The Red River: West on the Overland Mail
by Edward Southerland
It cut the travel time from the Mississippi River to the Golden Gate by at least 75 percent. It was expensive, more money than the average working man made in three months, but it was the only way to go. It was the first passenger and mail service to join the two halves of the great North American continent; it was the Overland Mail Company, the Butterfield stage.
California had become part of the United States during the Mexican War. Gold had been discovered in 1849 and by 1850 California was in the Union, and the tranquil, quiet existence that had marked the land when it was part of Spain and later Mexico had evaporated as thousands trekked west, seeking fortune. The clamor in the congress and from citizens on both sides of the continent was for regular and better transportation and mail delivery than then existed. Better than six months to a year on a tall-mast sailing packet wearing down the empty South Atlantic, around the always stormy and dangerous tip of the southern continent, the dreaded Cape Horn, and then back up on the long reach to San Francisco. Better than thirty days to the Isthmus of Panama, another month or better across that malarial, yellow jack infested bog and then an indeterminable wait on Balboa’s coast for a ship north.
Butterfield was no stranger to the stagecoach business. He had started working for stage lines when he was nineteen, was a founder of the American Express Company, and at the time he bid on the Overland Mail contract he owned and ran forty stage lines in New York State. The contract would pay $600,000 annually, but it allowed less than one year to survey, map, prepare the route and begin service. It left fewer than twelve months to figure out how to cross 2,757 miles of some the most rugged landscape known to man in the prescribed twenty-five days.
It took scouting parties eight months to map the route while the company built more than 250 wagons and coaches. Mules and horses, 1,800 of them, had to be assigned and delivered to way stations all along the route, and those stations had to be constructed and manned. But the impossible, the impractical, the incredible was commonplace in the United States of the mid-nineteenth century. The lure of the land, the great adventure that beckoned men to followed the sun, and the overriding confidence that was part of Manifest Destiny seemed to make all things possible .
On September 16, 1858, the first passengers left St. Louis for the trip west, while another coach pulled out of San Francisco. The Missouri passengers, who had paid the $200 fare, (about $5,700 in 2016) left at 8:30 a.m., traveling by railroad the 160 miles to Tipton, Missouri in ten hours, where they picked up the stage. From Tipton, they rocked through the Ozarks, through Springfield and Fayetteville to Fort Smith, Arkansas where they were joined by westbound travelers from Memphis.
At Fort Smith the stage headed into the Nations, as the Indian Territory was known. Next scheduled town of note, Sherman, Texas. Every eighteen miles or so, on average, the coach would roll into a way station for a change of teams and sometimes drivers. They rumbled along at an average of five miles an hour, day and night, night and day. Twice a day the passengers had enough time to grab some food, a cup of coffee, and then back on the road as William Tallack, travelling eastbound in 1860, recalled. “Meals (at extra charge) are provided for the passengers twice a day. The fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts, and consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh—the latter tough enough.”
New York Herald reporter and the only through passenger on the first westbound trip, Watterman L. Ormsby, reported that for breakfast at a way station in West Texas, he had "jerked beef (cooked on the [buffalo] ‘chips’), raw onions, crackers slightly wormy, and a bit of bacon." At the Red River, fifteen miles from Sherman, the driver or conductor would ring for Colbert’s ferry, then ease the big express coach down the bank and onto a barge for the trip across the river. On the Texas side, the teams would dig in, strain at the harness, and climb out of the river bottom. There was short halt to water the animals at Sand Springs where the water bubbled up from the base of the sandstone bluffs and then into Sherman. It was six days from the starting point in the east and from that point on the route led west, ever west, always west.
It was fifteen miles to Diamond’s station and fifteen more to Gainesville. Seventeen miles to Davidson’s station, twenty to Earhart’s, sixteen miles to Jacksboro, nineteen miles to Murphy’s station and sixteen miles to the army post at Fort Belknap. From there the traveler crossed the endless, empty expanse of western Texas to El Paso. And on the coaches rolled. Leave Sherman on a Sunday and you should make El Paso by Saturday, passing through places with names like Clear Fork, Fort Phantom Hill, Fort Chadbourne, Horsehead Crossing, and Hueco Tanks. Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River marked the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
On the practical side, the traveler was warned to “spit on the leeward side of the coach.” And lastly, “Don’t imagine for a moment you are going on a pic-nic (sic); expect annoyance, discomfort and hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven.” Indeed, heaven and the driver may have been the passengers’ only hope for salvation. And there were other warnings as well. Conspicuously displayed at the starting points was a sign:
You Will Be Traveling Through Indian Country and the Safety Of Your Person Cannot Be Vouchsafed by Anyone But God.
That said, there was only one recorded attack by Indians on an Overland Mail stage on the southern route. From El Paso it was 600 miles in six days to Fort Yuma on the California border, through Soldier’s Farewell, Doubtful Pass, and Murder’s Grave. Once into the Golden State the route ran along the dangerous Grapevine Canyon then up the Central Valley to Visalia.
Watterman Ormsby wrote of flying down Pacheco Pass, “I expected to see him [the driver] put down the brakes with all his might, but he merely rested his foot on them saying, ‘It’s best to keep the wheels rolling, or they’ll slide.’” That first coach rolled down San Francisco’s streets on October 8—twenty-three days, twenty-three and a half hours after the passengers set out from St. Louis. The Butterfield southern route would generally follow in the same tracks as that first coach until March 1861 when the contract was altered and the route moved north out of Texas as the Lone Star got ready to cast its future with the Southern Confederacy.
From April, 1860 to November, 1861, the fabled Pony Express would cut mail delivery time from St. Jo, Missouri to Sacramento, California to ten days and eventually steel rails would join the country in 1869. But until those events made their appearance on history’s time line, the Overland Mail was the only way to go. And what a way it was. “A through-ticket and fifteen inches of seat, with a fat man on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby in your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or more persons immediately in front, leaning against your knees, making the picture, as well as your sleeping place for the trip.”—Demas Barnes, 1866.
Or, perhaps: "I shall never forget the gorgeous appearance of the clouds: tinged by the setting sun above those jagged peaks, [the Guadalupe Mountains] changing like a rapid panorama, they assumed all sorts of fantastic shapes, from frantic maidens with disheveled hair to huge monsters of fierce demeanor, chasing one another through the realms of space."—Watterman Ormsby, 1858.