The Overland Trail Across the American West

 

Stagecoach on the Overland Trail near Laramie, Wyoming.

Stagecoach on the Overland Trail near Laramie, Wyoming.

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The Overland Trail, also known as the Overland Stage Line, was a stagecoach and wagon road in the American West. Portions of the route had been used by explorers and trappers since the 1820s, especially along what would later become the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails. The Overland Trail Mail route was established by Ben Holladay, in 1862, which closely followed the Pony Express Trail.

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

As the Oregon Trail widened and became deeper in the mountains and on the plains, many people eventually did not have the Pacific Coast in mind for their destination. Gradually, men and families unyoked their oxen, unharnessed the horses, and prepared to make a home in those sections most attractive in what was named and known as “The Great American Desert.” As more and more people came to claim free land, isolated towns sprung up and civilization pushed west. Chiefly, however, most of these new settlements were camps in the mining districts.

The necessity for safer and better means of transportation of supplies to these mining camps became most urgent. One of these places was Sacramento at the end of the California branch of the Oregon Trail, and the center of the early gold excitement in California.

A wagon train and Indians

A wagon train and Indians

After more gold was found in the inland territories of Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Colorado, new trails were blazed. These were not constructed by the government but were side routes from the main trails, made by the men seeking gold. As a logical outcome of the constant need for food, clothing, and tools, an organized movement was started to have supplies transferred from the Missouri River to the wealth-bearing mountains.

Over the Oregon Trail, supply caravans or wagon trains made their way through a country that had been earlier pronounced as “only fit for prairie dogs and Indians.” Most of the people who came to the mountains in the earliest days did not go into agriculture or other occupations, but went there to find gold or silver. To have things to eat and wear, tools for digging the ore, horses, and mules to operate the heavy work of the mines, and food for these working animals, made the commerce of freighting an absolute necessity. Wagon traffic was to supply not only necessities and luxuries for the West, but also on the isolated portions of the plains, or in the hidden passes in the mountains.

Freight Team on the Plains

Freight Team on the Plains

Before the establishment of the regular freight trains, individual families on their way to the West banded together for self-protection from the hostile Indians. Exactly as to how commerce could be extended to those who had pushed into the unoccupied lands, received not only the perplexing consideration of those who were to make the journey but also to the companies doing a transporting business.

Finally, the people of the Pacific coast demanded that the government take the necessary steps toward establishing a mail route across the mountains and the plains. When Utah was created as a territory, the people had to wait for the official Act of Congress, from September 1850 to January 1851, because the documents traveled via the Panama route to California and then east back to Utah. In July 1850, the first mail route of monthly service was established between Independence, Missouri and Salt Lake, City, Utah, where it met an extension line going to California.

Alexander Majors, in 1858, when helping the government to fill its contracts to carry supplies to Utah, used 3,500, 4,000 men, 1,000 mules, and more than 40,000 oxen. During May 1859, people such as Horace Greeley, Henry Villiard, and Albert D. Richardson rode into Denver on Majors’ first stagecoach, “Horsepower Pullman,” making the distance of 665 miles in six days, a distance that previously had been covered in 22 days. This first through stagecoach made the trip of 600 miles between Denver and Salt Lake “without a single town, hamlet or house being encountered on the way,” there being, of course, a few necessary stage stations.

Efficient mail service to the far West also occurred in 1858, when the Butterfield Southern Overland Mail route was put into operation. The mail was first sent only semi-weekly but soon changed to six days per week. This route was 2,759 miles long, going by the way of El Paso, Texas to Yuma, Arizona, and then to California, making the journey, under favorable conditions, in 23-25 days. The letters cost 10¢ per half ounce and passengers paid a fair of $100. The one great advantage of this route over other routes was that it was so far south that it avoided the snows to be found on northern trails.

The Butterfield stage starts its journey in Tipton, Missouri

The Butterfield stage starts its journey in Tipton, Missouri

This stage line was 40% longer than any other established stage line, an expensive affair from the mere fact of its unusual length. The road’s equipment was also costly, for it contained 100 Concord coaches, 1,000 horses, 500 mules, 750 men, and 150 drivers. When the Civil War began in 1861, it forced the government to change the route to a more northern territory, selecting the Overland Trail for a new road, to run from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California, which became known as the “Central Route.”

The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company then ran mail stages over the Oregon Trail, simultaneously east and west, with each stage making the journey in 18 days, compared to 25 days over the southern route. The fare for the trip across the plains from Atchison, Kansas to Placerville, California in the early 1860s was $600, which included 25 pounds of baggage. Any excess baggage cost $1 per pound.

Stagecoach with guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might  have been carrying.

Stagecoach with a guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might
have been carrying.

But the lumbering stages were too slow in their transportation of mail to the impatient, news-hungry people of California, who were demanding that a more speedy method to carry the mail must be found.

As a result of persistent demand, through the efforts of William H. Russell, the Pony Express was established, which carried mail to California in 10 days. The road for the Pony Express, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California, a distance of almost 2,000 miles, followed the Oregon and Mormon Trails to Salt Lake City and the Central Nevada Route to Sacramento. The horses employed were all small, and of a western breed. There were 500 of them, and the riders were light of weight to match their mounts.

The company operating the Pony Express had 200 station-keepers and 190 stations at which the 80 riders were given only two minutes in which to change horses and transfer their saddlebags of mail. The stations were from nine to 15 miles apart, depending upon the proximity to water.

Letters, costing $5 a half-ounce were limited to 15 pounds for the average rider, the weight being equally divided into two flat leather securely locked mail pouches. During the years of operation of the Pony Express, from April 23, 1860, to October 22, 1861, the mail was lost but once, when it was stolen by the Indians.

The best time made with this overland service by these relay riders was seven days and 17 hours when President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural message was whisked over the route. There is no more picturesque achievement of the plains than the operation of the Pony Express, which shortened the time for Pacific mail service, thus bringing the people of the coast many days nearer to their former homes and to the national government.

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