More Than Just The Mail: The Historic Route Of Butterfield Overland Mail Company
“Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!” – John Butterfield
Today, sending a Valentine’s card to your sweetheart requires a few simple steps: making a trip to the drug store to select just the right card; penning the heart-felt words to make that special someone feel loved; buying a 44-cent stamp; and dropping it in the mail. Rewind 150 years, and this gesture required a lot more forethought – and horsepower.
On March 3, 1857, wealthy financier John Butterfield, of Utica, New York, won a six-year government contract of $600,000 a year to carry mail from St. Louis to San Francisco on a biweekly basis. Made official by an act of Congress, the contract commenced what would become—according to most historical accounts—the longest route of any horse-drawn transportation system in U.S. history.
It required that the mail be transported in four-horse coaches or spring wagons, which were also suitable for passengers. Butterfield, who founded the company that would become American Express, went to work, dedicating a year to mapping the route, securing water sources, and procuring the right supplies and drivers.
In all, Butterfield employed between 100 and 250 Concord coaches, 1000 horses, 500 mules and about 800 individuals who served as road bosses, drivers, blacksmiths and the like.
The Butterfield Overland Mail Company launched its first trip on September 15, 1858. The original route, from St. Louis to San Francisco, followed a southern path through Texas, New Mexico and California to avoid harsh winter conditions in the Rockies. It took about 25 days to cover the route’s nearly 2,800-mile distance.
While the chief priority for the coaches was delivering mail, passengers were also permitted. Full-route tickets were $200, and each passenger could bring up to 25 pounds of luggage, in addition to two blankets and a canteen. Of course, back then, travelers didn’t have to pay $50 for extra baggage.
But unlike today, instead of in-flight movies and snacks, passengers could expect a bumpy ride, limited water supplies, and the threat of attacks by Indians along the way. The coaches traveled as fast as they could, with the least number of stops possible. At station house stops, passengers could stretch their legs and, on a good day, find 50-cent meals and coffee, while drivers changed horses.
In his travel book, Roughing It, a young Mark Twain detailed his adventures by stagecoach through the Wild West. Twain wrote of his overland journey, “We changed horses every ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the hard, level road. We jumped out and stretched our legs every time the coach stopped, and so the night found us still vivacious and unfatigued.”
Stations were typically about 20 miles apart. Coaches entered Texas through Colbert’s Ferry, and from there the Butterfield line made stops in present-day Denison, Sherman, Gainesville, and Jacksboro. Along the way, coaches stopped at houses named Murphy’s station, Fort Belknap, Franz’s station, Clear Fork, Valley Creek, and Fort Chadbourne, among others. Some stations were in the middle of the plains, while others were on the banks of creeks and rivers like Lost Creek, Big Creek, Chimney Creek, and the Colorado River.
The last westward stop in Texas was at Franklin City, now El Paso. For many of these regions, mail stations served as the first permanent structures. Many were built by the Butterfield company out of adobe, stone or logs. The stations were stocked with arms and ammunition to protect against Indian attacks.
The mail line brought reliable mail and freight service to the families of the Texas frontier, as well as news of the rest of the country and world, brought either by papers or word of mouth from passing travelers. The mail line spurred construction, which meant jobs and opportunities for local residents.
In Grayson County, officials built bridges. Jack County spearheaded road construction from Jacksboro to Gainesville to accommodate the coaches.
This boon to Texas towns and communities soon came to an end, however. With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Butterfield’s southern route was discontinued. Today, many artifacts and sites related to the Butterfield stations remain well preserved. In 2008, enthusiasts celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the company’s first trip with events hosted at sites along the Texas portion of the historic route.
In a few days, we’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day. While the phrase, “it’s the thought that counts” still applies for Valentine’s cards and gifts sent today, a card delivered years ago on the Butterfield trail certainly required more than just a thought.
Sources: Texas State Historical Association; Discover Southeast Arizona – Discoverseaz.com; TexasHistory.com;