The Overland Trail Across the American West

Stagecoach on the Overland Trail near Laramie, Wyoming.

Stagecoach on the Overland Trail near Laramie, Wyoming.

By Grace Raymond Hebard and Earl Alonzo Brininstool 1922, with additional edits/information by Legends Of America.

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. Ben Holladay established the Overland Trail Mail route 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. However, most of these new settlements were camps in the mining districts.

The necessity for safer and better 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. The government did not construct these 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 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 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 necessities and luxuries for the West and 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 establishing the regular freight trains, individual families on their way to the West banded together for self-protection from the hostile Indians. How commerce could be extended to those who had pushed into the unoccupied lands received the perplexing consideration of those who were to make the journey and 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 fill its contracts to carry supplies to Utah, used 3,500, 4,000 men, 1,000 mules, and more than 40,000 oxen. In May 1859, people such as Horace Greeley, Henry Villiard, and Albert D. Richardson rode into Denver on Majors’ first stagecoach, “Horsepower Pullman,” making 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 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 an 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 snow 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 as a new road to run from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Placerville, California, which became known as the “Central Route.”

Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company then ran mail stages over the Oregon Trail, simultaneously east and west. Each stage made 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, including 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 mail transportation to the impatient, news-hungry people of California, 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 to change horses and transfer their saddlebags of mail. The stations were nine to 15 miles apart, depending on the water’s proximity.

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 the Indians stole it.

The relay riders’ best time with this overland service 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 the national government.

First Ride of the Pony Express

First Ride of the Pony Express

General John Reynolds, when at his winter headquarters in 1859-60, not far from the junction of Deer Creek with the North Platte Rivers, on the south side of the Oregon Trail, was one of the first west of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to receive mail utilizing the Pony Express.

“The Pony Express was established while we were in winter quarters, and by it, we several times received interesting news but three days old. The sight of a solitary horseman galloping along the road was in itself nothing remarkable, but when we remember that he was one of a series stretching across the continent and forming a continuous chain for two thousand miles through an almost absolute wilderness, the undertaking was justly ranked among the events of the age, and the most striking triumph of American energy.” — General John Reynolds

But, the Pony Express lasted only a year before Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company went bankrupt, and the assets were sold to Ben Holladay.

Ben Holladay

Ben Holladay

In 1861, Holladay was awarded the Postal Department contract for overland mail service between the end of the railroad’s western terminus in Missouri and Kansas, and Salt Lake City. Service from Utah to California was given to the Overland Mail Company and other stage lines.

With the discovery of gold in Colorado and the consequent growth of the city of Denver, Holladay changed the Overland Trail to the West, using the banks of the South Platte River, as well as those of the North Platte, as a thoroughfare descending into Colorado before looping back up to southern Wyoming and rejoining the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Due to Indian uprisings occurring on the Oregon Trail farther north through central Wyoming along the Sweetwater-South Pass route, the new route became the only emigrant route on which the US Government would allow travel and consequently was the principal corridor to the west from 1862 to 1868.

Between 1861 and 1866, Holaday operated about 5,000 miles of stagecoaches daily, having equipment of 500 coaches and express wagons, 500 freight wagons, 5,000 horses and mules, and numerous oxen. The cost to take care of this company’s stock averaged a million dollars annually, while to equip and run the line for the first year incurred the added expense of $2,425,000. After five years of freighting, Holladay sold out his entire business to the Wells Fargo Company, which remained an active operation until 1869 in that particular transportation line, when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were completed. Holladay, in 1865, to help out the Overland Route to the Montana goldfields, established a branch line of his road from Fort Hall, Idaho, north to Virginia City, Montana. In addition to freighting, Holladay carried the mail for the government during the Civil War, receiving annually one million dollars for the service. Statistics show that in 1861 over 21 million pounds of freight went west from the shipping points of Atchison, Kansas, which brought with it to the plains using 4,917 wagons, 6,164 mules, 27,685 oxen, and 1,256 men.

Pony Express Route by William Henry Jackson, 1860

The Overland Trail close followed the Pony Express Route, drawn by William Henry Jackson, 1860

For many years, Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the government contractors to transport military supplies to the forts along the trails, used in their trail-freighting train, 6,250 over-sized wagons, with a carrying capacity of 6,000 pounds each, and 75,000 oxen. This array of transportation facilities, if placed one in front of the other, would have covered the trail for a stretch of 40 miles. After a reliable freighting system was in place, it was not uncommon to see over 1,000 of these patient, plodding ox teams stretched across the plains each week, with wagons loaded many feet beyond the side-boards.

The Pony Expresswas running while the telegraph lines were  being built. This drawing by George M. Ottinger, appeared  in Harper's Weekly, 1867.

The Pony Express was running while the telegraph lines were being built. This drawing by George M. Ottinger appeared in Harper’s Weekly, 1867.

The extending of the telegraph line across the continent, under the management of Edward Creighton, in 1861, was the undoing of the Pony Express, which had been inaugurated to have a better and more rapid mail service from the Missouri River to San Francisco. The telegraph was put into operation on October 24, 1861, when the first transcontinental message was flashed over the line. Thus, an unprecedented step was taken in binding and uniting the Missouri River with the Pacific Ocean. This telegraph line ran parallel with and over the Oregon Trail. It soon became to the Indians a symbol of the white man’s despotism and his determination to finally possess the country through which the singing wires had spun their way to the lands of the mining camps and new mountain homes.

There were established two stage and telegraph lines from the Missouri River, one running from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, and the other from Omaha to Fort Kearny, Nebraska.

At Fort Kearny, the lines consolidated, going up the Platte Valley as far as Julesburg, Colorado, a conspicuous stage station near the mouth of Lodge Pole Creek, where it emptied into the Platte River. The lines again separated at this characteristically busy border town, the main telegraph line going north-westward to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and beyond to South Pass and Utah. In contrast, the stage line went southwestward to Denver, Colorado, using the South Platte River. From Denver, the coaches went north to Fort Collins, then to Virginia Dale, Colorado, across the Laramie Plains, Fort Halleck, Elk Mountain, Bridger’s Pass, Bitter Creek, out to Fort Bridger, on to Utah, California, Oregon, and Montana. Just east of Fort Bridger, the Oregon Trail and the Overland Trail united and became one.

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company in Denver, Colorado, about 1865

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company in Denver, Colorado, about 1865

The route of the stage lines crossing these savagely contested lands had stage stations situated about every 12 miles along their length, while the government troops were posted along the route at specially constructed forts or blockhouses at intervals of about 100 miles. The scarcity of soldiers, particularly during the Civil War, available for this dangerous duty made the lives of the few who served one of extreme danger. Only a few armed and trained men were distributed at each station. In addition to these fortified buildings along the way were the occasional farmer and ranchman, the relay stations for changing horses, and the eating houses.

The shrewd Ben Holladay maintained a virtual monopoly of the Overland Stage line until 1866 when he decided to sell out. Well aware that the inevitable completion of the new Transcontinental Railroad would eliminate the need for stagecoach transportation, Holladay was fortunate to be able to sell the route, the equipment, and the contracts to Wells Fargo. The overland mail continued for another 2 1/2 years along the Overland Trail until the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, eliminating the need for mail service via the stagecoach.

The Overland Trail was most heavily used in the 1860s as an alternative route to the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails through central Wyoming.

It was a colossal business to supply those things most needed for the towns and cities that were springing into existence in the West, and the Oregon Trail became broader and deeper. This mighty traffic scarred the face of the trail to the West so deep that in many places, for miles, there remained discernible traces of the heavy traffic of this period, even after more than 50 years of disuse.

Oregon Trail Ruts in Wyoming

Oregon Trail Ruts in Wyoming By Kathy Alexander.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2022.

Also See:

Adventures & Tragedies on the Overland Trail

Stagecoaches of the American West

Stagecoach Kings (Lines) & Drivers

Wagons and Stagecoaches Photo Gallery

Source: Much of this article was written by Grace Raymond Hebard and Earl Alonzo Brininstool who were western historians in the early 20th century. This account was excerpted from their book, The Bozeman Trail: Historical Accounts of the Blazing of the Overland Routes Into the Northwest, published by the Arthur H. Clark Company in 1922. However, the article as it appears here has been heavily edited for spelling and grammatical corrections, truncated, and additional information has been added.

Other Sources:

Overland Trail
Wikipedia