We wanted to return to Indian Country, the Four Corners area of the Colorado Plateau, and to take a different route from our East Tennessee home, across the country into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Some how we found a reference to the Butterfield Trail, the Overland Mail route of the first transcontinental mail from Memphis Tennessee and Tifton Missouri to San Francisco. That sounded like an adventure worth pursuing so we began planning. The Butterfield Trail crosses Arkansas from Tennessee and another branch from Missouri to Fort Smith Arkansas. It then descends through Oklahoma, crosses the Red River into Texas and then across north central Texas to El Paso, to Mesila (Los Cruces), New Mexico and through Apache Pass in Arizona across to Tucson and Yuma, thence over towards San Diego, north to LA and up the fantastic San Joaquin valley to Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
The 1857 route of the overland mail was chosen to provide the most level passage free from winter rigors. The mail had to go through. The US Mail contract required delivery in less than 25 days and the stage rolled 24 hours a day twice a week in both directions along some well used routes and broke new ground in others. The 900 miles across Texas is pure history as the cattle and military trails and places come into view.
When you read about the Overland Mail, you learn about John Butterfield who was the winner of the US Government contract. In 1857, he was perhaps the most capable of the stage and freight businesses to bid on the contract. Truthfully, I have not seen the bidders list but know that Butterfield was very knowledgeable of how to manage stage coach and freight transport. He took about a year to survey the route, develop stations, secure the men, animals, coaches and logistical support to hold it all together.
Although he was seemingly traipsing out into the vast unknown that was in 1857 the breadth of America, that was only partially true. Butterfield was able to put together pieces of known and well traveled routes and make them part of what is now known as the Butterfield Trail. Such a route was well known along the Arkansas River from Memphis to Fort Smith. Another segment incorporated portions of the established route from San Antonio to El Paso. At that point the route followed for a while the El Camino Real, the well worn trade trail from Mexico up the Rio Grande valley. Further on in parts of Arizona and California, the Overland Mail follows segments of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. I am not able to say with certainty when the two were the same and when they were not.
The Butterfield story promotes John Butterfield and the easterners desiring to make stronger ties to the west, to California. When attempting to pin down the route, California was for us a problem. Unlike other states, Californians do not seem to place the same historical value on Butterfield as other states, especially Texas. We were never able to get a good handle on the route and stations in California. That is, until the trip along the trail was over. Our Overland Mail adventure ended in San Francisco at the Montgomery Street offices of Wells Fargo and the Wells Fargo Museum. There it all fell into place. Understanding came quickly.
As an aside, it turned out that our foray into the city might take place over the Memorial Day weekend. Banks would likely be closed and the museum also closed. I called Wells Fargo to learn when it would be open, and verified we needed to go earlier than planned. I told the man on the phone about our van and asked about parking the high topped vehicle near the museum. He politely told me they were right down town, the heart of the financial district, and there was probably no parking for us. Then he suggested forgetting about driving and making the final leg into the city on BART. We picked up the train in Dublin, about 30 miles outside the city and got off about 3 blocks down Montgomery street from the museum. After visiting the museum we ate a sandwich at a nearby deli, reboarded the train and returned to our Sprinter. Our visit in San Francisco lasted only about two hours, but we actually went to the end of the Butterfield Trail, accomplished the mission, and saw a very informative museum to boot.
While there were surely powerful political forces in the east promoting mail overland to the west, there was an extremely powerful western entity pressing at least equally as hard. That was the San Francisco based Wells Fargo organization. Wells Fargo needed to develop more rapid communications with the east. When Butterfield developed the California leg of the route, he partnered with Wells Fargo Express that pretty much had everything already in place. The presence of Wells Fargo in California and the influence on America in general is perhaps a subject worthy of more study.
Wells Fargo at the time was actually two organizations. There was Wells Fargo Express and there was Wells Fargo Bank. The express arm operated freight and passenger service in California. It was the banking arm that needed, actually demanded, more timely and regular trusted mail service east. The business of business, transcontinental business, was dependant on transmittal of all kinds of documents. The only method was the US Mail. The political task was to change the status quo of lengthy service by ship around South America or across Panama to a quicker transcontinental route. Thus the freight arm of the company was utilized to become part of the solution to the banker part’s problem.
In the east, Butterfield operated a similar organization American Express. I do not know as much about that organization. It is worthy of note that the two freight/banking organizations still exist as major American financial businesses and were instrumental in the development of strong east/west ties way back in1857 when there was no America as we know it today.
The part I liked best about riding the route of the Overland Mail was through Texas. I freely admit a bias. I like, really like, Texas. I never cease to be amazed by the state’s immensity. The Butter Field trail misses the Texas cities. The biggest city is probably Abilene or perhaps San Angelo but most of the way is through north central Texas towns and villages. There were also some dead and like the Flats at Fort Griffin, even towns that are gone. It passes through the heart of Texas and of America. It is the definition of "Fly Over Country".
The route is not however random, it is very specific. It follows rivers, staying always close to water. It is directed to points where rivers and creeks can be crossed. This business of crossing seems trivial in an age of National Highways and bridges. When there were no bridges, the high banks of a creek or river were formidable obstacles to a horse drawn stage, a cavalry troop or a cattle drive. They all followed a route across Texas that allowed rivers to be easily crossed. The small towns noted were not there. They developed because of the route. The town of Bridgeport, the Stage Coach Capital of Texas, got on the trail simply because an enterprising citizen took it upon himself to build a bridge to allow the mail to cross the river.
Perhaps the best example of this problem is Horse Head Crossing of the Pecos River. For many years, it was the only location for crossing the Pecos. Apparently some travelers marked it with the skulls of dead horses and gave it a name. The Pecos River is a pitiful river. It has little water and unless flooded is not very deep. It flows through sandy soil though and has cut a trench with vertical banks perhaps 15 feet high. At Horse Head Crossing there is a fairly small area on both sides of the river where the banks are cut back with a fairly gentle slope to the river bed. It was the only such place for hundreds of miles. Everybody crossed there…. The Overland Mail, the Army, the massive cattle drives, the Comanche’s. Every body, patiently followed the river till they got to the place, the only place, they could cross. On our trip, we traveled about 10 miles from the highway on the west side of the river over to the crossing. It was not only there but very obvious why it was used. The Eastside is no longer accessible since it is on private ranch land and the trail or road is long gone. Today there are bridges that cross this river in the still remote and desolate country through which the Pecos meanders.
The trail across Texas today is marked in large segments, not as the Butterfield Trail, but at the Texas Forts Trail. The Army moved west and as it did so established forts. There is a string of forts all across Texas. Generally, those most westward are the most recent. Those to the east were abandoned and the troops moved west. The Forts in Texas are all about settlers and ranchers and Comanche’s. There are various mentions in the books about massacres and battles and friction between the westward advancing Americans and the Comanche residents at numerous points along the trail. The people who fought and died in these engagements are remembered.
Today, these forts are assets, even in ruins. They become the property and pride of the town. There is a competition on development to see which town can develop the asset and hype it the most. Some provide rides in golf carts or ATV’s to cover the expanse of the fort in comfort and in the shade. It is American history at the most basic level, hands on in the actual place it happened.
There is one oversight that seems near universal. That is, the stage coaches themselves. What we see in literature and the actual preserved or replica coaches along the way are the “Concord” coaches that were very numerous in the times after the Overland Mail era. These are the stages of movies and television but not the vehicles that carried the Overland Mail over most of the trip.
The fallacy seems based in the concept of what was happening. The Overland Mail contract was primarily to carry the mail, not to carry passengers. There is near universal agreement that the vehicle primarily used was the “Celerity Coach” a much more rugged yet lighter vehicle. Being rugged and light it could take the rigors of the trail and also use less horsepower. The coach was very accurately named because celerity means speed, quickness. Both were desirable traits for hauling mail across the rigorous transcontinental Butterfield Trail. Alas, Celerity Coaches must all be gone because no one has such a coach restored and on display.
National Historic Trail.
Early on, I learned that money had been appropriated and there was an effort underway by the National Park Service to study the Butterfield Trail/Overland Mail route as a possible National Historic Trail. This effort is being carried out from NPS offices in Santa Fe. Believe it or don’t, but a call to the NPS offices in Washington was returned by a dedicated NPS Historic Trails person in Santa Fe. We received a fairly long E mail list of sources that was both very helpful and interesting.
I also spoke with a representative of the Arkansas historic trails group and purchased Kirby Sanders’ turn by turn book “Drivers Guide to the Butterfield Overland Mail Route” that enabled us to closely follow both routes across Arkansas. She also threw in an unpublished draft of a similar book for the 900 miles across Texas and New Mexico. Both are excellent references and pretty much made the trip possible. Also of major benefit was “900 Miles on the Butterfield Trail” by AB Greene describing the Texas/New Mexico route. There are sections of the trail that vary somewhat in the two sources but they are mostly over areas on or around the vast private ranch holdings. AB Greene provides a more flavorable account for the various places along the way.
It was a great trip……. America at it’s very best.