Mid 19th century stagecoach and freight line operator, Butterfield founded the companies that became American Express and Wells-Fargo, as well as the Overland Mail Company. It should be noted while many articles indicate his middle name was Warren, there is no primary reference to be found that supports that.
Born in Berne, New York in 1801, John grew up on a farm and was mostly self-educated. At the age of 19, he became a professional stage driver in Albany, New York. He married Malinda Harriet Baker in 1822 and after carefully saving his money, he became the owner/operator of a livery business. Later he established stage routes throughout New York as well as getting involved in other means of transportation, including steamboats on Lake Ontario, the street railroad in Utica, local plank-roads, and the Black River Railroad.
Through shrewd business skills, he soon controlled most of the stage lines west of New York and in 1849 formed the Butterfield, Wasson & Company. The following year, he merged his company with two rivals, Wells & Company and Livingston, Fargo & Company, to form the American Express Company (the same company that exists today.)
In 1857, Butterfield won the government contract for the first transcontinental stage line, carrying the mail from Missouri to California and receiving $600,000 yearly. Before this, mail had been carried to the west by various private companies, some under federal contract, using various routes, including ocean steamer around South America or overland across the Isthmus of Panama. When finalized, the new mail contract was the largest that had ever been awarded. The original bid request was responded to by nine companies, all submitting routes that were north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, once the bid was awarded, the southern Postmaster General mandated that the new line travel through Fort Smith, Arkansas, to El Paso, Texas, and through Fort Yuma, California, before making its way to San Francisco. This new route, called the “Ox-bow Route,” added 600 miles to the original bids. Butterfield complied and formed the Overland Mail Company to carry the mail, for which Butterfield became president.
Service began in September 1858 but, unfortunately, was a short-lived venture, as when the Civil War began, service was discontinued in 1861. Portions of the Butterfield Trail were then used by both the Confederate and the Union armies, leaving portions of the west virtually cut off from outside communication. The Confederate States of America continued to operate parts of the Overland Mail route with limited success from 1861 until early 1862. However, this success would soon be replaced by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
John Butterfield later became the mayor of Utica, New York. After suffering a stroke, he died in 1869.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2022.
Butterfield Overland Stage Company
Stagecoaches of the American West