National Stamp Collecting Month: The Butterfield Overland Mail

United States - Scott #1120 (1958)
United States – Scott #1120 (1958)

In a recent article on A Stamp A Day detailing he history of the mail coach, the best known United States stage system — the Butterfield Overland Mail — was only briefly mentioned. Officially called the Overland Mail Company, this was a stagecoach service in the United States operating from 1858 to 1861. It carried passengers and U.S. Mail from two eastern termini, Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. The routes from each eastern terminus met at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then continued through Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico, and California ending in San Francisco. On March 3, 1857, Congress authorized Postmaster General Aaron Brown to contract for delivery of the U.S. mail from Saint Louis to San Francisco. Prior to this, mail bound for the Far West had been delivered by the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line (Jackass Mail).

Through the 1840s and 1850s, there was a desire for better communication between the east and west coasts of the United States. There were several proposals for railroads connecting the two coasts. A more immediate realization was an overland mail route across the west. Congress authorized the Postmaster General to contract for mail service from Missouri to California to facilitate settlement in the west. The Post Office Department advertised for bids for an overland mail service on April 20, 1857. Bidders were to propose routes from the Mississippi River westward. Nine bids were made by some of the most experienced stage men.

John W. Butterfield
John W. Butterfield

Overland Mail was organized in 1857 by men with substantial interests in four of the leading express companies — American Express, United States Express, Adams Express Company, and Wells Fargo. John Warren Butterfield of Utica, New York, the third founder of American Express, was made Overland Mail’s president. In 1858, Overland Mail was awarded a government contract to carry United States Post Office Department mail over the southern overland route from Memphis and St. Louis to California. Mail Contract No. 12,578 for $600,000 per annum for a semi-weekly service was the longest mail contract awarded in the United States.

At its inception, the Overland Mail Company was a stockholding company and the main stockholders, besides John Butterfield who were also the directors, were William B. Dinsmore, of New York City, William G. Fargo, of Buffalo, New York, (actually he was from Pompey, New York), James V. P. Gardner, of Utica, New York, Marquis L. Kenyon, of Rome, New York, Alexander Holland, of New York City, and Hamilton Spencer, of Bloomington, Illinois. There were four others known as sureties (security against loss).

Almost all of the stockholders were connected to other businesses in Upstate New York and most lived not far from Butterfield’s home in Utica. Alexander Holland was Butterfield’s son-in-law and treasurer of the Overland Mail Company. William B. Dinsmore was vice-president of the company. The office for the company was in New York City.

Routes of Butterfield's Overland Mail Company, 1858-1861
Routes of Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company, 1858-1861

The route, known as the Oxbow Route because of its long curving route through the southwest, was 600 miles (970 km) longer than the Central Overland Trail, but had the advantage of being snow free. The contract with the U.S. Post Office, which went into effect on September 16, 1858, identified the route and divided it into eastern and western divisions. Franklin, Texas later to be named El Paso was the dividing point and these two were subdivided into minor divisions, five in the East and four in the West. These minor divisions were numbered west to east from San Francisco, each under the direction of a superintendent.

John Butterfield Sr. turned to two of his most trusted and experienced employees to put in place the Butterfield Trail. In 1858, with expedition leader Marquis L. Kenyon, John Jr. helped to select the route and sites for the stage stations. Kenyon was also a stockholder/director of the Overland Mail Company and the only stockholder, other than John Butterfield, to have significant staging experience. Marquis moved from Mannsville, Jefferson County, to Rome, New York, in 1838. Rome was twelve miles from John Butterfield’s home in Utica. He immediately became involved with staging.

After winning the contract on September 16, 1857, Butterfield had one year to organize the trail and immediately sent his hand-picked team, headed by Marquis L. Kenyon, to San Francisco to begin the task. The steamer Star of New York left New York on November 20, 1857, with passengers “…M. L. Kinyon [Kenyon], J. Butterfield [Jr.], F. De Ruyter and S. K. Nellis, who go out to open the Pacific Mail Route across the plains and arrange the western terminus of said route.” The party left San Francisco on January 16, 1858, to begin laying out the trail and selecting the sites for stage stations. They traveled by mule covering about forty miles per day. Another party left St. Louis about the same time. Both were to meet at El Paso, Texas, and then return to St. Louis. The party from St. Louis was G. W. Wood, Jesse Talcott, and Charles P. Cole. A Fort Smith, Arkansas, newspaper reported:

The parties met at El Paso and after recruiting [presumably for building the stations] a few days, the above gentlemen left for this city—making the trip to this place in twenty-two days from El Paso, and thirty-one days from San Francisco to El Paso, or fifty-six days, through with wagons. …The party from California, in crossing Arizona, took a middle route between Beale’s and the Southern route— (but little traveled heretofore,) pronounced by them, as an excellent road.

Overland Mail stagecoach
Overland Mail stagecoach

The building of the trail was in two sections — the 462-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles section and the rest of the 2,238 miles distance to Tipton, Missouri. The San Francisco to Los Angeles section was previously one of the most developed. Some changes were made from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Settlements, and wagon roads used by local stage lines, were strung out between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some existing structures, such as ranch houses and hotels were contracted as stage stations. One of the most famous is Vallecito, which is preserved as a historic site. Kenyon’s hardest task building the trail was east of Los Angeles, where his trail was mostly in the open desert.

Because of the untamed nature of the Mississippi River and its Arkansas tributaries in those years, the southern route necessarily utilized various alternative routes and methods of travel. At that time, there was no Mississippi River bridge at Memphis, and the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad ran from Hopefield near present-day West Memphis, Arkansas, only to a point 12 miles east of Madison, Arkansas on the St. Francis River. From there the route headed overland by stagecoach. When the Arkansas River was high enough, the mail could instead travel from Memphis by steamboat down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River, navigate up that river to Little Rock, and on from there by stagecoach. When the Arkansas was too low for steamboat traffic, the Butterfield could take the White River to Clarendon, Arkansas or Des Arc, Arkansas before switching to the stagecoaches. Sometimes the entire route across eastern Arkansas would be by stage.

Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company held the U.S. Mail contract from September 16, 1858, on a six-year contract. The first stage going east left San Francisco at ten minutes past midnight on September 14, 1858. The mail from San Francisco reached St. Louis in twenty-four days, eighteen hours, and twenty-six minutes. The first stage going west left Tipton, Missouri, at 8 a. m. on September 16, 1858. The mail was carried by railroad for the first 160 miles from St. Louis to Tipton.

Timetable for the Overland Mail Company's eastbound and westbound routes published in September 1858.
Timetable for the Overland Mail Company’s eastbound and westbound routes published in September 1858.

The Overland Mail Company made two trips a week from September 1858 to March 1861. At the start of service, the mail would leave St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, every Monday and Thursday A December 1, 1858 advertisement stated that the days for departure from San Francisco on Monday and Friday and that the through fare to Terminus of Pacific Railroad as $100. An advertisement appeared in the same newspaper on January 11, 1859 that the through fare to Terminus of Pacific Railroad as increased to $200. Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company had 139 stage stations at the start of service but more stations were built after service started and increased to about 170. About 100 stages were employed.

During the 1860s there were few routes westward and the Overland Stagecoach Route was one of the primary routes and had to be kept open for settlers, miners and businessmen traveling west. Because the Overland Stagecoach route was being harassed by bandits and Indians, Lincoln’s War Department responded by assigning a detachment from the 9th Kansas Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William O. Collins from Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory. Collins’ detachment guarded the route between Independence, Missouri and Sacramento, California.

No one on a Butterfield stage was ever killed by outlaws or Indians, but some died in accidents caused by the mostly unbroken mules or mustangs running wild. Butterfield’s stages were not allowed to carry shipments of valuables. In Butterfield’s instructions to his employees was “No money, jewelry, bank notes, or valuables of any nature, will be allowed to be carried under any circumstances whatever.” For this reason, the idea of a “shotgun” rider next to the driver was not employed by Butterfield. When correspondent Ormsby asked one of the stage drivers “Have you any arms” the stage driver answered “No, I don’t have any; there’s no danger.” In Comanche and Apache territory most riders on the Butterfield stages were armed. In October 1859 correspondent Farwell was a passenger heading east on a Butterfield stage and wrote the following:

After leaving this station [Arizona’s San Pedro River Stage Station], the conductor asked ‘how many of us were armed,’ and requested that those who had arms should have them ready for use, as we now were in the Apache country. Guns and pistols were produced, and we rode all night with them in our hands.”

Covers posted on a centennial commemorative journey of a Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach. The coach arrived in San Francisco on October 10, 1958.
Covers posted on a centennial commemorative journey of a Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach. The coach arrived in San Francisco on October 10, 1958, per backstamps on the covers.

Butterfield’s mail stagecoach  had a strong sub-frame covered by decorated wooden paneling with ornate doors and comfortably padded seats. They often had window openings, but the western models designed for the rougher conditions had no glass panels. The roof was strong enough to support a metal railing where luggage could be carried. Seats were often provided on the roof. A canvas-covered boot at the back was used for luggage and mailbags. The difference between a stagecoach and a mail stagecoach is that a large compartment was provided below the driver’s seat to carry mail and the rear boot for mail was larger. Butterfield’s stagecoaches were used on 30% of the Southern Overland Trail at the eastern and western ends.

The term “celerity wagon” is sometimes used instead of “stage wagon.” It was about 60% of the weight of a stagecoach and was designed for the rough frontier conditions where the trail was not as well developed, in sand, and for traversing steep inclines. They were open on the sides with no doors or windows. Often a canvas top was supported by light uprights. They had canvas or leather curtains fastened to the top that could be rolled down as a barrier to the dust. The stage wagon was used by Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company exclusively on 70% of the Southern Overland Trail on the 1,920-mile section between Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Los Angeles, California. Although the famous passenger wagon manufacturers Abbot-Downing Co. and J. S. & E. A. Abbot Co., of Concord, New Hampshire, never used the name “mud wagon” in their catalogs, there were others who referred to the stage wagon as a “mud wagon.”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park was the site of the historic first meeting of eastern-bound and western-bound Butterfield Overland stagecoach delivering the mail cross-country in 1859. This photo was taken near that spot on the Williams Ranch Road in the western stretch of the park.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park was the site of the historic first meeting of eastern-bound and western-bound Butterfield Overland stagecoach delivering the mail cross-country in 1859. This photo was taken near that spot on the Williams Ranch Road in the western stretch of the park.

Water wagons were an important, but expensive, necessity. To straighten out the trail, so they wouldn’t have to zigzag from water hole to water hole, water wagons were used to transport water from a source to stage stations that were built on the straightened-out sections. An example was Ewell’s Stage Station in the Sulphur Springs Valley of eastern Arizona. At the beginning of Butterfield’s service, after leaving Apache Pass, the trail jogged northwest to Dos Cabezas Spring and then southwest to Dragoon Springs Stage Station at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. In the spring of 1858, a new trail was made from the western entrance of Apache Pass and then along an almost straight line to the north end of the Dragoon Mountains. At approximately the midpoint of this new section a station and cistern were constructed. A water wagon was used to supply the cistern with water from Dos Cabezas Spring, which was now four miles north of the new station. Water wagons were also used to supply unusually long stretches of trail that lacked water sources.

All the stages that weren’t in use were distributed at stations along the 2,700-mile trail. At the closing of Butterfield’s operations on the Southern Overland Trail in March 1861, because of the start of the Civil War, many of the stages were confiscated and used by the Confederate Army as military vehicles. As much of the equipment as possible was transferred to the central trail to continue the Overland Mail Company contract. Only enough of the stages made it to the central route to operate the line from Salt Lake City, Utah, to western Nevada. Apparently, many of the original stagecoaches and stage wagons were bought by movie companies in the 1930s through 1950s and used in their movie productions. Many were destroyed in scenes of the stages being attacked.

Map of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route through Texas and the Central Overland Route in the inset.
Map of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route through Texas and the Central Overland Route in the inset.

When the Overland Mail Company Contract No. 12578 was transferred to the Central Overland Trail, the contract was amended on March 12, 1861 to include the Pony Express. The new contract stated the following:

And to be required also, during the continuance of their contract, or until completion of the overland telegraph, to run a pony-express semi-weekly at a schedule time of ten days, eight months of the year, and twelve days four months of the year [presumably the winter months], and to convey for the Government free of charge five pounds of mail matter, with liberty of charging the public for transportation of letters by said express not exceeding $1 per half ounce. The compensation for the whole service [which included the stage line mail service] to be $1,000,000 per annum, to take effect on or before the 1st of July, 1861 and to expire the 1st of July, 1864 [the same date for the end of the old contract No. 12578]. The number of the route to be changed to 10773 and the service to be recorded in the route register for Missouri.”

In March 1861 the U.S. Government formally revoked the contract of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach Company in anticipation of the coming conflict. An Act of Congress, approved March 2, 1861, discontinued the route and transferred the company to the Union-held Central Overland California Route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Placerville, California. The last Overland Mail Company mail bag left St. Louis on March 18, 1861. This last mail arrived in San Francisco on April 13, 1861. The new route went into effect on June 30, 1861.

Under the Confederate States of America, the Butterfield route between Texas and Southern California was operated as part of the Overland Mail Corporation route with limited success from 1861 until early 1862 by George Henry Giddings. Wells Fargo continued its stagecoach runs to mining camps in more northern locations until the coming of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

Ruins of Butterfield Stage stop at Heuco Tanks State Historic Site in western Texas.
Ruins of Butterfield Stage stop at Heuco Tanks State Historic Site in western Texas.

At least four battles of the American Civil War occurred at or near Butterfield mail posts: the Battle of Stanwix Station, the Battle of Picacho Pass, Second Battle of Mesilla and the Battle of Pea Ridge. Three clashes between the Apache and Confederate or Union forces in the Apache Wars occurred on the route. Confederates attempted to keep the stations from Tucson to Mesilla open while they destroyed the stations from Tucson to Yuma which were used to supply the Union army as it advanced through Traditional Arizona. The burning of the Stanwix Station and others led to a significant delay to the Union advance, postponing the Fall of Tucson, Arizona’s western Confederate capital, which housed one of two territorial courts; the other court was in Mesilla.

What was known as the “Grand Consolidation” of the thee stage lines that held the mail contract on the Central Overland Trail, occurred on February 5, 1866. The three lines now comprising the consolidation were the Pioneer Stage Line, the Overland Mail Company, and Wells, Fargo & Co. Wells, Fargo & Co. changed its name to Wells, Fargo and Company and was approved by the stockholders on December 10, 1866, operating as a mail carrying stage company with their name finally on a transom rail of a stagecoach. On May 16, 1868, the board of directors of Wells, Fargo and Company authorized the sale of the company’s stage lines, although they did operate until the Transcontinental Railroad was completed May 10, 1869.

Reconstructed Overland Mail stage station at Fort Chadbourne, Texas. Photo taken on January 4, 2010
Reconstructed Overland Mail stage station at Fort Chadbourne, Texas. Photo taken on January 4, 2010.
Guadalupe Peak summit, with a pyramid commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail. Photo taken on March 12, 2005.
Guadalupe Peak summit, with a pyramid commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail. Photo taken on March 12, 2005.

There are surviving Butterfield Overland Mail stage stations at Oak Grove and the most famous is near Warner Springs, California in San Diego County, California. It and the property of Warner’s Ranch 20 miles (32 km) away, where the ranch house was used as a station, were declared to be National Historic Landmarks in 1961. Warner’s Ranch was the Butterfield Station and a stop for emigrant travelers to the West from 1849–1861, and has two original adobe buildings on the 221-acre (0.89 km²) property. The 1857 ranch house sometimes housed travelers.

The Elkhorn Tavern in the Pea Ridge National Military Park was another destination along the route that was rebuilt after the Civil War. It is on one of the last sections of the trail that still exists — Old Wire Road through Avoca, Rogers and Springdale, Arkansas. Also in Arkansas is the town of Pottsville, which was built around Pott’s Inn. Pott’s Inn was finished in 1859 and was a popular stop along the route. It survives as a museum owned by the Pope County Historic Society.

When it was first established, the route proceeded due east from Franklin, Texas, toward the Hueco Tanks; the remains of a stagecoach stop are still visible at the Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. The summit of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park east of El Paso, Texas, features a stainless steel pyramid erected in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which passed south of the mountain.

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Congressional legislation (Sec. 7209 of P.L. 111-11) to conduct a study of designating the trail a National Historic Trail. The United States National Park Service is conducting meetings in affected communities and doing Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment to determine whether it should become a trail and what the route should be.

Unsolicited stamp design submitted by the California Overland Mail Centennials Committee honoring both James E. Birch and John Butterfield.
Unsolicited stamp design submitted by the California Overland Mail Centennials Committee honoring both James E. Birch and John Butterfield.

James E. Birch’s San Antonio & San Diego mail line began operating in August 1857. The following month, the U.S. Post Office Department awarded to John W. Butterfield a $600,000 per year contract to carry the mail from Missouri to San Francisco, with service to begin in September 1858.

Beginning in 1957, enormous political pressure was placed on the Post Office Department to mark the anniversary of the Birch’s and Butterfield’s overland mail lines with a commemorative stamp. Congressional delegations from states along the route addressed letters of support to the postmaster general, as did a host of mayors, civic organizations, and even stamp clubs. Numerous unsolicited stamp designs were received by the Stamp Division, including one depicting both Birch and Butterfield submitted by the California Overland Mail Centennials Committee. The Committee also sent copies of their design to Linn’s Weekly Stamp News and other, non-philatelic publications, which illustrated it.

Finally, on November 2, 1957, a USPOD press release announced that the 1958 commemorative stamp program would include an issue “honoring the Centennial of the Overland Mail.” A follow-up release named October 10, 1958, as the date of issue and specified that San Francisco would be the first day city because it “was the western terminal point of the Overland Mail.” The choice of date and first day city, coupled with the fact that both postal communiqués referred to the Overland Mail in the singular, indicated that the Butterfield line was being commemorated to the exclusion of the Birch line.

Charles Chickering's original concept for the Overland Mail commemorative.
Charles Chickering’s original concept for the Overland Mail commemorative.
U.S. Post Office Department announcement for the issued design of the 1958 Overland Mail stamp.
U.S. Post Office Department announcement for the issued design of the 1958 Overland Mail stamp.
United States - Scott #1120 (1958) first day cover with ArtCraft cachet
United States – Scott #1120 (1958) first day cover with ArtCraft cachet

In the end, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing artist Charles R. Chickering was commissioned to do an original painting of “a dramatic scene of an Overland Mail coach under attack.” Designer William H. Buckley modified Chickering’s artwork by eliminating the foreground and superimposing the vignette “on a map of the southwestern part of the United States.” The lettering, which went through several modifications, vaguely honors “Overland Mail,” but the course shown on the map is clearly the southern “oxbow route” used by the Butterfield until 1861. Charles A. Brooks engraved the die. The stamps were printed in orange red (also referred to as crimson rose) on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s rotary press in sheets of 200 stamps that were cut down into four panes of fifty for sale at post offices, perforated 11 x 10½. There were 125,770,200 copies of the stamp issued.

The Overland Mail was again honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a 29-cent stamp in the Legends of the West series (Scott #2869t) issued on October 18, 1994, accompanied by a 19-cent postal card (Scott #UX197). These items first went on sale in three cities — Laramie, Wyoming, Tucson, Arizona, and Lawton, Oklahoma.

United States Flag (1851-1858)
United States Flag (1851-1858)

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