An event of major consequence to the settlement and development of the West as well as areas in Colorado, was the desire for the establishment of a "regular" transportation system to facilitate the movement of mail, supplies, and people. Also, a quarter of a million men and more had 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.
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 the president 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.
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, for 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.
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, 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. Denver, with the discovery of gold, was becoming quite a town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But unfortunately it was rather isolated, many day's travel from either the Oregon Trail or the Southern route, and had virtually no mail service.
Whether a triumph for civilization or a hell to be endured, an adventure to be lived or a hardship beyond description, 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.
Send comments, suggestions or inquiries: Overland Trail
[Overland Trail | Links ]
Created and maintained by Elizabeth Larson
Copyright © 1996-2001