overland mail

Butterfield Overland Mail

The Butterfield Overland Mail, also known as the Oxbow Route, the Butterfield Overland Stage, or the Butterfield Stage, was a stagecoach route in the United States, operating from 1857 to 1861. It was a conduit for the United States mail from St. Louis, Missouri through Arkansas, Indian Territory, New Mexico, and Arizona, ending in San Francisco, California,

Origins and history

The stage was an early operation of American Express and Wells Fargo.

The Butterfield Overland Mail Company had the government mail contract from September 15, 1857. Originally all of the Overland Stage owners had submitted routes with relay stations and frontier forts that were north of Albuquerque, New Mexico territory; they had no knowledge of what was called the ox bow route.

John Warren Butterfield (who was in a partnership with the principals of Wells Fargo for the American Express company) was paid $600,000 (USD) to get the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco in 25 days. At that time it was the largest land-mail contract ever awarded in the US. It was required by contract to go through El Paso, Texas and through Fort Yuma near present day Yuma, Arizona—the so-called "Oxbow Route". The western fare one way was $200 with most stages arriving 22 days later at its final destination.

This route was an extra 600 miles further than the central and northern routes through Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah. However the southern route was free of snow.

With the American Civil War looming the competing Pony Express was formed in 1860 to deliver mail faster and on a central/northern route away from the volatile southern route. The Pony Express was to succeed in delivering the mail in 10 days. But the Pony Express failed to get the mail contract.

Butterfield's assets as well as those of the Pony Express were to wind up with the Wells Fargo partners.

A correspondent for the New York Herald, Waterman Ormsby, remarked after his 2,812 mile trek through the western US to San Francisco on a Butterfield Stagecoach thus: "Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it."

Employing over 800 at its peak, it used 250 Concord Stagecoaches and 1800 head of stock, horses and mules and 139 relay stations or frontier forts in its heyday. The last Oxbow Route run was made March 21, 1861 at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War.

Route discontinued

An Act of Congress, approved March 2, 1861, discontinued this route and service ceased June 30, 1861. On the same date the central route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Placerville, California, went into effect. This new route was called the Central Overland California Route.

Under the Confederate States of America, the Butterfield route operated with limited success from 1861 until early 1862 using former Butterfield employees. Wells Fargo continued its stagecoach runs to mining camps in more northern locations until the coming of the US Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.


The contract with the postal service, which went into effect on September 16, 1858, identified the route and divided it into nine divisions numbered west to east from San Francisco.
Division Route Miles Hours
1 San Francisco to Los Angeles 462 80
2 Los Angeles to Fort Yuma 282 72.20
3 Fort Yuma to Tucson 280 71.45
4 Tucson to Franklin 360 82
5 Franklin to Fort Chadbourne 458 126.30
6 Fort Chadbourne to Colbert's Ferry 282½ 65.25
7 Colbert's Ferry to Fort Smith (Indian Territory) 192 38
8 Fort Smith to Tipton 318½ 48.55
9 Tipton to St. Louis (Pacific Railroad) 160 11.40
  Totals 2,795 596.35

Modern remnants

The only surviving station building is Oak Grove Butterfield Stage Station, near Warner Springs in San Diego County, California. It and the location of Warner's Ranch, another station 20 miles away, were declared to be National Historic Landmarks in 1961. The Elkhorn Tavern in the Pea Ridge National Military Park was another destination along the route that was rebuilt after the Civil War. It is on one of the last sections of the trail that still exists- Old Wire road through Avoca, Rogers and Springdale, AR.

When it was first established, the route proceeded due east from Franklin, Texas, towards the Hueco Tanks; the remains of a stagecoach stop are still visible at the Hueco Tanks State Historic Site.

The summit of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park features a stainless steel pyramid erected in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which passed south of the mountain.


Specific references:


* Richardson, Rupert N.
* Root, Frank. The Overland Stage to California. Topeka, Kansas: W.Y. Morgan, 1901.
* Wright, Muriel H. " Historic Places on the Old Stage Line from Fort Smith to Red River-Appendix A", Chronicles of Oklahoma 11:2 (June 1933) 821-822 (accessed August 16, 2006).
* Hafen, L. R. R. (2004). The overland mail, 1849-1869: promoter of settlement precursor of railroads Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
*Butterfield, J., Fargo, W. G., & Holland, A. (1857). Letter to the postmaster general in relations to the overland mail to California
*Butterfield, J. W. (1857). Skeleton map of the overland mail route to California. Route adopted by the department traced in green. Route proposed by John Butterfield and others (who were the lowest bidders) in red
*Overland Mail Company, & Butterfield, J. (1858). Overland Mail Company: through time schedule between St. Louis, Mo., Memphis, Tenn. & San Francisco, Cal [S.l: The Company?.
*Reed, M., & Pourade, R. F. (1966). The colorful Butterfield Overland Stage. Reproductions in color of 20 paintings by Marjorie Reed from the collection of James S. Copley Palm Desert, Calif: Best-West Publications.
Route Maps
*Conkling, R. P., & Conkling, R. P. (1947). Map of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route: over the southern route 1858-1861 and the lines followed over the central route 1861-1869 [Glendale, Calif.]: Arthur H. Clark Co.
*Conkling, R. P., & Conkling, R. P. (1947). Portion of the old Santa Fe Mail Route: operated from 1860 to 1861 by the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. between Santa Fe and Mesilla, N.M. [Glendale, Calif.]: Arthur H. Clark Co.
*Rand McNally and Company. (1988). The great trails of the Old West--the Oregon Trail, the Chisholm Trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, Butterfield's Overland Mail Route ; Interstate road atlas / Rand McNally Chicago, Ill: Rand McNally & Co.

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