John Butterfield

Butterfield Stage and Overland Mail

Stage map

Frequent travelers in the American Southwest will inevitably come upon historical markers for the Butterfield Overland Mail in the most disparate locations, from west Texas to central California.

Known to most as the Butterfield Stage, this precursor to the Information Superhighway initiated communication across 2,000 miles forbidding desert and mountain wilderness, providing isolated Westerners with their first regular news and mail just prior to the Civil War. It was named for its owner, John Butterfield.

John Butterfield was born in Berne, New York in 1801 and grew up on a farm amidst the technological revolution of the first steamboat, the Erie Canal, the steam locomotive and the electric telegraph.

By the age of 19 he had realized his ambition to become a professional stage driver, and after diligently saving his earnings, became the owner and operator a of a livery business.

StageAlthough stern in appearance Butterfield was regarded by both partners and employees as a just and fair man. He was known as a natural leader, with an indelible memory and a generous spirit. He was a genuine 19th-century entrepreneur who relished challenging business ventures that were both profitable and served the public good.

In 1850, Butterfield convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo to consolidate their express companies with his own Butterfield & Wasson Company to form the American Express Company, which Butterfield then directed. Although the original American Express Company was primarily an express-transportation company, it is today a worldwide organization based in New York City, providing travel-related and insurance services, as well as international finance operations and banking.

In 1857, John Butterfield won a $600,000 contract to deliver the St. Louis mail to San Francisco in 25 days. This contract, the largest for land mail service that had yet been given, was awarded to Butterfield's Overland Stage Company after 9 groups had entered bids.

Originally, all groups had submitted routes that were north of Albuquerque, New Mexico territory. But the southern Postmaster General mandated that the new line be required to go through Fort Smith, Arkansas, then proceed through Texas to El Paso, onward to Fort Yuma, California and then up to San Francisco. Called the "Ox-bow Route," it added 600 miles to the original bids.

Up until this time, mail had been conveyed from East to West by private companies, some under federal contract, using various routes, including ocean steamer around South America, or overland across the Isthmus of Panama.

Butterfield immediately hired crews to prepare stations along the 2,000-mile route and water storage tanks every 30 miles, because as he said, "Remember boys, nothing on God's earth must stop the mail!"

Although Butterfield had never been west of Buffalo, New York, he decided to carry the mail himself on the first leg of the initial journey. Early on September 16, 1858, John Butterfield, wearing a yellow linen duster, a flat-brimmed hat, and pants tucked into high boots, left the St. Louis Post Office with 2 bags of mail and one passenger, Waterman L. Ormsby, a corespondent for the New York Herald.

At Tipton, Missouri 12 hours later, John Butterfield Jr. waited in a Concord Stagecoach with 4 fast horses. It took 9 minutes to transfer the 2 passengers and 2 mail bags before the coach leaped away toward Springfield.

John Butterfield Sr. rode only as far as Fort Smith, but Mr. Ormsby rode the entire 2,812-mile route through deserts, mountains, and bands of hostile Indians, all the way to San Francisco. On his arrival, he stated, "Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it."

The Overland Mail continued to make two trips a week for 2 1/2 years. Each Monday and Thursday morning the stagecoach would leave Tipton and San Francisco on their transcontinental journey, conveying passengers freight and up to 12,000 letters. The western fare one-way was $200, with most stages arriving at their final destination 22 days later.

Stage stationWhile it prospered, the Butterfield Overland Stage Company employed more than 800 people and had 139 relay stations, 1800 head of stock and 250 Concord Stagecoaches in service at one time.

In March of 1860, John Butterfield was forced out, and the Butterfield Overland Stage Company was taken over by Wells, Fargo & Company due to large debts that Butterfield owed to Wells and Fargo.

With the beginning of the Civil War, the Butterfield Overland Mail discontinued the Oxbow Route; the last Overland Mail trip through the Desert Southwest was made on March 21, 1861. Wells Fargo continued to prosper with more northerly routes through mining camps, and the transcontinental railroad soon replaced the need for overland stagecoaches.

At age 59. John Butterfield retired to his home in Utica, New York, where he later suffered a paralyzing stroke and died in 1869. He had established an incredible mail route, the longest in the world at the time, which provided a regular line of communication for Americans separated by almost 2,000 miles of hot, dry, rugged desert wilderness.

-- Bob Katz



Butterfield's Overland Stage
Vallecito Stage Coach Days


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