express.” The new owners also experienced severe financial difficulties, and the C.O.C. & P.P. line was soon called: “Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay.” By the spring of 1862, less than a year after daily mail service began over this route, the C.O.C. & P.P. was mired in debt, including owing Ben Holladay some $208,000 that he had loaned them the year before. Holladay, who had amassed a small fortune by the 1850’s, bought the financially strapped overland mail stage line at public auction for a sum of $100,000. Holladay, being a vigorous and efficient organizer, went about re-stocking all the existing stations with men, horses and supplies, and using the finest of coaches. He was determined that the mail line would soon be on a paying basis.omfounder

The Founder:

John Warren Butterfield (1801–1869) was an operator of stagecoach and freight lines in the mid-19th century in the American Northeast and Southwest. He founded companies that became American Express and Wells Fargo. Butterfield also founded the Butterfield Overland Express and from 1858 to 1861 operated a stage route running from St. Louis to San Francisco, establishing an important connection between the new state of California and the government and economy of the contiguous eastern states.

John was born on a farm in Berne, New York, in 1801 to Daniel and Catheline Butterfield. He was largely self taught and by the age of 19 was a professional stage coach driver working out of Albany, New York, conveying passengers and freight to Utica. In 1822 he married Malinda Harriet Baker of Berne. He later established stage routes throughout New York State, and other means of transportation including packet and steamboats on Lake Ontario, the street railroad in Utica, and local plank-roads. He organized the Black River railroad. In 1850 his firm of Butterfield, Wasson & Co. merged with Livingston, Fargo & Co. and Wells & Co. as the American Express Co. under his direction.

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Butterfield also had interests in various railroad developments, telegraph facilities, and banks. He was very fond of the city of Utica, situated along the Mohawk River in New York, where he built an elaborate home and commercial buildings, and also a business. He was elected mayor of Utica in 1865.

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Butterfield’s involvement with the stage coach transport business brought him directly to his participation in the express business. He was one of the first to see the commercial potential in the various services made possible with the use of stage coaches as vehicles of mail and freight transport. Butterfield’s success was made easier because he came to the industry early on when the American nation was still developing and rapidly growing and with little competition to deal with. In 1857 he organized the long Butterfield Overland Mail route and, until 1861, contracted with the U.S. government to carry mail and passengers between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, California. In 1860, due to debts, Butterfield was forced out and Wells Fargo took over the route. He retired to his home in Utica where, after serving briefly as mayor. At the age of 59 in 1869 he retired early because of a sore throat never to awaken.

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Some 160 years after John Butterfield’s stagecoaches were crisscrossing the West, the evidence can still be seen as the service left an indelible mark on America.

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