The Overland Mail

The Butterfield stage starts its journey in Tipton, Missouri

The Butterfield stage starts its journey in Tipton, Missouri

Nearly all this outlay was made before the beginning of the first trip. It was the greatest expenditure of money on a single transportation project of its kind up to this time in America. And there were a thousand hazards of the wilderness to be incurred, a thousand obstacles of nature to be overcome before the venture could be proved practical.

The men of money had done their part and the line was ready for the opening of traffic. On September 16, 1858, the mail-sacks started from St. Louis and San Francisco. It was up to the men of action to get them through within the schedule.

Twenty-five days was the allowance for the 2760 miles. The westbound coach reached San Francisco about 24 hours inside of the limit. On that October evening crowds packed Montgomery Street; the booming of cannon and the crashing of anvils loaded with black powder, the blaring of brass bands and the voices of orators, all mingled in one glad uproar, to tell the world that the people by the Golden Gate appreciated the occasion.

Missouri Pacific Railroad

Missouri Pacific Railroad

In St. Louis, the eastbound mail was an hour earlier. John Butterfield stepped from the Missouri Pacific train with the sacks, and a great procession was on hand to escort him to the post office. Bands and carriages and a tremendous display of red, white, and blue enlivened the whole city. President Buchanan sent a telegram of congratulation.

It looked as if the northern route were out of it for good now; but, it remained for the men to keep the southern line in operation. What had been done was only a beginning; the long grind of real accomplishment still lay ahead.

Storms, floods, Indian massacres, and hold-ups were common, but the line carried on. The stock, was, for the most part, unbroken. At nearly every change the fresh team started off on a mad gallop, and if the driver had a wide plain where he could let them go careening through the mesquite or greasewood, while the stage followed, sometimes on two wheels, sometimes on one, he counted himself lucky. There was many a station from which the road led over the broken country — along steep sidehills, across high-banked washes, skirting the summits of rocky precipices; and on such stretches, it was the rule rather than the exception, for the coach to overturn.

The bronco stock was bad enough but the green mules were the worst. It was often found necessary to lash the stage to a tree — if one could be found near the station, and if not to the corral fence — while the long-eared brutes were being hooked up. When the last trace had been snapped into place the hostlers would very gingerly free the vehicle from its moorings and, as the ropes came slack, leap for their lives.

They called the route a road. As a matter of fact, that term was a far-fetched euphemism. In some places, approaches had been dug away to the beds of streams, and the absolutely impassable barriers of the living rock had been removed from the mountain passes. But, that was all. What with the long climbs upgrade and the bad going through loose sand or mud, it was always necessary for the driver to keep his six animals at a swinging trot when they came to a level or a downhill pull. Often he had to whip them into a dead run for miles where most men would hesitate to drive a buckboard at a walk.

During the rainy seasons, the rivers of that Southwestern land proceeded to demonstrate that they had a right to the name — to which they never pretended to live up at other times — by running bank full. These coffee-colored floods were underlain by thick strata of quicksands. Occasionally, one of them simply absorbed a coach; and, unless the driver was very swift in cutting the traces, it took unto itself two or three mules for good measure.

Comanche Attack

Comanche Attack

The Comanche Indians were on the warpath during these years in western Texas. On the great Staked Plain they swooped down on many a stage, and driver and passengers had to make a running fight of it to save their scalps. The Indians attacked the stations, 200-300 of them in a band. The agents and stock tenders, who were always on the lookout, usually saw them in time to retreat inside the thick adobe walls of the building, from which shelter they sometimes were able to stand them off without suffering any particular damage. But, other times, they were forced to watch the enemy go whooping away with the stampeded stock from the corral. And, now and again, there was a massacre.

Under Mangas Coloradas, whom historians account as their greatest war-chief, the Apache were busy in New Mexico and Arizona. They worked more carefully than their Texan cousins, and there was a gorge along the line in that section which got the name of Doubtful Canyon because the only thing a driver could count on there, with any certainty, was a fight before he got through to the other side.

Indians attacking stagecoach

Indians attacking stagecoach

Nor were the Indians the only savage men in that wilderness. Arizona was becoming a haven for fugitives from California Vigilante Committees and for renegade Mexicans from the south. The road-agents went to work along the route, and near Tucson, they did a thriving business.

Yet, with all these enemies and obstacles, it is a matter of record that the Butterfield Overland Mail was only late three times.

In spite of bad roads, floods, sand-storms, battles, and hold-ups, the east and westbound stages usually made the distance in 21 days. And, there was a long period during 1859 when the two mails — which had started on the same day from the two east and west termini — met each other at exactly the half-way point. Apparently, the Wells-Butterfield interests had won the struggle. Service was increased to a daily basis and the compensation was doubled. The additional load was handled with the same efficiency that had been shown in the beginning.

How did these men accomplish these tasks with horse alone? The quality of the men themselves explains that. One can judge that quality by an affair that took place at Stein’s Pass.

“Steen’s Pass,” as the old-timers spelled it — and as the name is still pronounced — is a gap in the mountains just west of Lordsburg, New Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad would later come through the same pass. One afternoon, Apache Chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise were in the neighborhood with 600 warriors, when a smoke signal from distant scouts told them that the overland stage was approaching without an armed escort. The two chieftains posted their followers behind the rocks and awaited the arrival of their victims.

When one remembers that such generals as Crook have expressed their admiration for the strategy of Cochise and that Mangas Coloradas was the man who taught him, one will realize that Stein’s Pass, which is admirably suited for all purposes of ambush, must have been a terribly efficient death-trap when the Concord stage came rumbling and rattling westward into it on that blazing afternoon.

There were six passengers in the coach, all of them old-timers in the West. Called the Free Thompson party, from the name of the leader, every one of these men was armed with a late model rifle and was taking full advantage of the company’s rule which allowed the carrying of as much ammunition as one pleased. They had several thousand rounds of cartridges.