Remember those old cowboy movies, with the ‘Butterfield’ stagecoach being chased through deserts and mountains by bandits or Indians? Well, that’s not quite the way it was. A Yankee entrepreneur, John Butterfield, was born near Albany NY in 1801. He had a love of horses and a flair for business, beginning as a Utica NY stage-driver who gradually acquired and developed stage lines in New York State and elsewhere. In 1849, he formed a company to transport goods across the Isthmus of Panama and onward to California. He also started a steamboat line in Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. In 1849, his competition in the package express business with the likes of two other Yankees, Wells and Fargo, led to a merger that created the American Express Company. American Express directly controlled the eastern express trade, largely leaving the mid-west to Wells Fargo, a new company created in 1852, while Butterfield went into the southwestern coach and mail service in the mid-1850s.
In 1857, Congress passed a bill approving a subsidy for an overland mail service to California. The Postmaster-General asked for bids to take the mail from the Mississippi River to San Francisco, but required that a southern route be used. This was based on the practical reality that the route through Salt Lake City was been blocked by snow for months in at least half the winters in the 1850s.
It took a year for the contractors to line up staging points, animals, drivers and equipment along the route. Then it was announced that John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company would begin mail, express and passenger service in St. Louis MO and Memphis TN on September 15, 1858, using Celerity wagons and Concord Coaches, pulled by teams of 4 or 6 horses or mules. The vehicles averaged only about 5 miles per hour, 24 hours a day, and at 2729 miles, the trip would take 25 days, about 3 days less than taking the oversea route via Panama, but it did avoid the yellow fever risk there.
Butterfield proved to be a master at developing the needed personnel, horses and mules, equipment, stopping posts and supplies for the route. In its short, 2½-year existence, the Overland stage was halted only once, when Cochise and his Apaches went on the warpath temporarily in eastern Arizona. The employees at the stage stops led less peaceful lives; 168 of them died from various causes.
The overland route would take passengers at $100 per person, somewhat under $3000 in today’s dollars. The first coaches left St. Louis and San Francisco within a day of each other and arrived at their destinations within an hour of each other on October 9, 1858. Six passengers came through to St. Louis on the first trip eastward and their arrival was greeted with speeches, a band playing and a street procession. If anything, the welcome was even greater in San Francisco:
In the exercises, a large quantity of powder was burned; there was an imposing parade; enlivening music by brass bands; earnest and enthusiastic speeches were made by public officials, and resolutions passed cordially thanking the post-office department for its liberality in establishing the various overland mail routes.
The first coach each way had a reporter from a big New York City newspaper travelling on it, to provide first-person stories. The primary route taken went from St. Louis to Springfield MO to Fort Smith AR, then south and west, crossing the Red River and on through the dry plains of Texas, uninhabited except for some military forts, to El Paso TX and Mesilla NM, then west to Tucson AZ, Yuma AZ, then northwest through where the Salton Sea now exists, climbing past present-day Palm Springs CA, entering Los Angeles from the north and then on to San Francisco.
The Overland Mail Company’s existence ended when the federal government decided to close the route in April,1861, due to the hostilities that began the Civil War. Most of the stage line would pass through Confederate territory or contested parts of Union territory until 1865. A reorganized Overland Mail Company, controlled by Wells Fargo, then took over the central route. The major competitor on this route was Ben Holladay, who had been in the express business since 1852, first between the East and Salt Lake City and then on into California. Holladay shrewdly sold out to Wells Fargo in 1868, just before the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Butterfield never put his name on his stagecoaches, preferring the name ‘Overland Mail’. As well, he never restarted his service after the Civil War, having retired to Utica by then. His name was attached to stagecoaches in the early 1900s cowboy movies, becoming a standard icon for something that never really existed.