The Overland Stage

Stagecoach 001

The Overland Stage under attack

Despite Hollywood depictions of the old west stagecoach, the reality of this venture —the overland stage, was considerably different.  The journey was tough, extremely dangerous, and very short lived.

Stagecoach service existed in England in 1300’s, but the first recorded service occurred in the early 1600’s.  A plethora of such services evolved in England, along with several coaching inns established between Liverpool and London.  By the end of the 17thCentury, stage lines ran up and down the three main roads in England, all of them originating in London. The Royal Mail Service was behind many innovations to stage service in England.  Thus, the concept of overland stage lines was transferred to the English colonies in the Americas.

In 1744, crude wagons were used to transport passengers and cargo between New England towns and villages.  This service was later expanded to include service between New York and Philadelphia. By 1766, improved coaches significantly shortened travel times for passengers and mail.  Demand for travel and shipping services inspired the construction of turnpikes and highways throughout the northeastern United States. In 1827, two men in Concord, New Hampshire developed an improved coach—one that incorporated the use of leather straps for suspension, which gave their vehicles a swaying (rather than rocking) motion.

By 1829, Boston, Massachusetts was the hub of stagecoach services—77 in all, expanding to 102 express companies by 1832.  Despite improvement to the design and construction of stagecoaches, travel remained uncomfortable and dangerous.

John Warren Butterfield [1] was born in Berne, New York in 1801.  By 1820, Butterfield was an experienced stage driver, conveying passengers and freight between Albany and Utica, New York. Within a few years, he began to expand stage routes throughout New York State and branched out to include packet and steamboats operating on Lake Ontario, a street railroad in Utica, and local plank-rail systems, such as the Black River Railroad.

Businessmen and government agencies came to recognize in the 1840’s that demand for travel and shipping would expand into the western territories. There were several proposals —foremost among them being the construction of a railroad system across the continent. Everyone realized that a railroad would take many years, America’s terrain would pose difficult challenges, and this meant that a railroad would be very expensive.  In the meantime, American entrepreneurs would have to rely on a proven method for shipping and transportation.  Overland stage transportation already existed; all that was needed was to expand these services into the western territories.

Urgency for western shipping surged after the discovery of gold in California in 1849.  Gold mania not only affected individuals hoping to strike it rich in the California gold fields, it also created a flurry of activity among capitalists seeking to take advantage of the sudden increase in demand for cross-continental shipping.

Henry Wells founded Wells & Company; William G. Fargo was a partner in the Livingston, Fargo & Company.  Both companies operated express services.  John Butterworth appeared as a rival in 1849.  Wells and Fargo realized that their competition with Butterfield was destructive, wasteful, and unnecessary.  In 1850, Wells, Fargo, and Butterfield joined forces to form the American Express Company.  Soon afterwards, American Express decided to expand its interests in California.  Their most powerful competitor at the time was the Adams Express Company, who operated a monopoly of express services in the western states and territories.  While operating the American Express Company, Wells and Fargo launched their name-sake business on 18 March 1852 —organized as a joint-stock company with around $300,000 in assets.  The board of directors of Wells-Fargo Company included nine-prominent businessmen; three of whom also served as officers of the American Express Company: Wells, Fargo, and financier Edwin B. Morgan, who served as Wells-Fargo’s first President.

In the mid-1850s, the US Congress authorized the Postmaster General of the United States to contract mail services from Missouri to California. Members of congress were convinced that an overland stage would help to facilitate the development of the western territories by increasing the population of American citizens.  Accordingly, the Postmaster General solicited bids for an overland mail service on 20 April 1857.  Bidders were asked to propose routes from the Mississippi River westward.

John W. Butterfield, William B. Dinsmore, William G. Fargo, James V. Gardner, Marcus L. Kinyon, Alexander Holland, and Hamilton Spencer (collectively known as Butterfield & Associates) proposed a southern route from St. Louis, Missouri to California.  Altogether, the United States Postal Department received nine bids. Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown, a gentleman from Tennessee, favored the southern (Butterfield) route.  It was called the Oxbow, which extended westward from Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri converged at Little Rock, Arkansas, and proceeded to Preston, Texas (or the best point of crossing the Rio Grande above El Paso, Texas nearest Fort Fillmore) and thence along a new route to Fort Yuma, California, through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging, to San Francisco.

Although the Oxbow Route was 600 miles longer than central and northern routes through Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah … the southern route was, for the most part, free of snow and ice.  Butterfield & Associates received the contract for a semi-weekly mail service.  The contract intended to pay Butterfield $600,000 annually.

Concord Stage 001The Butterfield Overland Stage began its operations in September 1858. The route was divided into eastern and western sectors.  El Paso, Texas was the mid-point between these two expansions, each further divided into shorter legs: five in the east, and four in the west.  The distance between each leg, and the allotted time for completing it, depended on geography and weather conditions.  As an example, the first eastbound leg extended from San Francisco to Los Angeles (462 miles); stagecoach drivers were allowed 80 hours to make this trip.  The second leg allowed 73 hours to complete the journey between Los Angeles and Fort Yuma (272 miles).

The Post Office granted Butterfield & Associates a 6-year contract to operate a twice-weekly mail service.  Butterfield expanded stage operations to include passenger and freight services from St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee, both routes converging at Fort Smith, Arkansas, into and across Texas to Fort Yuma, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.  The distance was 2,795 miles—perhaps the longest route of any system using horse-drawn conveyances.

Stagecoach 002Each Monday and Thursday morning, a stagecoach would leave Tipton and San Francisco on their cross-continent voyage carrying passengers, freight, and up to 12,000 letters.  Butterfield charged passengers a one-way fare of $200 from Memphis/St. Louis to San Francisco.  On shorter routes, passengers paid fifteen cents per mile.  Most stages arrived at their destinations within 22 days, averaging between 5-9 miles per hour.  To complete his task, Butterfield employed 800 people involving 139 relay stations, 2,000 horses, and 250 Concord stagecoaches (pictured above when owned by Wells Fargo). Butterfield’s drivers were tough frontiersmen; no one of less ability could handle such hardships.  Drivers and assistants had to be excellent riflemen. Each team drove a 120-mile round trip route.  Contrary to popular belief, gold and silver were never shipped via the Overland Stage Company.

With limited routes across the United States, stage routes had to be kept open for settlers, miners, and businessmen. Responsibility for guarding the route fell upon the US Army, which mostly involved infantry units in 1857; the US Cavalry never fully developed until the Civil War.  As the war loomed, a demand for faster communications resulted in the creation of the Pony Express Company across the central and northern routes.  In anticipating the Civil War, and owing to its southern route, the US government revoked its contract with Butterfield in March 1860.  Butterfield had incurred significant debt in setting up the Overland Stage; without a government contract, he was unable to pay his creditors.  This is when the Well-Fargo Company stepped in and took control of the Overland Stage Company.  Butterfield’s assets (along with those of the Pony Express) ended up with Wells-Fargo.  The last Butterfield/Oxbow run began on 21 March 1861.

On 2 March 1861, a central route went into effect from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California [2].  They called this new route the Central Overland California Route.  Within the framework of the Confederate States of America, George Henry Giddings continued to operate an overland stage through the Oxbow, albeit with limited success through early 1862.  Of interest, there were at least four distinct civil war battles at or near Butterfield mail posts: Stanwix Station, Picacho Pass, Mesilla, and Pea Ridge.  There were also three clashes involving Apache Indian, Confederate, and Union forces: two at Dragoon Springs, and Apache Pass.  Both sides of the war intended these conflicts to disrupt supply routes.

By 1866 Wells Fargo had gained a monopoly over long distance overland stagecoach routes and mail service, using both the original Butterfield Overland Trail and others.  It was a short-lived monopoly, however.  In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Faster and more efficient, railroads supplanted the need for an overland stage route.  Stagecoaches did continue to operate into the 1900s, but these were mostly local routes between western towns and cities.  In Arizona, over 129 stagecoach robberies took place between 1875 and 1903.  The worst of these occurred between Tombstone and Benson, and Phoenix and Prescott.  More than 200 desperados engaged in highway robberies, half of which were never solved. Very few robberies occurred by horsemen chasing down a stagecoach and robbing it.  Most robbers approached the stagecoach on foot at locations where the stagecoach had to slow down across difficult terrain.  Seventy-nine men and one woman were identified as stage robbers. The woman was Pearl Hart [3], who in 1898 pulled one of the last stagecoach robberies of the old west.

Sources:

  1. Underwood, Butterfield Overland Stage Route, Frontier Trails of the Old West
  2. N. Richardson, Butterfield Overland Mail, The Handbook of Texas
  3. E. Swensen, The Overland Mail and Passenger Service,1911

Endnotes:

[1] John Butterfield’s son was Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, United States Army (1831-1901) who after being wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill, wrote the Bugle Call Taps.  Butterfield’s bugle call was modeled on the Scot Tattoo.  Prior to the Civil War, Dan Butterfield worked for his father in the American Express Company.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry at Gaines Mill.  He later served as the Assistant Treasurer of the United States in the Grant Administration.  He later returned to American Express as an executive.

[2] Originally a mining community, Placerville, California was first known as “Hang Town.”

[3] Pearl Hart was born Pearl Taylor in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada in 1871.  Her parents were religious and affluent, but this wild child eloped with a man twice her 16-years.  His abusive behavior caused Hart to return to her home.  Over several years, Hart reconciled with her husband, eventually giving him two children. While living in Chicago, Pearl developed a fascination with the “western outlaw.”  Hart left her husband again and traveled to Trinidad, Colorado. Eventually she drifted to Phoenix, Arizona.  On 30 May 1899 near Cane Springs Canyon, Hart and an accomplice robbed a stagecoach and its passengers of $431.  Pearl Hart served time in the Yuma Territorial Prison until 1902.  She passed away in 1955.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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4 Responses to The Overland Stage

  1. Andy says:

    As “uncomfortable and dangerous” as travel by stagecoach must have been, it probably didn’t come close to travel by modern airline.

    An interesting history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thanks for your comment, Andy. As for commercial air travel, not to worry. According to at least one Democratic presidential hopeful, he intends to ban air travel because of the harm it does to the environment. I might vote for him, since I’ve always enjoyed riding on environmentally friendly trains.

      Like

  2. Kid says:

    Very enjoyable read.

    As well, I’m looking forward to taking the train to Hawaii one day.

    Liked by 1 person

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