BUTTERFIELD OVERLAND STAGE COMPANY


Background –
The California Gold Rush resulted in more than a quarter of a million men heading west to California in search of their fortunes during the bonanza years of 1849 through 1853.  Most of them left their families behind and keeping in touch was a major effort.  Private companies, some of which were under federal contract, conveyed the mail.  These companies used various routes, including ocean steamer around South America or overland across the Isthmus of Panama.  Mail service was extremely sporadic, at best once or twice a month.  There was a definite need for a regular mail service.  On 3 March 1857, Congress passed a bill authorizing the Post Master General to issue a cross-country mail-carrying contract.  The route selection was to be determined by agreement between the contractor and the Post Master General but was to run between some point on the Mississippi River and San Francisco, a distance of over 2800 miles. However, the bill stipulated that the coaches had to be capable of carrying passengers, that each trip had to be completed within 25 days and that service must start within one year of the letting of the contract.

John Butterfield –
John Butterfield was born in 1801 in Berne, New York.  He became a professional stage driver by the age of 19 and soon became the owner and operator of a livery service.  In 1850, he convinced Henry Wells and William Fargo to consolidate their express companies with his own Butterfield & Wasson Company to form the American Express Company, which Butterfield then directed.  In 1857, Butterfield won the $600,000 contract to deliver the mail from St. Louis to San Francisco.  The Butterfield Overland Stage Company, a subsidiary of the American Express Company had outbid nine other groups to win the contract. 

Butterfield Overland Stage Company –
After signing the contract, Butterfield had to develop the route and resources to fulfill the contract. His first task was to hire about 800 men that he would need to operate the company. He primarily hired experienced frontiersman, men friendly with the various Indian tribes that would be encountered along the right-of-way. Using the most capable men, he began laying out the route and erecting almost two hundred stage stations. The stage stations were located approximately twenty miles apart. Next came the purchase of the animals and rolling stock.  He acquired more than a thousand horses, about seven hundred mules, eight hundred sets of harnesses and about two hundred and fifty Concord stagecoaches and spring wagons.  In addition, hay, grain and other supplies, including food, had to be stockpiled at the way stations and arrangements made for regular deliveries to them after the coaches began rolling. 

T
he Dragoon Springs Station was located just north of the Dragoon Mountains near Dragoon Springs.  In the 1850s Dragoon Springs was an assured water source.  The exact location of the springs is difficult to determine today because they stopped flowing after the earthquake of 3 May 1887.  The Dragoon Station was a “swing” station used for changing horses or mules. The animals were kept inside the station in a stock corral.  The walls were 10 feet high and constructed of stone.  The ruins of the station’s walls exist today. There were six stations between what is currently the Arizona border and Tucson (San Simon, Apache Pass, E Wells, Dragoon Springs, San Pedro and Cienega).  E Wells was 25 miles to the east and San Pedro (Benson) was 21 miles to the west.  The fare between St. Louis and San Francisco was $200 for westbound passengers and $100 for east bound.

The first run of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company left St. Louis at 0800, 18 September 1858, passed through Tucson on 2 October and arrived in San Francisco on 10 October.  The total elapsed time was 23 days, 23 ˝ hours which beat the contract requirement of 25 days.  The average speed was 5 miles per hour for the 2866-mile trip.   The time was reduced on future runs with most stages arriving at their final destination 22 days later. The Overland Mail Company continued to make two trips a week from each direction for the next 2 ˝ years.  In March of 1860, Butterfield was forced out of his position as head of the company due to the large debts he owed to Wells and Fargo.   The Overland Stage Company was taken over by Wells Fargo and Company.  The stage line continued to run for another year and the last run was made in March 1861.
Race with the Great Eastern  - In 1859, Butterfield made a $100,000 bet with Captain Harrison, the captain of the Great Eastern which was the largest and fastest steam ship in the world.  The bet was that the Overland Stage could make the trip from St. Louis to San Francisco in less time than the Great Eastern could sail from New York to San Francisco. They both departed their respective departure points at the same time.  The Overland Stage pulled into San Francisco twenty days later.  The Great Eastern docked in San Francisco 36 hours after the stage had arrived.

Apache Relationships –
The route of the stage line through what was to become Southeastern Arizona ran through the territory controlled by the Chiricahua Apaches.  During the early runs of the stage line, the Apaches were not openly hostile to the Anglo-Americans. It is thought that he actually entered into an “agreement” with the staff of the stage line that he limit his raids to south of the border and would leave the stage line alone In fact, Cochise even had a contract with the stage line during the winter of 1860 to provide wood to the stations.  This all changed during February 1861 following a major blunder by 2nd Lt. George Nicholas Bascom.  Lt Bascom had been sent from Fort Buchanan to question Cochise about the abduction of a child from a ranch near Sonoita.  Cochise and several of his relatives met with Lt. Bascom near Apache Pass.  Bascom accused Cochise of the abduction and tried to arrest him but Cochise escaped. The rest of his party were held as hostages by the Army. During the next few days, Cochise also took hostages hoping to negotiate the release of his people.  Both sides ended up killing some of their hostages.  Three of the Apaches that were hanged were Cochise’s relatives.  This incident resulted in 10 years of bloody retaliation by the Apaches.  Within 60 days, 150 Anglo-Americans were killed and it has been charged that the series of blunders, which loosed Cochise upon the Americans, cost 5,000 American lives and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property.  This was one of the main reasons the stage route was shut down a month later.

For more information, click on the following links.

1. John Butterfield
2. Butterfield Overland Express
3.
Steamer-Stagecoach Race

Summary prepared December 2004 by T. Johnson from material found in several web sites.

Supplemental Information: The Australian-based mining and petroleum firm of BHP Billiton has filed  an intent to conduct a surface exploration for minerals in a 2 square mile section of land centering around Jordan Canyon (The Stage Station is located at the entrance to Jordan Canyon).  The survey was to take place between 10 February and 9 April 2006.  The exploration is for the presence of porphyry copper.  Although the land was made available to ranchers under the 1916 Stock Raising Homestead Act (SHRA), the mineral rights of the property were retained by the federal government.  The mineral rights are available for leasing through the Bureau of Land Management with provisions similar to the 1872 Mining Act.  Both acts permit surface exploration and the picking up of surface samples, and later, the establishment of exploraty wells.  Mining could take place after the BLM conducts an environmental assessment if environmental impacts can be addressed.

Summarized from the 1 February, 2006 Arizona Daily Star

Additional Material: GVHC Library File 28