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900 Miles on the Butterfield Trail

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"Remember, boys, nothing on God's earth must stop the United States mail!" said John Butterfield to his drivers. Short as the life of the Southern Overland Mail turned out to be (1858 to 1861), the saga of the Butterfield Trail remains a high point in the westward movement. A. C. Greene offers a history and guide to retrace that historic and romantic Trail, which stretches 2800 miles from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. "A fine mix of past and present to appeal to scholar and lay reader alike."--Robert M. Utley, author of The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull

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A New Look

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A New Look

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lthough much has been written about the Butterfield Overland Mail service, there are five eyewitness accounts on which a good part of the sum total has been based. The first, to which every subsequent western historian is indebted, is the account by Waterman Lily Ormsby, Jr., of his adventures as the only through passenger on the first Southern Overland Mail trip westward from Missouri to San Francisco in 1858. Butterfield was paying the fare for twenty-three-year-old Ormsby, a reporter for the New

York Herald. His stories ran in that newspaper as he wrote them on the move and mailed them back east. He was not only a good writer-few reporters of any age have bettered his clear, humorous, style-but also a fine observer.2 His eyewitness account of the journey and the country he traveled holds up almost point by point nearly

140 years later. As for accuracy and interpretation, the years have proved him also to be a good historian. Writing at a time when national tempers were on edge, when sectionalism was racing toward its disastrous Civil War climax, he is impartial and appreciative of human individuality-guilty of neither editorializing nor factionalism. In addition to his other virtues, he uses a modern tone, his prose free from the orotund verbiage and mawkishness of so much of that period's writing. His Butterfield Trail reports have been reprinted twice, but the best version of The Butterfield Overland Mail was edited by Lyle H. Wright and Josephine M. Bynum and published by the Huntington Library in 1955.

 

Part I. John Butterfield's "gamble worth making" Begins—From St. Louis to the Red River

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Remember, boys, nothing on God's earth must stop the

United States mail!

-John Butterfield's instruction to his drivers

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HORT as the life of John Butterfield's Southern Overland Mail turned out to be (less than three years in its span), the saga of the Butterfield Trail remains a romantic high point in the westward movement, forming familiar elements in historical plots, functioning as a vibrant backdrop against which mythic adventures, western thrillers, movie serials, and television spectacles have raced: the driver standing, lashing the teams furiously, the guard leaning back across the top of the stage, firing at the pursuing Indians, one or two gentlemanly pistols thrust out the coach's windows, terrified women passengers, a lead horse shot and stumbling.

We want the myth and legend to be stronger than life. We want

John Wayne always to be aboard the stagecoach, telling the women to stay calm; we want some hero to edge his way out among the frantic horses pulling the coach, cutting loose the injured animal, or grabbing the "ribbons" when the driver is hit. As a matter of history, a Butterfield stagecoach was attacked only once on the Southern

 

Part II. The Long & Dangerous Days—The First Overland Mail Trip & Stations Along the Route

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HE first Butterfield Overland Mail trip westward started on time from St. Louis at 8 A.M., September 16, 1858. It didn't start by stagecoach, it began by steam train, going from the

St. Louis station via Pacific Railroad to the end of the rail line at the new town of Tipton, Missouri, which the Pacific Railroad had created. John Butterfield and Waterman L. Ormsby accompanied the two small pouches of mail from St. Louis. Ormsby tells us that the mail pouches were prepared for their transcontinental adventure by means of a simple branded stick:

San Francisco, California

Per Overland Mail

St. Louis, Sept. 16, 1858

Return Label by Express'

It was an historic moment. Ormsby sensed the importance of the

Butterfield experiment and was perplexed, even annoyed, that so few others attached the same significance to the event, as he wrote for the readers:

Although some of the St. Louis papers noticed that this important enterprise was to be commenced today, but little attention appeared to be paid it, except by the personal friends of the contractors and a few others. Indeed, I have been somewhat surprised to find that in the West-which, above all other sections of the country, is to be benefitted-so little attention is paid to the great overland mail!

 

Part III. New Routes—Up the Pecos, via the Guadalupes; Crossing at Horsehead: to El Paso via Fort Stockton, Fort Davis and the Rio Grande

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are many places in Texas which can lay claim to being a part of the Butterfield Trail even though Waterman Ormsby did not encounter them on his 1858 journey. The easternmost towns in this category are Decatur, Bridgeport, Wizard Wells, and Pilot Point.

During the first fourteen months of the Butterfield Overland Mail service, Wise County's newly designated seat of Decatur was not on the route. But late in 1859 (about the time of the birth of Decatur's first white baby, Ben F. Allen), Colonel W. H. Hunt and other leading citizens formed a committee to propose to the Butterfield company that the route be changed to include Decatur as well as

Bridgeport. As inducement, the Decaturites pledged to open "a traversible road" to the Jack County line and put secure bridges across

Denton Creek in northeastern Wise County, as well as the West Fork of the Trinity River at Bridgeport. A state charter for the latter bridge was granted February 11,1860, and a wooden span was subsequently built! The Butterfield people and the Post Office Department accepted the new routing, and four new stations were opened, although the change added five miles to the route. The first new station, J. B. Brandon's, was on Denton Creek just below where the

 

Part IV. Modern Travelers on the Butterfield Trail—The Past Is Not Past: The Trail's Still Down There

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you fly over Mountain Pass in Taylor County, Texas, you can see in the chalky earth below two faint white tracks which follow the north edge of the hills, climbing toward the low summit of the pass. And if your imagination and your sense of history are as good as your eyesight, you should hear the clatter of hooves and wheels, the pop of a whip, or the faint cries of a brass bugle heralding the approach of the stagecoach, for this is one of the few visible traces of the actual road of John Butterfield's Southern Overland

Mail through Texas: the Butterfield Trail. Most of the remainder of the trail has been plowed under, paved over, overgrown by mesquite and scrub oak, or lost midst the maze of mechanical tracks created when an oil well is drilled and sustained.

There is a challenge to the modem traveler trying to follow in any fashion-foot, horse, or auto-the old Butterfield Trail. But arduous as the effort becomes, my wife and I found the job not just rewarding but exhilarating when we traced the trail in the 1990S.

 

Part V. Crossroads

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An Inspector's Report

IN 1858 Goddard Bailey, Special Agent for Postmaster General Aaron

V. Brown, inspected the transcontinental mail systems, including the route across the Isthmus of Panama. After that, he was on the first Butterfield stage going from San Francisco to St. Louis, and his report on the line is of interest.'

"The establishment of a regular and permanent line of communication, overland, between the Atlantic States and California being a matter of general interest, some desire may naturally be felt to know how far the enterprise recently inaugurated under the auspices of your department has succeeded," Bailey wrote. "I am induced, therefore, to reproduce somewhat in detail, the notes I took while accompanying the first mail sent from the Pacific under the contract with the Overland Mail Company."

Pointing out that the stage, in San Francisco, started from the

Plaza shortly after midnight on September 14, he says he arrived at

Tipton, the Missouri terminus of the Pacific railroad, at 9:05 A.M.,

 

Part VI. Epilogue—The Dream Ends, But Legends Abide

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John Butterfield

John Butterfield had a sad finale to his Overland vision. His problems started in 1859 when Congress, because of internal political conflicts, failed to pass the annual Post Office Appropriation Bill.

President James Buchanan refused to call a special session to authorize payments on mail contracts, and the Overland Mail Company, in order to continue, had to make repeated new loans with

Wells Fargo and Adams Express Company. The Adams Express loans were covered by the contract payments owed from the Post Office

Department; thus, Wells Fargo remained the major risk-taker.'

As a result of the increasing debt load of the Overland Mail Companyand policy differences with John Butterfield, Wells Fargo management grew annoyed. Several Wells Fargo directors "expressed concern" about the management and "excessive expenditures" of the

OMC. The climax came on March 19, 1860, at the board's New York meeting. Danford N. Barney, a Wells Fargo director and an original director of the Overland Mail Company, earlier had demanded the

 

Bibliography

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Bibliography

Abernethy, Francis Edward, ed. Legendary Ladies of Texas. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994.

Banning, Captain William and George Hugh Banning. Six Horses. New York:

The Century Co., 1930.

Barrett, Thomas. The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Cooke County, Texas, October, A.D. 1862. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1961.

Barry, Buck. A Texas Ranger and Frontiersman: The Days of Buck Barry in Texas,

1845-1906. Ed. James K. Greer. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1932.

Bartlett, John Russell. Personal Narratives of Explorations and Incidents in

Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua Connected with the

United States and Mexico 1850-1853- Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1965.

Bierschwale, Margaret. "Mason County, Texas, 1845-187°." Southwestern Historical Quarterly LlI (April 1949): 379-97.

Biffle, Kent. "No Quarter for Unionists in North Texas." The Dallas Morning

News, 27 September 1992, 47A.

Biggers, Don Hampton. History That Will Never Be Repeated. Ennis, Texas: HiGrade Printing Office, 1902.

 

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