Establishing the Route

John Butterfield Sr.
John Butterfield Sr.

With contract in hand, John W. Butterfield Sr. began establishing stations, acquiring stock, purchasing coaches, and building roads and bridges where needed. The logistics were daunting. More than 160 stations needed to be outfitted, many of them requiring construction from scratch. Stage drivers, conductors, station masters and superintendents of each division had to be hired. The company bought more than 100 coaches, including Concord and celerity wagons for different portions of the route. More than 2,000 horses and mules were needed to pull the coaches. All of this had to be done within the year.1 In Missouri, the Pacific Railroad had already been building west from St. Louis, and Butterfield planned to start the stage from its western-most terminus, which by 1858 was Tipton in Moniteau County.2 The stage route joined the well established Booneville Road near the town of Florence and shot south to Bolivar and Springfield. From Springfield, the route followed the old Military Road through Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Fort Smith.3 Butterfield used Fort Smith as its Division Center, where the stagecoach from Memphis would add its share of mail and passengers to the main coach. Initially, Butterfield planned to bring the mail from Memphis to Fort Smith via steamboat, but learned late in the planning that steamboats often couldn’t run up the Arkansas River as far as Fort Smith when the river was low. Instead, he contracted with an existing stage company to provide service from Des Arc on the White River to Fort Smith.4

Overland Mail Company Time Schedule
Time Schedule for east- and westbound stages in 1858.

Across the Indian Territory, Butterfield negotiated with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations to cross from the Choctaw capital at Scullyville southwest to Boggy Depot and then south to the Red River crossing at Colbert’s Ferry.5 The route across northern Texas ran south to Sherman and then southwesterly via Jacksboro, Gainesville and a series of military forts. Then the Butterfield route ran west to the Pecos River and followed its eastern bank north to near the New Mexico border and then west again through the Guadalupe Mountains, southern New Mexico and Hueco Tanks to Franklin, Texas, present-day El Paso.6 The Butterfield Route then followed the mail route established a year earlier between San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, California, across southern New Mexico and Arizona Territory. In California, however, the Butterfield Route turned north before reaching San Diego, heading toward San Francisco. The route went through the Temecula valley, on to Los Angeles and then north over the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Mission and Fort Tejon before dropping into the San Joaquin valley. The route ran generally from Bakersfield to Fresno, staying in the foothills of the Sierras and then crossing the river at Firebaugh’s Ferry and climbing over the coastal range on a newly built toll road south of San Jose before following well-established roads into San Francisco.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Conkling, R.P. and M.B. Conkling. The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869, Volume I, (Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1947).
  2. A History of the Missouri Pacific, Missouri Pacific Historical Society, MoPac’s First 125 Years.
  3. Pea Ridge National Military Park, National Park Service, Elkhorn Tavern.
  4. Hendricks, Nancy L. “Butterfield Overland Express,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, (September 2007). Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture; National Park Service, Fort Smith National Historic Site.
  5. Wright, Muriel H. “Historic Places on the Old Stage Line from Fort Smith to Red River,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, (Oklahoma Historical Society, June 1930), 798-822, Chronicles of Oklahoma.
  6. Texas Almanac, Butterfield Overland Mail.
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