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Butterfield Overland Stage Route

By Todd Underwood

In March of 1857, realizing the need for an overland mail route from the east that serviced the west, congress passed a Post Office Appropriations Bill. While nine bids were being considered for this new contract, James E. Birch began carrying mail and passengers from San Antonio, Texas to San Diego, California. The first trip was in August 1857 and took a route that required passengers to be transported on mules over the Oriflamme Mountains. The route became known as the "Jackass Mail" and lasted only a short period until Birch drowned when his ship sank off Cape Hatteras while enroute from Washington D.C.


Robber's Roost at Virginia Dale, a well known stage station of the Overland Route from 1862 to the opening of the railroad. At one time the home of Slade, a notorious character of the times. Larimer County, Colorado.

Then, on September 15, 1857, one of the nine bidders, 56 year old John Butterfield of the John Butterfield Company was awarded the mail contract by congress. The Southern Postmaster General required the route that John’s company was to take be similar to the Birch route. This route, which was generally not accepted, was called the Ox Bow Route and had to go through El Paso, Texas and Fort Yuma, California. It added 600 miles over the more northern routes and required extra relay stations and frontier forts to be built. The total length of the new route was 2812 miles and had to be run twice a week. It was also required that the trips be completed within 25 days.


"The overland stage road between Ogden and Helena crossing the Beaver Head River at Point of Rocks ... by means of a plank bridge." By Jackson, 1871

It took a year for John and his company to secure sites for stage stations, buy equipment, obtain horses and mules, and find men to work for him. Bridges had to be built over rivers and streams, large rocks had to be removed from trails, wells had to be dug, and passes through mountains had to be cleared. Finally, on September 16, 1858, the first trip was launched from Tipton, Missouri. Butterfield’s son drove the first leg along with a reporter from the New York Herald named Waterman L. Ormsby. Their trip is recorded in a book called The Butterfield Overland Mail, ; published 1942 by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

The cost for one way fare was $200 or $.15 per mile for shorter trips and usually took 22 days as opposed to the contracted 25. The Concord stagecoaches carrying the passengers averaged 5-9 miles per hour and were fairly comfortable by the days standards. Only when the trail was very rough did the passengers have to switch to a more uncomfortable but rugged Celerity stagecoach. There were 139 relay stations and forts, 1800 head of stock, and 250 Concord and Celerity Overland Stage Coaches used by the 800 men that Butterfield employed.


Typical stage of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails. Soldiers guard from atop, ca. 1869.

Butterfields men were rough tough frontiersman as no other men could handle the hardships that Butterfield would put them through. He gave them instructions such as ,"drivers and conductors to be armed but to shoot only when lives of passengers are endangered" and "no shipments of gold or silver to be carried to cut down on attacks by highwaymen." Each driver had a 60 mile route and then a return for a total of 120 miles.


Typical stage of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails. Soldiers guard from atop, ca. 1869.

Despite the $600,000 per year grant Butterfield was awarded by congress, he still ran up large debts with the Wells Fargo company. In March of 1860, John Butterfield was forced out and Wells Fargo took over the stage route. When the Civil war was begun, the Ox Bow Route could no longer be used and the Wells Fargo company had to switch to the Central Overland Trail instead. By 1866, Wells Fargo had gained a monopoly over long distance overland stage coach routes and mail service and used both the original Butterfield Overland Trail and others. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was finished and the need for transcontinental passenger and mail travel by stagecoach was to be no more.

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