Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
A drawing of a Butterfield Overland mail coach copied from Harper's Weekly, January 27, 1866.

Close upon the heels of the overland migrations came an organized traffic to supply their needs. Oregon, Salt Lake, California, and all the later gold fields, drew population away from the old Missouri border, scattered it in little groups over the face of the desert, and left it there crying for sustenance. Many of the new colonies were not self-supporting for a decade or more; few of them were independent within a year or two.

In all there was a strong demand for necessities and luxuries which must be hauled from the states to the new market by the routes which the pioneers themselves had travelled. Greater than their need for material supplies was that for intellectual stimulus. Letters, newspapers, and the regular carriage of the mails were constantly demanded of the express companies and the post-office department. To meet this pressure there was organized in the fifties a great system of wagon traffic. In the years from 1858 to 1869 it reached its mighty culmination; while its possibilities of speed, order, and convenience had only just come to be realized when the continental railways brought this agency of transportation to an end.

The individual emigrant who had gathered together his family, his flocks, and his household goods, who had cut away from the life at home and staked everything on his new venture, was the unit in the great migrations. There was no regular provision for going unless one could form his own self-contained and self-supporting party. Various bands grouped easily into larger bodies for common defence, but the characteristic feature of the emigration was private initiative. The home-seekers had no power in themselves to maintain communication with the old country, yet they had no disposition to be forgotten or to forget. Professional freighting companies and carriers of mails appeared just as soon as the traffic promised a profit.

A water mail to California had been arranged even before the gold discovery lent a new interest to the Pacific Coast. From New York to the Isthmus, and thence to San Francisco, the mails were to be carried by boats of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which sent the nucleus of its fleet around Cape Horn to Pacific waters in 1848. The arrival of the first mail in San Francisco in February, 1849, commenced the regular public communication between the United States and the new colonies. For the places lying away from the coast, mails were hauled under contract as early as 1849. Oregon, Utah, New Mexico, and California were given a measure of irregular and unsatisfactory service.

There is little interest in the earlier phases of the overland mail service save in that they foreshadowed greater things. A stage line was started from Independence to Santa Fé in the summer of 1849; another contract was let to a man named Woodson for a monthly carriage to Salt Lake City. Neither of the carriers made a serious attempt to stock his route or open stations. Their stages advanced under the same conditions, and with little more rapidity than the ordinary emigrant or freighter. Mormon interests organized a Great Salt Lake Valley Carrying Company at about this time. For four or five years both government and private industry were experimenting with the problems of long-distance wagon traffic,--the roads, the vehicles, the stock, the stations, the supplies. Most picturesque was the effort made in 1856, by the War Department, to acclimate the Saharan camel on the American desert as a beast of burden. Congress had appropriated $30,000 for the experiment, in execution of which Secretary Davis sent Lieutenant H. C. Wayne to the Levant to purchase the animals. Some seventy-five camels were imported into Texas and tested near San Antonio. There is a long congressional document filled with the correspondence of this attempt and embellished with cuts of types of camels and equipment.

While the camels were yet browsing on the Texas plains, Congress made a more definite movement towards supplying the Pacific Slope with adequate service. It authorized the Postmaster-general in 1857 to call for bids for an overland mail which, in a single organization, should join the Missouri to Sacramento, and which should be subsidized to run at a high scheduled speed. The service which the Postmaster-general invited in his advertisement was to be semi-weekly, weekly, or semi-monthly at his discretion; it was to be for a term of six years; it was to carry through the mails in four-horse wagons in not more than twenty-five days. A long list of bidders, including most of the firms engaged in plains freighting, responded with their bids and itineraries; from them the department selected the offer of a company headed by one John Butterfield, and explained to the public in 1857 the reasons for its choice. The route to which the Butterfield contract was assigned began at St. Louis and Memphis, made a junction near the western border of Arkansas, and proceeded thence through Preston, Texas, El Paso, and Fort Yuma. For semi-weekly mails the company was to receive $600,000 a year. The choice of the most southern of routes required considerable explanation, since the best-known road ran by the Platte and South Pass. In criticising this latter route the Postmaster-general pointed out the cold and snow of winter, and claimed that the experience of the department during seven years proved the impossibility of maintaining a regular service here. A second available road had been revealed by the thirty-fifth parallel survey, across northern Texas and through Albuquerque, New Mexico; but this was likewise too long and too severe. The best route, in his mind--the one open all the year, through a temperate climate, suitable for migration as well as traffic--was this southern route, via El Paso. It is well to remember that the administration which made this choice was democratic and of strong southern sympathies, and that the Pacific railway was expected to follow the course of the overland mail.

The first overland coaches left the opposite ends of the line on September 15, 1858. The east-bound stage carried an agent of the Post-office Department, whose report states that the through trip to Tipton, Missouri, and thence by rail to St. Louis, was made in 20 days, 18 hours, 26 minutes, actual time. "I cordially congratulate you upon the result," wired President Buchanan to Butterfield. "It is a glorious triumph for civilization and the Union. Settlements will soon follow the course of the road, and the East and West will be bound together by a chain of living Americans which can never be broken." The route was 2795 miles long. For nearly all the way there was no settlement upon which the stages could rely. The company built such stations as it needed.

The vehicle of the overland mail, the most interesting vehicle of the plains, was the coach manufactured by the Abbott-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire. No better wagon for the purpose has been devised. Its heavy wheels, with wide, thick tires, were set far apart to prevent capsizing. Its body, braced with iron bands, and built of stout white oak, was slung on leather thorough braces which took the strain better and were more nearly unbreakable than any other springs. Inside were generally three seats, for three passengers each, though at times as many as fourteen besides the driver and messenger were carried. Adjustable curtains kept out part of the rain and cold. High up in front sat the driver, with a passenger or two on the box and a large assortment of packages tucked away beneath his seat. Behind the body was the triangular "boot" in which were stowed the passengers' boxes and the mail sacks. The overflow of mail went inside under the seats. Mr. Clemens tells of filling the whole body three feet deep with mail, and of the passengers being forced to sprawl out on the irregular bed thus made for them. Complaining letter-writers tell of sacks carried between the axles and the body, under the coach, and of the disasters to letters and contents resulting from fording streams. Drawn by four galloping mules and painted a gaudy red or green, the coach was a visible emblem of spectacular western advance. Horace Greeley's coach, bright red, was once charged by a herd of enraged buffaloes and overturned, to the discomfort and injury of the venerable editor.

It was no comfortable or luxurious trip that the overland passenger had, with all the sumptuous equipment of the new route. The time limit was twenty-five days, reduced in practice to twenty-two or twenty-three, at the price of constant travel day and night, regardless of weather or convenience. One passenger who declined to follow this route has left his reason why. The "Southern, known as the Butterfield or American Express, offered to start me in an ambulance from St. Louis, and to pass me through Arkansas, El Paso, Fort Yuma on the Gila River, in fact through the vilest and most desolate portion of the West. Twenty-four mortal days and nights--twenty-five being schedule time--must be spent in that ambulance; passengers becoming crazy by whiskey, mixed with want of sleep, are often obliged to be strapped to their seats; their meals, despatched during the ten-minute halts, are simply abominable, the heats are excessive, the climate malarious; lamps may not be used at night for fear of non-existent Indians: briefly there is no end to this Via Mala's miseries." But the alternative which confronted this traveller in 1860 was scarcely more pleasant. "You may start by stage to the gold regions about Denver City or Pike's Peak, and thence, if not accidentally or purposely shot, you may proceed by an uncertain ox train to Great Salt Lake City, which latter part cannot take less than thirty-five days."

Once upon the road, the passenger might nearly as well have been at sea. There was no turning back. His discomforts and dangers became inevitable. The stations erected along the trail were chiefly for the benefit of the livestock. Horses and mules must be kept in good shape, whatever happened to passengers. Some of the depots, "home stations," had a family in residence, a dwelling of logs, adobe, or sod, and offered bacon, potatoes, bread, and coffee of a sort, to those who were not too squeamish. The others, or "swing" stations, had little but a corral and a haystack, with a few stock tenders. The drivers were often drunk and commonly profane. The overseers and division superintendents differed from them only in being a little more resolute and dangerous. Freighting and coaching were not child's play for either passengers or employees.

The Butterfield Overland Express began to work its six year contract in September, 1858. Other coach and mail services increased the number of continental routes to three by 1860. From New Orleans, by way of San Antonio and El Paso, a weekly service had been organized, but its importance was far less than that of the great route, and not equal to that by way of the Great Salt Lake.

Staging over the Platte trail began on a large scale with the discovery of gold near Pike's Peak in 1858. The Mormon mails, interrupted by the Mormon War, had been revived; but a new concern had sprung up under the name of the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Company. The firm of Jones and Russell, soon to give way to Russell, Majors, and Waddell, had seen the possibilities of the new boom camps, and had inaugurated regular stage service in May, 1859. Henry Villard rode out in the first coach. Horace Greeley followed in June. After some experimenting in routes, the line accepted a considerable part of the Platte trail, leaving the road at the forks of the river. Here Julesburg came into existence as the most picturesque home station on the plains. It was at this station that Jack Slade, whom Mark Twain found to be a mild, hospitable, coffee-sharing man, cut off the ears of old Jules, after the latter had emptied two barrels of bird-shot into him. It was "celebrated for its desperadoes," wrote General Dodge. "No twenty-four hours passed without its contribution to Boots Hill (the cemetery whose every occupant was buried in his boots), and homicide was performed in the most genial and whole-souled way."

Before the Denver coach had been running for a year another enterprise had brought the central route into greater prominence. Butterfield had given California news in less than twenty-five days from the Missouri, but California wanted more even than this, until the electric telegraph should come. Senator Gwin urged upon the great freight concern the starting of a faster service for light mails only. It was William H. Russell who, to meet this supposed demand, organized a pony express, which he announced to a startled public in the end of March. Across the continent from Placerville to St. Joseph he built his stations from nine to fifteen miles apart, nearly two hundred in all. He supplied these with tenders and riders, stocked them with fodder and fleet American horses, and started his first riders at both ends on the 3d of April, 1860.

Only letters of great commercial importance could be carried by the new express. They were written on tissue paper, packed into a small, light saddlebag, and passed from rider to rider along the route. The time announced in the schedule was ten days,--two weeks better than Butterfield's best. To make it called for constant motion at top speed, with horses trained to the work and changed every few miles. The carriers were slight men of 135 pounds or under, whose nerve and endurance could stand the strain. Often mere boys were employed in the dangerous service. Rain or snow or death made no difference to the express. Dangers of falling at night, of missing precipitous mountain roads where advance at a walk was perilous, had to be faced. When Indians were hostile, this new risk had to be run. But for eighteen months the service was continued as announced. It ceased only when the overland telegraph, in October, 1861, declared its readiness to handle through business.

In the pony express was the spectacular perfection of overland service. Its best record was some hours under eight days. It was conducted along the well-known trail from St. Joseph to Forts Kearney, Laramie, and Bridger; thence to Great Salt Lake City, and by way of Carson City to Placerville and Sacramento. It carried the news in a time when every day brought new rumors of war and disunion, in the pregnant campaign of 1860 and through the opening of the Civil War. The records of its riders at times approached the marvellous. One lad, William F. Cody, who has since lived to become the personal embodiment of the Far West as Buffalo Bill, rode more than 320 consecutive miles on a single tour. The literature of the plains is full of instances of courage and endurance shown in carrying through the despatches.

The Butterfield mail was transferred to the central route of the pony express in the summer of 1861. For two and a half years it had run steadily along its southern route, proving the entire practicability of carrying on such a service. But its expense had been out of all proportion to its revenue. In 1859 the Postmaster-general reported that its total receipts from mails had been $27,229.94, as against a cost of $600,000. It is not unlikely that the fast service would have been dropped had not the new military necessity of 1861 forbidden any act which might loosen the bonds between the Pacific and the Atlantic states. Congress contemplated the approach of war and authorized early in 1861 the abandonment of the southern route through the confederate territory, and the transfer of the service to the line of the pony express. To secure additional safety the mails were sent by way of Davenport, Iowa, and Omaha, to Fort Kearney a few times, but Atchison became the starting-point at last, while military force was used to keep the route free from interference. The transfer worked a shortening of from five to seven days over the southern route.

In the autumn of 1861, when the overland mail and the pony express were both running at top speed along the Platte trail, the overland service reached its highest point. In October the telegraph brought an end to the express. "The Pacific to the Atlantic sends greeting," ran the first message over the new wire, "and may both oceans be dry before a foot of all the land that lies between them shall belong to any other than one united country." Probably the pony express had done its share in keeping touch between California and the Union. Certainly only its national purpose justified its existence, since it was run at a loss that brought ruin to Russell, its backer, and to Majors and Waddell, his partners.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell, with the biggest freighting business of the plains, had gone heavily into passenger and express service in 1859-1860. Russell had forced through the pony express against the wishes of his partners, carried away from practical considerations by the magnitude of the idea. The transfer of the southern overland to their route increased their business and responsibility. The future of the route steadily looked larger. "Every day," wrote the Postmaster-general, "brings intelligence of the discovery of new mines of gold and silver in the region traversed by this mail route, which gives assurance that it will not be many years before it will be protected and supported throughout the greater part of the route by a civilized population." Under the name of the Central Overland, California, and Pike's Peak Express the firm tried to keep up a struggle too great for them. "Clean out of Cash and Poor Pay" is said to have been an irreverent nickname coined by one of their drivers. As their embarrassments steadily increased, their notes were given to a rival contractor who was already beginning local routes to reach the mining camps of eastern Washington. Ben Holladay had been the power behind the company for several months before the courts gave him control of their overland stage line in 1862. The greatest names in this overland business are first Butterfield, then Russell, Majors, and Waddell, and then Ben Holladay, whose power lasted until he sold out to Wells, Fargo, and Company in 1866. Ben Holladay was the magnate of the plains during the early sixties. A hostile critic, Henry Villard, has written that he was "a genuine specimen of the successful Western pioneer of former days, illiterate, coarse, pretentious, boastful, false, and cunning." In later days he carried his speculation into railways and navigation, but already his was the name most often heard in the West. Mark Twain, who has left in "Roughing It" the best picture of life in the Far West in this decade, speaks lightly of him when he tells of a youth travelling in the Holy Land with a reverend preceptor who was impressing upon him the greatness of Moses, "'the great guide, soldier, poet, lawgiver of ancient Israel! Jack, from this spot where we stand, to Egypt, stretches a fearful desert three hundred miles in extent--and across that desert that wonderful man brought the children of Israel!--guiding them with unfailing sagacity for forty years over the sandy desolation and among the obstructing rocks and hills, and landed them at last, safe and sound, within sight of this very spot. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to do, Jack. Think of it!"

"'Forty years? Only three hundred miles?'" replied Jack. "'Humph! Ben Holladay would have fetched them through in thirty-six hours!'"

Under Holladay's control the passenger and express service were developed into what was probably the greatest one-man institution in America. He directed not only the central overland, but spur lines with government contracts to upper California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. He travelled up and down the line constantly himself, attending in person to business in Washington and on the Pacific. The greatest difficulties in his service were the Indians and progress as stated in the railway. Man and nature could be fought off and overcome, but the life of the stage-coach was limited before it was begun.

The Indian danger along the trails had steadily increased since the commencement of the migrations. For many years it had not been large, since there was room for all and the emigrants held well to the beaten track. But the gold camps had introduced settlers into new sections, and had sent prospectors into all the Indian Country. The opening of new roads to the Pacific increased the pressure, until the Indians began to believe that the end was at hand unless they should bestir themselves. The last years of the overland service, between 1862 and 1868, were hence filled with Indian attacks. Often for weeks no coach could go through. Once, by premeditation, every station for nearly two hundred miles was destroyed overnight, Julesburg, the greatest of them all, being in the list. The presence of troops to defend seemed only to increase the zeal of the red men to destroy.

Besides these losses, which lessened his profits and threatened ruin, Holladay had to meet competition in his own trade, and detraction as well. Captain James L. Fiske, who had broken a new road through from Minnesota to Montana, came east in 1863, "by the 'overland stage,' travelling over the saline plains of Laramie and Colorado Territory and the sand deserts of Nebraska and Kansas. The country was strewed with the skeletons and carcases of cattle, and the graves of the early Mormon and California pilgrims lined the roadside. This is the worst emigrant route that I have ever travelled; much of the road is through deep sand, feed is very scanty, a great deal of the water is alkaline, and the snows in winter render it impassable for trains. The stage line is wretchedly managed. The company undertake to furnish travellers with meals, (at a dollar a meal,) but very frequently on arriving at a station there was nothing to eat, the supplies had not been sent on. On one occasion we fasted for thirty-six hours. The stages were sometimes in a miserable condition. We were put into a coach one night with only two boards left in the bottom. On remonstrating with the driver, we were told to hold on by the sides."

At the close of the Civil War, however, Holladay controlled a monopoly in stage service between the Missouri River and Great Salt Lake. The express companies and railways met him at the ends of his link, but had to accept his terms for intermediate traffic. In the summer of 1865 a competing firm started a Butterfield's Overland Despatch to run on the Smoky Hill route to Denver. It soon found that Indian dangers here were greater than along the Platte, and it learned how near it was to bankruptcy when Holladay offered to buy it out in 1866. He had sent his agents over the rival line, and had in his hand a more detailed statement of resources and conditions than the Overland Despatch itself possessed. He purchased easily at his own price and so ended this danger of competition.

Such was the character of the overland traffic that any day might bring a successful rival, or loss by accident. Holladay seems to have realized that the advantages secured by priority were over, and that the trade had seen its best day. In the end of 1866 he sold out his lines to the greatest of his competitors, Wells, Fargo, and Company. He sold out wisely. The new concern lost on its purchase through the rapid shortening of the route. During 1866 the Pacific railway had advanced so far that the end of the mail route was moved to Fort Kearney in November. By May, 1869, some years earlier than Wells, Fargo had estimated, the road was done. And on the completion of the Union and Central Pacific railways the great period of the overland mail was ended.

Parallel to the overland mail rolled an overland freight that lacked the seeming romance of the former, but possessed quite as much of real significance. No one has numbered the trains of wagons that supplied the Far West. Santa Fé wagons they were now; Pennsylvania or Pittsburg wagons they had been called in the early days of the Santa Fé trade; Conestoga wagons they had been in the remoter time of the trans-Alleghany migrations. But whatever their name, they retained the characteristics of the wagons and caravans of the earlier period. Holladay bought over 150 such wagons, organized in trains of twenty-six, from the Butterfield Overland Despatch in 1866. Six thousand were counted passing Fort Kearney in six weeks in 1865. One of the drivers on the overland mail, Frank Root, relates that Russell, Majors, and Waddell owned 6250 wagons and 75,000 oxen at the height of their business. The long trains, crawling along half hidden in their clouds of dust, with the noises of the animals and the profanity of the drivers, were the physical bond between the sections. The mail and express served politics and intellect; the freighters provided the comforts and decencies of life.

The overland traffic had begun on the heels of the first migrations. Its growth during the fifties and its triumphant period in the sixties were great arguments in favor of the construction of railways to take its place. It came to an end when the first continental railroad was completed in 1869. For decades after this time the stages still found useful service on branch lines and to new camps, and occasional exhibition in the "Wild West Shows," but the railways were following them closely, for a new period of American history had begun.