Butterfield Overland Despatch – Staging on the Smoky Hill Trail

Butterfield Overland Despatch by Harpers Weekly, 1866.

Butterfield Overland Despatch by Harpers Weekly, 1866.


David Butterfield’s Overland Despatch was in direct competition with Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company. Though other trails had been blazed in the Smoky Hill Valley of Kansas, stage lines had not been successful due to a scarcity of water and frequent Indian attacks. However, David Butterfield was determined that it could be profitable. The smooth-talking businessman soon obtained capital for the “Butterfield Overland Despatch.” The first stage left Atchison, Kansas, on June 4, 1865, arriving in Denver, Colorado, on September 23rd.

Along the 592-mile-long route, relay stations were built about every 12 miles for passenger’s rest, food, and changing of horses. The line was an initial success, providing tri-weekly express service between Atchison, Kansas and Denver, Colorado, in only 8-12 days.

Soldiers were also posted along the pathway at Fort Downer, Fort Harker, Fort Monument, Fort Wallace, and other stops to protect the stations and the travelers from Indian attacks. However, the soldiers could not keep up with the furious Indians who felt their land was being invaded. Additionally, these “Indians” were not always as they appeared but were allegedly Ben Holladay’s hired men dressed in Indian attire, who frightened those on the coaches, robbed them, and burned their equipment and supplies.

Butterfield Overland Despatch departs Atchison, Kansas

Butterfield Overland Despatch departs Atchison, Kansas.

By January 1866, David Butterfield’s Overland Despatch was in serious financial trouble, and the company was reorganized, with David Bray becoming the president. However, it was too little too late, as just two months later, they sold the line to their competitor, Ben Holladay. Later that year, Holladay sold it to Wells Fargo. During this time, the Kansas Pacific Railroad was also pushing towards Denver, and by 1870, the stage line was no longer needed.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2021.

Also See: 

John Butterfield & the Overland Mail Company

Smoky Hill Trail

Stagecoaches of the American West

Tales & Trails of the American Frontier