The Overland Mail

Fort Davis, Texas Parade Ground

Fort Davis, Texas Parade Ground

The first stage left San Diego for the East in December with six passengers. Throughout the trip, a hostler rode behind herding a relay team. The driver kept his six horses to their utmost for two hours; then stock and wearied passengers were given a two hours’ rest, after which the fresh team was hooked up and the journey resumed.

In this manner, they made about 50 miles a day. When they arrived at Fort Davis, Texas, they found the garrison, whom they had expected to supply them with provisions, short of food, and they subsisted for the next five days on what barley they felt justified in taking away from the horses. They arrived at Fort Lancaster, Texas just after the departure of a Comanche war party who had stolen all the stock, and were obliged to go 200 miles further before they could get a relay. But, these incidents, and a delay or two because of swollen rivers, were accounted for only small mishaps. They came through with their scalps and the mail-sacks — only ten days behind the schedule.

Thereafter, the Birch line continued its service; and letters came from San Francisco to St. Louis, Missouri in about six weeks. Occasionally, Indians massacred a party of travelers; now and then, renegade whites or Mexicans robbed the passengers of their belongings and looted the mail-sacks. But, such things were no more than anyone expected. James Birch had proved his point. The southern route was practical, and in 1858, the government let a six years’ contract for carrying letters twice a week between St. Louis and San Francisco, to John Butterfield of Utica, New York.

Thus, the Wells-Butterfield interests scored the first decisive victory. Butterfield’s compensation was fixed at $600,000 a year and the schedule at 25 days. The route went by way of Fort Smith, Arkansas; El Paso, Texas; and Tucson and Jaeger’s Ferry in Arizona, over a length of 2,760 miles. Of this, nearly 2,000 were in hostile Indian country.

To travel this distance in 25 days, meant a fast clip for horses and a lumbering Concord coach over ungraded roads. And, such a clip necessitated frequent relays, which, in turn, demanded stations at short intervals. While a road gang was removing the ugliest barriers in various mountain passes, another party went along the line erecting adobe houses. These houses were little forts, well suited for withstanding the attacks of hostile Indians. The corrals beside them were walled like ancient castle-yards.

Light stagecoach

Light stagecoach

William Buckley of Watertown, New York, headed this party. Bands of mounted Comanche attacked them on the lonely Staked Plains of western Texas. Apache crept upon them in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico. Of the battles which they fought history contains no record; but, they went on driving the Mexican laborers to their toil under the hot sun, and the chain of low adobe buildings crept slowly westward.

In those days Mexican outlaws were drifting into Arizona and New Mexico from Chihuahua and Sonora; and these cutthroats, to whom murder was a means of livelihood, were as great a menace as the Indians. Three of them got jobs on the station building gang and awaited an opportunity to make money after their bloody fashion. At Dragoon Springs, Arizona they found their chance.

Here, where the Dragoon Mountains come out into the plain like a lofty granite promontory that faces the sea, the party had completed the walls of a stone corral, within which, a storehouse and stage station were partitioned off. The roofing of these two rooms and some ironwork on the gate remained to be completed. The main portion of the party moved on to the San Pedro River, leaving Silas St. Johns in charge of six men to attend to these details. The three Mexican bandits were members of this little detachment. The other three were Americans.

Dragoon Mountains of Arizona

Dragoon Mountains of Arizona

The place was right on the road which Apache war parties took to Sonora. For this reason, a guard was maintained from sunset to sunrise. St. Johns always awoke at midnight to change the sentries. One starlight night when he had posted the picket who was to watch until dawn, St. Johns went back to his bed in the un-roofed room that was to serve as a station. He dropped off to sleep for an hour or so and was roused by a noise among the stock in the corral. The sound of blows and groans followed.

St. Johns leaped from his blankets just as the three Mexicans rushed into the room. Two of them were armed with axes and the third with a sledge. The fight that followed lasted less than a minute.

St. Johns kicked the foremost murderer in the stomach, and as the man fell, sprang for a rifle which he kept in the room. The other two attacked him with their axes. He parried one blow, aimed at his head, and the blade buried itself in its hip. While the man was tugging to free the weapon St. Johns felled him with a blow on the jaw. The third Mexican struck downward at almost the same instant, severing St. Johns’ left arm near the shoulder.

Then, the white man got his right hand on his rifle and the three murderers fled. They had killed one of the Americans who was sleeping in the enclosure, left another dying near him and the third gasping his last outside the gate.

St. Johns staunched the blood from his wounds and crawled to the top of a pile of grain-sacks where he could see over the un-roofed wall. Here, he stayed for three days and three nights. With every sunrise the magpies and buzzards came in great flocks, to sit upon the wall after they had sated themselves in the corral, and watch him. With every nightfall, the wolves slunk down from the mountains and fought over the body outside the gate. Night and day the thirst-tortured mules kept up a pandemonium.

A road-grading party finally came along on Sunday morning. They gave St. Johns such first aid as they could and sent a rider to Fort Buchanan for a surgeon. The doctor amputated the arm nine days after the wound had been inflicted. Three weeks later St. Johns was able to ride a horse to Tucson.

Silas St. Johns is offered as a sample of the men who built and operated the overland mail lines. Among the drivers, stock-tenders, and messengers there were many others like him. Ironmen, it was not easy to kill them, and so long as there was breath in their bodies they kept on fighting.

John Butterfield

John Butterfield

John Butterfield and his associates were made of the same stuff as these employees.

How many hundred thousand dollars these pioneer investors put into their line before the turning of a single wheel is not known; it must have been somewhere near a cool million, and this was in a day when millions were not so common as they are now; a day, moreover, when nothing in the business was certain and everything remained to be proved.

They established more than 100 stage-stations along that semicircle through the savage Southwest. They bought about 1,500 mules and horses, which were sent out along the route. To feed these animals, hay and grain were freighted, in some cases, for 200 miles, and the loads arrived at the corrals worth a goodly fraction of their weight in silver. There was a station in western Texas to which teamsters had to haul water for nine months of the year from 22 away. At every one of these lonely outposts, there was an agent and a stock-tender, and at some, it was necessary to maintain what amounted to a little garrison. Arms and ammunition were provided for defense against the Indians and outlaws; provisions were laid in to last for weeks. One hundred Concord coaches were purchased from the Abbot Downing Company, who had been engaged in the manufacture of these vehicles in New Hampshire since 1813; they were built on the thorough-brace pattern and were regarded as the best that money could buy. Seven hundred and fifty men, of whom 150 were drivers, were put on the payroll and transported to their stations.