The Butterfield stagecoach
Photo courtesy Silver Dollar City


The Butterfield Overland Mail route traversed prairies, mountains, deserts, and valleys on its way from St. Louis to San Francisco.

The mid-1800s witnessed a migration of historic proportions, as Americans—singly, in families, and in large companies—moved westward to California. They crossed thousands of untracked miles, in search of land, gold, and a fresh start. Once arrived and starved for news from home, they found themselves all but totally separated from the civilization they had left behind.

Unfortunately, the most common methods of delivering news and goods from the East were by sea around Cape Horn—a dangerous 17,000-mile journey that could take upward of five months, or overland via the swampy, fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama, which was hardly a better option.

Clearly, a more expedient method was needed. In late April 1857, the federal government authorized the postal service to solicit bids for an expeditious overland system to carry the mail from the East Coast to California. Tremendous profits were in the offing; beyond the staggeringly high charges for carrying passengers, there were the highly profitable government mail contracts.

A number of men responded to the need for a reliable overland service, each with his own plan, but arguably the most farsighted was an ambitious upstate New York financier named Butterfield.

The Butterfield Bio.
Born near Albany in November 1801, John Warren Butterfield apparently harbored an affinity for stagecoaches since his youth. He became a driver at nineteen, and by his late forties, he had laid out a regional network of coach lines and established his own company. In 1850, he merged with two other companies, Wells & Co. and Livingston, Fargo & Co., to form the American Express Company. By the time the federal government put out the call for entrepreneurs to build an overland route between California and the East, no one was better qualified than John W. Butterfield.

Butterfield, whose friendship with incoming President James Buchanan certainly did not hurt his chances, was awarded the coveted six-year government contract in mid-September 1857. The contract came with a staggering annual budget of $600,000, an amount worth over $17 million in today’s currency. It was, at the time, the largest land-mail contract ever awarded in the United States, in advance payment for the nation’s longest overland route. The contract stipulated year-round delivery of the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Deliveries were to occur on a regularly scheduled biweekly basis and to take no longer than twenty-five days.

Over the next year, Butterfield, a fastidious planner as well as a thoroughgoing workaholic, labored diligently to fulfill the terms of his contract. It was a daunting undertaking, and in concert with his old partners, who had now merged to form Wells, Fargo & Co., he invested upward of a million dollars in the project.

A number of factors demanded his immediate attention: the tight schedule, the countless miles of rough and unpredictable terrain, the logistical nightmare of digging wells, constructing and repairing bridges and roads, purchasing 250 coaches and 1,200 horses and mules, hiring some 800 employees, and setting up nearly 150 stations along the way to feed the passengers and to change drivers and animals. These waystations were spaced thirty to forty miles apart in terrain where there was available water and only ten to twenty miles apart in the more arid stretches. And finally, not least of Butterfield’s concerns were the various Native American tribes who would not take kindly to the regularly scheduled intrusions.

The eastern base of operations for Butterfield’s Overland Mail Co. was St. Louis, where the mail, collected and sacked, was loaded aboard a train and carried 160 miles to the end of the track at Tipton. From here, the mail and any passengers who could afford the $200 for the trip—nearly $6,500 today—would travel the rest of the 2,800 miles to San Francisco by stagecoach.

And They’re Off …
In mid-September 1858, a full year after the contract was awarded, Butterfield’s coaches set out on the first run from their respective termini on the east and west coasts. The westbound route had been determined by the federal postmaster, who was a southerner. He accordingly drew the course along a southern plan. It followed an oxbow pattern, from Tipton south through Springfield and Rogers and Fort Smith, Arkansas, and thence through the wild country known as Indian Territory—now Oklahoma—across the Texas plains to New Mexico Territory, including present-day Arizona, and into southern California.

Understandably, this layout did not meet with the approval of the citizens of the North, who saw in the route a geographic bias on the part of the planners. After all, Sacramento was the California state capital, not San Francisco. Yet, because it sat far to the north of the City by the Bay, it fell outside the parameters of Butterfield’s prescribed route. Although a primary and highly defensible reason for adopting the southerly Oxbow Route was to avoid the Rockies and the crippling winter snows, it further deepened the nation’s already-profound sectional chasms. Typical of the northern responses, the outraged editors of the Chicago Tribune called it “one of the greatest swindles ever perpetrated upon the country by slaveholders.”

The issue of slavery would be addressed in another three years, with the outbreak of the Civil War; for the moment, however, Butterfield’s route was fixed. His coaches traveled around the clock, in strict adherence to his edict, “Remember, boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States Mail!”

‘A Swinging and Swaying Cage.’
A Hollywood pundit once stated that every Western movie falls into one of seven basic plots; the first of these includes the stagecoach. Indeed, as all true fans of the genre are aware, the first memorable movie that consummate Western icon John Wayne starred in was aptly titled Stagecoach. And given the deluge of stagecoach-based films and episodics that followed, it isn’t difficult to understand why many Americans have come to assume that this particular mode of transportation was an American-born contrivance that first made its appearance on the Western Frontier of the 1880s.

In fact, stagecoaches were in common use worldwide for centuries prior to contributing to the settlement of the American West. The accepted method of transporting letters, packages, and people in a number of countries, they were also a favorite target of highwaymen, the forerunners of America’s own “rogues of the road.”

Commercial stagecoaches were first used in the American colonies around 1718, when a regular route was established between Boston and Providence. And when the demand eventually came for a coach-based system in the burgeoning West, the best and most popular vehicles were built by the Abbot, Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire. It was these so-called Concord coaches, along with various other horse- and mule-drawn vehicles, that factored most significantly in Butterfield’s enterprise.

There was nothing romantic about stagecoach travel. The primary goal of the Overland Company, and its greatest source of revenue, was the prompt delivery of the mail, and passengers were literally along for the ride. A journalist writing for the Omaha Herald warned, “Don’t imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyance, discomfort, and some hardships.” He was understating the case. While some passengers took their seats within the coach, others had to make do with riding on top, as period illustrations clearly show.

Riding in a stagecoach could be a traumatic experience, starting with the design of the coach itself. Rather than using springs, the builders installed stout leather straps upon which sat the body of the coach, giving the vehicle a rocking, rather than an up-and-down, movement. Mark Twain described it as “a swinging and swaying cage.” Unfortunately, the constant movement often induced nausea, which for the passengers at the window seats was bad enough; one can only imagine the discomfort of those occupying the middle seats.

Well, Hello There.
This was not the era of seatbelts. When going up- or down-grade, the angle of the coach would throw the passengers and their possessions into the opposite side, creating an intimacy neither sought nor enjoyed. When the coach became mired in sand, mud, or snow, the passengers did not ride at all and were often called upon to help in its extrication. In his book, Roughing It, Mark Twain gives an apt, if humorous, description of his 1861 journey in one of Butterfield’s coaches from St. Joseph to Carson City, Nevada. He recalled “forty memorable miles of bottomless sand, into which the coach wheels sunk from six inches to a foot. We worked our passage most of the way across. That is to say, we got out and walked.”

Twain writes of another occasion in which the coach broke down, a mishap the driver blamed on the heavy mail sacks. He peremptorily lightened the load by dumping half the mail on the prairie and continued on his route.

The Overland made no allowance for sleeping; in strict observance of its twenty-four-hour daily schedule, the coach stopped only to switch drivers and stock and feed the trail-weary passengers. The food served at the various stations often bordered on the inedible. Since the cost of meals was not included in the ticket price, the station agents were free to charge usurious prices for the worst possible fare. Twain described one such meal as consisting of “last week’s bread … condemned army bacon … a beverage which pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”

In addition to the everyday challenges of the trip, the coaches were sometimes subjected to Indian attacks. The hostility of the tribes along the route had been, if anything, underappreciated. And then there was the odd highwayman who, singly or in a gang, haunted the road.

Pony Express Competition.
Less than two years after he established his company, Butterfield encountered competition from an unexpected source. Three enterprising men—William Russell, William Waddell, and Alexander Majors—started their own coast-to-coast mail delivery system, using individual mounted riders. The company rules dictated that the riders must be single young men, light in weight, and expert horsemen. The company was officially named the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Co., but became more familiarly known as the Pony Express.

Using a much more direct route, the Pony Express was unquestionably faster than the Butterfield system, frequently delivering the mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento in only ten days. A single rider, however, was incapable of carrying the volume of mail hauled by the Butterfield coach. The government failed to award the Pony Express a mail contract, and—heavily in debt—Russell, Majors, and Waddell soon went out of business.

Butterfield had his own financial troubles. The cost of maintaining the route had proven considerably higher than he had anticipated, and he had accrued debts for repairs and maintenance at an alarming rate. He also owed a considerable amount to his former partners at Wells, Fargo & Co., and in 1860, they assumed ownership of the Overland, forcing Butterfield out.

Although he was out of the transportation and mail delivery business, Butterfield remained in the limelight. He turned to politics, and in 1865, was elected mayor of Utica, New York. Four years later, he suffered a paralyzing stroke, dying at the age of sixty-seven.

The Demise of the Overland.
Not surprisingly, with the opening of the Civil War in 1861, the federal government ordered the closing of the southern Oxbow Route and mandated a more northerly course. Accordingly, the post-office department dubbed the new trail the Central Overland California Route.

By this time, Wells, Fargo & Co. controlled the western terminus, while Ben Holladay’s stage line, the Holladay Overland and Express Company, operated out of the east. The principals of the two companies did not get along, however, and in 1866, Wells, Fargo bought out Holladay, giving them a mail-carrying monopoly. This lasted only another three years, when the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad rendered coast-to-coast express delivery by coach obsolete.

Stagecoaches continued to function throughout the West, however, connecting communities that were off the railroad’s grid. Eventually, in an effort to make the trip more bearable for its passengers, Wells, Fargo & Co. went so far as to compose a set of rules to be observed by their passengers. Following are some of the regulations:

  • Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink, share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you look selfish and unneighborly.
  • If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes, as the odor is repugnant to the Gentle Sex.
  • Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
  • Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
  • Don’t snore loudly while sleeping, or use your fellow passenger’s shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand, and friction may result.
  • Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not shoot them for pleasure or at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
  • In the event of runaway horses, remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians, and hungry wolves.
  • Forbidden topics of discussion are stagecoach robberies, Indian uprisings, politics, and religion.
  • Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.

… and, taking a page from John Butterfield’s book, “Don’t keep the stage waiting!”

The East-West Connection.
Combining decades of experience with his gifts as a visionary, John W. Butterfield had created the longest stage line in the world. Although the tenure of his Overland Mail Co. was brief, and despite the hardships of the trip, the thousands of sleepless miles of discomfort, inclement weather, dreadful food, and attacks by Indians and road agents, Butterfield had succeeded in making the nation’s dream of connecting the east and west coasts a reality.

The Butterfield Trail Auto Tour

An enterprising Nebraskan named J. Greg Smith is creating a series of long-range auto tours over historic American routes and trails. Among the list of Auto Tour itineraries, drivers can follow the Butterfield Overland Trail. In fact, the Butterfield Trail has enjoyed its share of limelight. In August 2020, Arkansas US Senator John Boozman, with the tacit approval of the National Park Service, culminated a personal ten-year crusade by placing legislation before Congress that would designate it a National Historic Trail. “The Butterfield Overland Trail,” states the senator, “played an important role in our nation’s westward expansion. Designating it as a National Historic Trail is a fitting recognition for its contributions to the growth and development of our country.” To date, the Butterfield Overland Trail has not been designated as a National Historic Trail.

The Auto Tour of the Butterfield Overland Trail stretches from the route’s initial point of departure in Missouri to its ultimate destination in California. Along the way, drivers will be able to avail themselves of the various museums, state parks, historic sites, and attractions along the route. While the auto tour and map are complete, a detailed guide and website are scheduled for completion this year. When finished, they can be used to travel closer-to-home portions of the trail or the entire 2,800 miles of what was once the longest, fastest route between the nation’s shores.

This time, you can do it in the comfort of your own heated or air-conditioned vehicle, with cushioned seats, decent food, and the ability to sleep in a bed every night, luxuries denied the original travelers in Butterfield’s “swinging and swaying cages.”

For more information, visit

Top photo: The Journey Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach was built in 1880 in Concord, New Hampshire. After its life on the trail and likely a few places in between, it came into the ownership of Silver Dollar City until the theme park retired it in the 1970s. Rick Hamby from West Plains bought the retired stagecoach in Arkansas in 1999 and brought it home to Missouri. Read the incredible tale of The Journey at