- Historic Sites
Great Days Of The Overland Stage
Opening the mail route to California, the Butterfield coaches flew across the rugged, wild Southwest in twenty-five exhausting days
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
For a town which had been surveyed only a few months earlier, Tipton, Missouri, began life with a creditable little bang on October 9, 1858. That was the day the first Overland Mail stage arrived, twenty-three days and four hours out of San Francisco—a day that marked the beginning of regular mail service across the continent. Tipton was 160 miles west of St. Louis at the end of the Pacific Railroad, and from this tiny dot on the map, mail and passengers from the West were put aboard the trains to St. Louis, Cincinnati, and New York, completing a transcontinental journey in approximately four weeks. What had once been a fantastic dream was now a reality, and the occasion did not go unnoticed in the press.
Harper’s Weekly observed that California was no longer “a colony of the East,” and the London Times described the opening of the Overland Mail route to California as “a matter of greatest importance to Europe, inasmuch as it will open up a vast country to European emigration, will be the precursor of the railroad and land telegraphic communication from New York to San Francisco, and will greatly facilitate intercourse with British Columbia.”
The man who made much of this possible was John Butterfield, a gentleman of 57 years, comfortable fortune, and enormous energies. Born in Berne, New York, Butterfield acquired an abiding love of horses and was known in his youth as one of the best drivers in Albany. A broad-shouldered man with prominent nose, heavy brows, and dark hair, he left his mark on the West’s costumes as well as its transportation. For years stores in that area sold long yellow linen dusters, high leather boots, and flat-crowned “wide-awake” hats patterned after those that Butterfield wore.
Actually, it was the contract John Butterfield and his New York associates made with the Post Office Department that made possible the first semiweekly mail service to and from California. When Butterfield guaranteed to deliver the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco in 25 days or less, he was awarded a $600,000 annual Post Office subsidy. As in the case of so many transportation developments in America—land, sea, and air—carrying the mail was the decisive factor. Passenger freight, even at full capacity, would not defray operating expenses over Butterfield’s 2,800 mile route.
Soon after the Mexican Cession of 1848, pressure had been exerted from both ends of the country for transcontinental communications. The safest route to California was by water, and before the end of the year contracts were awarded for semimonthly service by sea between New York and San Francisco. In this way letters were carried to Panama by the United States Steamship Company, carted across the isthmus, loaded on vessels of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and then forwarded northward. The trip took thirty days, but the cost of a single letter varied from twelve to eighty cents per ounce.
The discovery of gold brought a virtual flood of settlers to California, and before long the people of the newly admitted state demanded faster and cheaper overland mail service. Pressure reached a climax in 1856 when 75,000 Californians signed a petition to Congress, requesting daily mails over a road through South Pass.
This action had the effect of the proverbial egg tossed into a whirling fan, injecting the sectional issue into the discussion. Southerners wanted the proposed overland route to terminate at some southern city, instead of Chicago or St. Louis, since the overland stage route would undoubtedly be followed soon afterward by a railroad. Congress dodged the sectional jealousies by authorizing the Post Office Department to call for bids on carrying the mail semiweekly from “a point on the Mississippi to San Francisco.” The route was to be “selected by the contractor.”
Since the postmaster general, Aaron Brown, was a southerner, it surprised no one to learn that the successful contractors—John Butterfield, William G. Fargo, and other New York expressmen—had proposed a southern route. Actually, the Postmaster General threw out all bids from companies advocating routes that bypassed the South. Therefore, before Butterfield signed the contract, he reluctantly agreed to a route nearly 600 miles south of his original proposal.
The route approved by Aaron Brown was a compromise. Starting at St. Louis and proceeding west on the railroad to Tipton, Missouri, it ran southwest to Springfield, Missouri, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, then along Randolph B. Marcy’s old road to El Paso. Passing through Tucson, it went on to Fort Yuma, California, and to San Francisco via Los Angeles.
On September 16, 1857, the contract was signed, and exactly one year later stages left simultaneously from Tipton, headed west, and from San Francisco, headed east. Operating regularly until the southern route was abandoned at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Butterfield stages nearly always completed the journey within the stipulated 25 days.