On March 3, 1857, Congress authorized the U.S. postmaster general, Aaron Brown, to contract for transportation of the U.S. mail from the Mississippi River to the west coast. At the time, U.S. mail going west was transported by steamship or clipper across the Gulf of Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama, where it was freighted to the Pacific and put back on ships headed north to California.
Most early proposals for a land route looked to follow fairly direct lines west from St. Louis, following traditional emigrant trails over the Rocky Mountains. The most southerly of these was a proposal to go through Albuquerque, N.M., and roughly follow the 35th Parallel. Proposals for these trails, while potentially quicker routes, suffered from the likelihood of weather stopping the mail during the winter months.
The Butterfield Overland Mail Co. proposed a route across the desert southwest, where snow would be a rare occurrence. The route still received its fair share of criticism. Aside from the scarcity of water and stock in many places, the 2,800-mile route was perceived to be too long to be covered in the 25 days specified by Congress. Nevertheless, the ability to provide year-round service persuaded Aaron Brown to award a six-year contract to the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. at the rate of $600,000 per year. 1
- National Postal Museum, Smithsonian; Butterfield Overland Mail