The 15th Maynard Sundman Lecture

October 10, 2018

Dr. Glen Sample Ely: The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861

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DONALD J. SUNDMAN: Well, thank you.

It's fun to see people,

and I see people that have been here in years past,

and so that's terrific.

My brother Dave and I are very proud

to continue this lecture series

to honor our father, Maynard Sundman.

My father loved stamps, collected stamps as a kid.

His father thought it was a waste of time

and wanted him to stop.

My father convinced his father, my grandfather,

to allow him to collect.

He said he just wanted one stamp from each country.

And then you know how parents lose interest after a while.

So my father continued,

turned it into his lifelong business and hobby.

And his... he was really excited

about bringing the fun of collecting to a wide audience.

To... and millions of collectors

have started with Littleton Stamp Company,

then Littleton Coin Company or Mystic Stamp Company.

My brother Dave continues to run my father's company.

And my family bought Mystic in the '70s.

And so I continue to run that.

And we still... that's our guiding mission

is to bring the fun of the hobby to collectors,

to a wide audience.

And it's such a fantastic hobby.

And it was just today The New York Times

has an article that says,

"We could all use a little snail mail right now."

We need...

handwritten cards and letters add so much to our society

and make us better people.

So, I agree with that.

And I'm very excited to be here today,

and I look forward to the lecture.

Thank you.

CALVIN MITCHELL: I'd like to introduce Dr. Sample.

He attended Arizona State University as an undergraduate.

And he started his professional career in broadcast journalism.

And later, he decided to go into production

and direction of award-winning documentaries,

particularly history documentaries.

These documentaries have appeared on PBS

and on the History Channel.

So he decided to return to school

to pursue a graduate degree in history.

He received his Master's from Texas Christian University

as well as his Ph.D.

So it was there that he started research

on the, uh, Butterfield Overland Mail route.

He continued his research for twenty-five years.

So, the... he will be lecturing on,

on that particular publication,

The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail,


He is... the book has received numerous awards,

and, uh, including an Award of Excellence

in Preserving History from the Texas Historical Commission.

And he has been inducted as a fellow

in the Texas State Historical Association.

He is currently writing a book, which is...

I think is quite interesting,

on an unsolved murder that took place in Texas

during the Reconstruction Period.

And ladies and gentlemen,

please join me in welcoming Dr. Glen Ely to the podium.

GLEN SAMPLE ELY: Well, it's a pleasure to be here today.

Thank you, and thank you to your family for hosting this series.

We really appreciate it.

I also must give credit where credit is due.

For those twenty-five years I was doing this research,

two gentlemen were helping me all the way,

and I couldn't have done it without those two gentlemen.

And one of the gentlemen's son is sitting right back here

in the, uh, blue denim shirt.

Wes, if you would raise your hand,

so it's quite an honor to have Wesley Dearen here.

And his father's been a best friend for many years.

Okay, so... the Butterfield Overland Mail line,

which ran from St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco,

operated from September 1858 until April 1861.

The overland road, which was 2,800 miles in length,

passed through Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma,

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

A portion of my talk today

focuses on a 740-mile Texas section of the route,

which I've spent the last quarter-century researching.

Now, many of the people living

and working on the Texas frontier during this period

had connections to the mail line.

Some worked as agents, overseers, station managers,

stage drivers, conductors, clerks, cooks,

livestock handlers for the company.

Others provided cattle, horses, mules,

merchandise, corn and flour, and forage to mail stations.

Indeed, one can't talk about the Texas antebellum frontier

without also discussing Butterfield

and its significant economic imprint upon the region.

The two are inextricably intertwined.

Now, prior to the Civil War,

Washington played a far greater role

in shaping the West Texas area than did the state legislature.

During this period, the U.S. Army

and U.S. Postmaster General

quickly became West Texas's major benefactors.

Soldiers and civilians built roads, forts, and subposts

and guarded mail and passenger and freight traffic.

Federal payrolls and contracts provided

enormous boosts to the local economy.

Many of the region's earliest settlements owe their existence

and their survival to this federal presence.

LeRoy Hafen says that,

"The Postal Service became an important political agency

binding the western pioneer to his government

and his home in the East."

The federal government, through its mail service and military,

was a pioneering agency leading the immigration,

encouraging settlement,

and making safe the routes of travel.

Now, echoing Hafen, Richard White says

that the American West, which includes West Texas,

"more than any other section of the U.S.,

is a creation not so much of individual or local efforts

but of federal efforts."

Indeed White contends,

"the federal government shaped the West."

Studies by a number of scholars show

that both the Republic of Texas and the Lone Star State

lacked sufficient resources to make internal improvements

and protect its citizens.

Ultimately, it was the federal government

and not Texas that facilitated European American settlement

in the region.

Economically and militarily,

the state of Texas was largely absent

west of the 100th meridian

or rough of Abilene... west of Abilene, Texas, today.

Now, the U.S. Army,

in conjunction with the Postmaster General's

overland mail service,

spurred economic development of the region

and its infrastructure.

Some of the oldest European American buildings

in western Texas

are overland mail stations and frontier forts.

Now, for an example, in 1846,

the value of all property in Texas was $34 million.

In the second half of the 19th century,

the U.S. Army spent twice that figure or more than $70 million

in the Lone Star State and much of it in West Texas.

Robert Wooster aptly describes the area

as "a child of federal subsidy."

Frontier settlers, worried that if Texas seceded, um,

that they would lose lucrative government contracts and markets

for their agricultural products and indeed that the Army

and the Butterfield Overland Mail would leave.

Payrolls would disappear,

severely impacting local stores, hotels, and saloons.

It's no surprise then that Forts Davis, Stockton, Duncan,

Inge, Mason, and Martin Scott were all located

within Texas counties voting against secession.

Before proceeding any further,

some history of the Butterfield Mail Line is in order.

On September 16th, 1857, Postmaster General Aaron Brown

signed an agreement with John Butterfield of Utica, New York,

and his associates of the Overland Mail Company

to provide service from St. Louis and Memphis

to San Francisco.

The six-year contract at $600,000 per year

stipulated that the service be semi-weekly, or twice a week,

and four-horse coaches or spring wagons,

and that each trip be made within twenty-five days.

Muriel Wright points out

that Congress "left the responsibility

and the actual selection of the route...

to President James Buchanan's administration."

According to the San Francisco Bulletin,

John Butterfield was an old friend

and chum of Buchanan.

Buchanan's Postmaster General Aaron Brown

was an ardent southerner from Tennessee.

Brown had received numerous bids for the mail contract,

but he rejected them all.

Instead, he selected his own route,

one of a southern orientation running through

Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas,

New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Now, Brown argued that the optimal year-round

climate of the southern route

would ensure timely and reliable overland service.

While aspects of his argument had merit,

many in Congress correctly perceived that regional bias

had strongly influenced his decision.

Northern lawmakers were rightly concerned

that a southern overland mail route

would set a precedent for the nation's

first transcontinental railroad

and that the tracks of the railroad

would follow the ruts of the overland mail service.

Postmaster General Brown

certainly hoped this would be the case,

describing his selection

"as the pioneer route for the first great railroad

that may be constructed to the Pacific."

Northerners were not about to let this happen.

A California newspaper

called the postmaster general's decision

a "foul wrong" and "an outrage,"

while a Chicago paper blasted it as "one of the greatest swindles

perpetrated upon the country by the slaveholders."

Now ultimately,

Congress deadlocked on the route to the Pacific.

And as Ray Billington and Martin Ridge note,

"So long as sectionalism plagued the nation,

no railroad could be built."

Now, I would love to get this letter on the right here.

They go... they go for about $5,000 on auction now,

one of the original overland letters.

Now, Postmaster General Brown awarded the, uh...

Butterfield the route and his associates uh, for several...

they got the overland contract for several reasons.

Besides his friendship with President Buchanan,

John Butterfield had many years of experience operating mail

and express services.

As Muriel Wright points out,

"The greatest stager of all time, if not for all time...

the greatest stager of the time, if not for all time,

was John Butterfield...

His ability and character of that of...

His ability and character and that of his associates

were unquestioned in Washington."

One of Butterfield's associates in the venture

was William G. Fargo of Wells Fargo and Company,

founded in 1852.

Butterfield and Fargo, along with Henry Wells,

were the three principal founders

of the American Express Company in 1850.

W. Turrentine Jackson says that Wells Fargo

stood to make a considerable sum

for their ancillary express and financial operations in the West

that connected to the great transcontinental mail line.

"It seems quite natural that Wells Fargo,

the only one of four express companies

operating in a trans-Missouri West

would have the greatest continuing concern

for the success of the Overland Mail Company."

The Overland Mail Company established its offices

at 82 Broadway in New York City.

Financially, the business was a joint stock company

with two million in capital,

consisting of 20,000 shares of $100 each.

As of August 1858,

the company had sold almost twenty percent of its shares.

Stockholders were liable for all debts incurred.

Company officers included John Butterfield as president,

Alexander Holland as treasurer,

and John Livingston as secretary.

Confidential credit reports for 1860 noted that the firm

was "in prosperous condition and making money fast"

and all the "owners are wealthy."

Now, the postmaster general's establishment

of a transcontinental mail service

between St. Louis and San Francisco,

along with U.S. Army outposts in the region,

offered the real prospect of making money

from the federal government

and related agencies on the frontier.

Many among the first wave of settlers moving westward

after 1848

sensed a golden opportunity to capitalize

on Washington's increased presence in the region.

Some of these frontier entrepreneurs got rich,

some went broke, and others lost their lives.

Now, overland mail stations and military forts

required regular supplies and services.

Butterfield stage stops and frontier outposts needed corn

and hay for livestock as well as beef

and produce for soldiers and employees.

They depended on merchants to serve their local communities

and freighters to haul supplies.

They also needed civilian personnel

to perform specific services.

While there are few corporate... few surviving corporate records

documenting the Overland Mail Company operations,

military quartermaster records

and interviews with former employees reveal much detail

about Butterfield's economic impact on the frontier.

In many cases, the mail company hired the same forage,

livestock, and freighting contractors

that supplied military outposts.

Some frontier residents, in an effort to maximize their income,

worked several jobs at once.

Noted Butterfield stage driver Henry Skillman

also supplied beef to Fort Bliss in El Paso County.

George Lyles, manager of Smith's Ranch Butterfield station

held hay contracts for Fort Bliss and Fort Quitman,

also in El Paso County.

When not helping manage Butterfield's Clear Fork station

in Throckmorton County,

J.G. Irwin worked as a beef contractor

for nearby Camp Cooper.

Adam Rankin Johnson

managed a string of Overland Mail Company stations

while working simultaneously

as a state surveyor and water freighter.

During the antebellum period,

Texas's primitive transportation network

hampered its economic development.

The state boasted few well-developed thoroughfares

that permitted the timely movement of goods to market.

In the 1850s, the U.S. Army and Butterfield

built and maintained much of West Texas's road system,

which was used by countless soldiers,

immigrants, freighters, and stagecoaches.

The Overland Mail Road was the 19th century equivalent

of the modern interstate highway system,

stimulating passenger traffic, commercial freighting,

and economic development on the western frontier.

In June 1858,

Butterfield representative Abel Rathbone Corbin

wrote to U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd

on behalf of the Overland Mail Company,

informing Floyd of the route through Texas.

Corbin profusely thanked Secretary Floyd

for "his kind expressions in regard to the Army

furnishing through protection to the Overland Mail

from St. Louis & Memphis to San Francisco."

Secretary Floyd, however, had no intention of providing

a personal armed escort for the Overland Mail Company.

Floyd wrote to Corbin,

"You will perceive the impracticability

of complying with your request.

Instructions, however, will be given to the commanders

of the departments of Texas and New Mexico

to afford such protection to the stages

as the military services of their commands will permit."

Now, considering the commanders' slender resources

and the diminutive garrisons at their disposal,

the U.S. Army could render only slight assistance.

One can read between the lines of Floyd's letter

to see that Butterfield was on its own.

Along various sections of the Lone Star frontier,

the U.S. Army was almost invisible,

leaving isolated mail company employees

to defend their stage stops against

raiding Comanches and Apaches.

As a defensive deterrent,

Butterfield constructed stout rock stations

that resembled mini-fortresses.

The mail company staffed these stations

with its own private army,

typically four to five persons per station,

each armed with a Sharps rifle and a Colt Navy Revolver.

Now, most of the stagecoaches

used by the Overland Mail Company in West Texas

were not the heavy wooden Concord coaches

seen in such popular movies as Stagecoach.

Along the arid frontier, it was too taxing on livestock

to pull a cumbersome Concord through deep sand roads

in dry weather or through boggy stretches

after heavy rains and flooding.

In Texas, the typical passenger vehicle

was the lighter canvas-topped Celerity wagon,

also known as a mud wagon.

Now, on average, Celerity wagons cost about $700 each.

Much of the time, four-mule teams

were hitched to Butterfield's mud wagons,

although horses were used on some sections of the route.

The mules varied in cost.

The lead mules at the front of the team

ran from $35 to $40 each

whereas higher grade mules known as wheelers,

costing $70 to $80 each,

were used at the back of the team closer to the coach.

The Overland Mail Company kept ten to twenty mules

on hand at each station.

Butterfield's larger regional depots

kept fifty to sixty mules and horses

in reserve for much needed adjustments along the line.

Now, travel on a Celerity wagon during this time

was far from luxurious.

Customers grumbled about chronic overcrowding of the coaches,

citing instances where the mail company

tried to cram six or seven people into a space

designed to accommodate only four.

One traveler lamented,

"Ordinary sized men have not the slightest chance

of being at ease on their seats."

Other passengers groused about the coach's

interminably slow rate of travel across Texas,

typically three to five miles per hour.

The special overland correspondent

for the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin

denounced the company's practice of using

"miserable little worn-out mules"

on the Texas portion of the route.

Well, when not dealing with complaints

about the mules and the coach's quarters,

employees had to contend with volatile customers.

In 1859, a Butterfield coach carrying Dr. J.C. Tucker

pulled up to a Texas station at sunset,

and the passengers disembarked for dinner.

Trouble had been brewing in Tucker's stagecoach

for some hours before the meal stop.

Several of the passengers had gotten into a nasty argument

and exchanged insults.

One of these, Dutchy, a rotund German,

had refused from smoking his pipe

in a tightly enclosed space.

A fellow traveler, Texas,

who hailed from the Lone Star State,

grabbed Dutchy's pipe from his mouth

and tossed it out the coach window.

Now, the German's loud snoring also proved intolerable.

Texas said, "We'll have to get rid of this fellow"

and he proceeded to unlatch the carriage door.

"The next jolt the stage made,

the door gave way and out went Dutchy,

heels over head, out into the road."

Now, Texas had issues not only with Dutchy

but also with a young Frenchman in the coach

who didn't appreciate Texas's attention

to his attractive female companion.

The Frenchman admonished Texas,

"Damn you, don't address this lady."

Texas replied, "Well Frenchy, you do speak English well enough

to apologize at the next station."

A half hour later,

the overland coach pulled up at the stage stop.

And after dismounting, Texas and Frenchy

decided to settle their differences

with a duel in the station's corral.

After promising Dr. Tucker that he would "fix" the Frenchman,

Texas entered the corral and faced his opponent

before a crowd of half a dozen Butterfield employees.

In the exchange of shots that followed, Texas killed Frenchy.

By that time, the stage driver had finished his dinner

and fresh livestock were in harness.

Tucker and Texas "could only seize some food

and jump into the coach

as the...wild mustangs started off on a fierce gallop."

There was no discussion about presenting the matter

to local authorities.

Tucker and Texas rode on together

until New Mexico when Texas got off at Deming.

Such were the rough and tumble aspects of overland travel

during the antebellum period.

In 1860, another incident involving a Butterfield traveler

nicknamed Texas occurred east of Fort Davis.

Texas's fellow passengers on board the coach

were a feisty crew.

Stiff from sitting in the same position for hours on end,

they decided to try some new seating arrangements.

To create more legroom, those in the front of the Celerity wagon

pushed the mailbags to the back.

Texas, sitting at the back of the vehicle,

took offense at sharing his cramped space with the mailbags.

Ignoring Texas's complaints,

one of those upfront continued moving sacks to the rear

and, pointing to his pistols, said there would be a problem

"unless his arrangement was agreed with."

Now, this threat incensed Texas

who immediately grabbed his own pistol and declared,

"Well, if you talk about trouble, I can too;

and as to that matter,

I'd gladly have trouble as anything else."

Texas's declaration and its accompanying gestures

"immediately made the first complainant

'draw in'

and exercise his 'prudence as the better part of valor.'"

Both of these stories ably illustrate the ethos

of the enduring Lone Star State motto, "Don't Mess with Texas."

Turning now to everyday life at Butterfield stations,

the Overland Mail Company built most of its stage stops

during the summer of 1858.

Within a year, it had erected more than fifty in Texas alone.

Typically, Butterfield placed these stations

near water sources

but far enough away to allow Native Americans access.

Workers constructed the stage stops out of wood,

adobe, rock, or a combination thereof.

Building a station took about fifteen days

with a three-man crew.

The more elaborate rock structures

cost about $1500 in labor and materials

while the adobe and lumber buildings

ran about $150 to $200 each.

Freighters hauled in finished wood for the doors,

roofs, window frames, and floors to West Texas from San Antonio.

Each stage stop usually had about two to three rooms

measuring fifteen by fifteen feet,

uh, with an attached corral.

The corrals were seven to eight feet high,

built of adobe and/or wood,

although some featured stacked rock walls.

Some of the larger stations featured floor plans

that were more elaborate and spacious.

Stage conductor Parker Burnham recalled

several that were sixteen by thirty on one side,

sixteen by thirty on another side with a gateway,

uh, between the two leading to the station entrance.

At the back was a sixteen-foot square courtyard.

In these larger buildings,

some of the rooms might have finished wood flooring.

Leon Holes Station, situated in Pecos County nine miles west

of Fort Stockton, Texas,

had five rooms including a dining room,

kitchen, two bedrooms, and a storeroom.

The storeroom contained grain, commissary supplies, tools,

and ammunition.

Many of the stage stops also included portholes in the walls

for employees to shoot at attacking Indians.

As El Paso County District Judge Josiah Crosby said,

none of these structures were "Fifth Avenue hotels.

They were rude buildings...

improvised from materials at hand."

Crosby never recalled seeing shingled roofs

on the buildings or glass in their windows.

Employees constructed furniture for the station on site.

Workers made tables out of unfinished pine boards.

Chairs, more often benches, were fashioned from split logs.

Beds were rough-hewn and simple in design.

Stocking the overland mail stations

created a sizable demand for frontier goods,

which was welcome news for regional merchants.

The following list illustrates the average cost

for station supplies in West Texas.

Flour was $8 a barrel;

bacon twenty-five to thirty cents a pound;

coffee, forty cents a pound;

tea, fifty to sixty cents a pound; sugar,

twenty to twenty-five cents a pound;

salt, thirty to thirty-five cents a pound;

and dried fruits, twenty-five to thirty cents a pound.

Now, station employees seldom ate canned meats.

Butterfield preferred to keep fresh beeves and hogs

at the stage stops.

The Overland Mail Company kept a large supply of corn

and hay on hand for the livestock

as the local terrain was usually too sparse

to support a station's requirements year-round.

Local grasses were most prevalent

from spring to early fall during the so-called rainy season.

Leaving the stage stop to go out and cut hay

was often a deadly task.

Raiding Comanches and Apaches

targeted employees out on forage detail.

Parker Burnham recalled,

"At times you couldn't put a value on hay for it

was impossible to get a man to go out and cut it.

They wouldn't cut it for $50 an hour."

Burnham remembered "three instances"

of men being "killed by Indians while cutting hay."

As a result, the mail company increasingly resorted

to hiring contractors to freight in the necessary forage

by wagon train.

To avoid any possible shortfalls,

mail contractors laid in an eight-to nine-month supply,

which was ten to twelve tons of hay at $20 per ton

and 300 to 400 bushels of corn at $3 per bushel.

Now, the Overland Mail Company operated

on average forty-four stations in Texas during its contract.

There were four employees per station

- more in the towns -

or approximately 176 employees in Texas.

In 1860, skilled workers such as blacksmiths, carpenters,

and stonemasons earned $1.70 a day

whereas common laborers made $1 a day.

Since most overland workers were laborers,

a good average for all workers might be $1.25 per day

or $456 per year

for a total Texas payroll per year of $80,256.

Seeking federal contracts and employment

with the Overland Mail Company,

a number of Texans left their homes

and moved out to West Texas.

Perhaps no person understood the dynamics

of the federal frontier economy

better than 41-year-old J. D. Holliday,

a native of Kentucky.

Holliday owned Comanche Springs in Pecos County.

The springs, located at Fort Stockton,

were among the most important water sources in West Texas.

This astute entrepreneur also worked as station manager

of the Overland Mail Company stationed there.

In 1859, the U.S. Army established Fort Stockton

on Holliday's land near the stage stop,

paying him rent.

Shortly thereafter, Holliday became the post's sutler,

commodities contractor, and the postmaster.

Through his shrewd real estate

deals and lucrative government contracts,

the Kentuckian repeatedly demonstrated a keen acumen

in maximizing business opportunities

in this remote region.

Now, in May 1859, the Overland Mail Company

fine-tuned its route in western Texas,

moving operations from the Upper Emigrant Road southward

to the Lower Emigrant Road.

A major incentive for this move

was the U.S. Army's increased presence

along the lower road west of the Pecos River.

In September 1858,

the military established Fort Quitman

six miles below the lower...

the junction of the lower road and the Rio Grande.

Four months later, in January 1859,

troops established Fort Stockton at Comanche Springs

astride the Comanche War Trail.

These two new outposts,

along with the existing Fort Davis and Fort Bliss

at El Paso County,

provided a federal military presence along the lower road

that had been sorely lacking on the upper road.

Now, while the switch to the lower road

afforded Butterfield better military protection,

the expense of abandoning its upper road infrastructure

as well as establishing, supplying,

and manning fifteen new stations on the lower road

created an additional financial burden

that the company could ill afford.

As the second half 1859 wore on,

the Overland Mail Company's board of directors

faced an impending fiscal crisis that required immediate action.

Although Butterfield's financial...

although Butterfield's contract was a hefty $600,000 per year,

the federal government was unable to honor

its financial obligations after March 1859

when Congress deadlocked over the annual post office,

uh, appropriation bill.

As a result, Butterfield's cash flow dried up,

forcing it to borrow heavily.

Confidential credit reports from March 1860

noted that the Overland Mail Company was

"a little embarrassed before the post office

appropriation bill was passed but is now in funds

and will soon have $300,000 due from the government."

The delays ultimately proved costly.

In April 1860, company secretary Alexander Holland

reported that "the failure of the government

to pay the mail contractors for the past year

has entailed upon us a loss of $65,000."

Mounting debts, including postal revenue losses

and the alteration of its Texas itinerary,

eventually precipitated the removal

of Overland Mail Company president John Butterfield.

A study of the company's financial operations

by W. Turrentine Jackson

reveals that "from the beginning Wells Fargo

served as the 'banker' for the Overland Mail Company...

making loans on an unsecured basis

for the development of the mail oper...

the mail enterprise."

Three of the major shareholders in the Overland Mail Company

also served as directors of Wells Fargo.

At an August 1859 board meeting of the Overland Mail Company,

two sitting Wells Fargo directors raised concerns

about management and excessive expenditures.

By early 1860, their concern proved even greater

when an accounting showed that the Overland Mail Company

owed Wells Fargo more than $162,000 in loans.

The situation came to a head

at a subsequent board meeting in March 1860

when Wells Fargo made clear

that all advances made to the Overland Mail Company

would thenceforth need to be secured with collateral.

Wells Fargo demanded that the Overland Mail Company

assign all of its physical assets

as collateral to guarantee these loans.

Wells Fargo also threatened

that if the mail company didn't meet their demands,

they would file a foreclosure action against it.

At another board meeting on March 20th, 1860,

the directors reached a compromise.

Wells Fargo would withdraw its foreclosure action provided

changes were made in the board of directors

and John Butterfield removed as president

of the Overland Mail Company.

The following day by a vote of six to one,

the board installed John B. Dinsmore as the new president.

Wells Fargo now controlled the Overland Mail Company.

Ironically, John Butterfield

was no longer in charge of the stage line

that bore his name, the Butterfield Overland Mail.

Okay. With our introduction now in place,

let's go out in the field

and visit several

of these historic sites

on Texas's antebellum frontier.

Our first stop today will be

on the Middle Concho River

west of present-day

San Angelo, Texas.

At the head of the Middle Concho, west of...

excuse me... at the head of the Middle Concho,

coaches stopped at Butterfield's Head of Concho Station.

Situated at 2,400 feet in elevation,

Head of Concho was the last permanent water on the route

for eighty miles until Horsehead Crossing

on the Pecos River.

Head of Concho also served as a regional operations hub

and supply base for the Overland Mail Company.

Butterfield built a substantial rock fortress here

near a deep-water hole

that provided an ample supply of water

for both employees and livestock.

You can see some of these walls here.

This is probably one of the better-preserved,

uh, station ruins in Texas.

And, uh, there is yours truly in a trace of the old road

there in the middle.

And this is some of the artifacts that, uh,

were found at the site when we went out there.

Now, describing a setting, one traveler noted

the "low arid hills" surrounding the stage stop.

The land, "destitute of all timber,"

was "perfectly dry and dusty."

Head of Concho also served as a beef depot.

The steady demand for cattle on the Texas frontier

encouraged local ranchers and overland employees

to raise livestock to sell to the mail company

and the military.

A San Francisco reporter riding eastward in 18... late 1858

observed that the station keeper at Head of Concho

"had one hundred head of cows grazing in the vicinity."

Our next stop today is at Mountain Pass in Taylor County,

which is southwest of modern-day Abilene, Texas.

Mountain Pass runs through the 2,400-foot Callahan Divide.

This divide lies halfway between the Clear Fork

and Colorado River watersheds.

Today drivers on Interstate 20 can see the Callahan Divide off

in the distance south of Merkel, Texas.

Throughout its use as a stage stop,

Mountain Pass consistently ranked

as one of the deadliest sites on the entire Texas route.

Mountain Pass Station sits on a hill

overlooking a fine spring.

Today the spring's an enclosed pond ringed by tall rushes.

I was able to get a picture of my dad there by the pond.

He's now deceased, so it was neat to have him out there.

When New York Herald reporter Waterman Ormsby's Butterfield

coach stopped at Mountain Pass Station in September 1868,

an elderly African American woman

served him breakfast of "coffee, tough beef,

and butterless short cake."

Commenting on his meal, Ormsby said,

"There's an old saying

that 'every man must eat his peck of dirt,'

and I think I've had good measure

with my peck on this trip,

which has been roughing it with a vengeance."

In marked contrast,

Daily Alta California reporter J. M. Farwell

enjoyed his visit here.

Arriving at two in the morning in early November 1858,

Farwell savored a good meal of "beef steaks,

eggs, coffee, and the like."

Remarking on his coach's easy passage

down the Callahan Divide,

Farwell said that the place could hardly be called a "pass"

as the road was so smooth

and the coach's rate of speed through it so fast.

The occupants of a July 1860 eastbound coach

might have differed with Farwell.

A Celerity wagon with seven passengers, a driver,

and a Butterfield conductor named Stout

ran into serious trouble

soon after leaving Mountain Pass Station.

When the reinsman cracked his whip,

the horses took off at a fast clip.

Upon reaching the brow of the pass,

the driver tried to apply his brakes

before descending down the gorge.

The brakes failed,

forcing the vehicle's operator to take drastic measures.

He turned the horses towards the side of the hill

and drove the coach off the road.

The wagon hit a tree,

"literally smashing the coach in pieces,

killing one man...and injuring every other person in the stage

to a more or less extent."

The dead man was a cattle drover from Missouri named MacKay

on his way to California.

A newspaper report said that the conductor, Mr. Stout,

"was severely cut on the face,

his nose being completely flattened...

and also complains of internal injuries."

The fatal accident delayed overland mail service

for thirty hours.

And in an odd twist of fate,

MacKay had convinced the original ticket holder,

a man from Iowa,

to relinquish his seat on the ill-fated coach

so that MacKay could ride with a friend.

And finally, although the Butterfield Overland Mail

operated for just thirty months

from September 1858 until April 1861,

during that time the mail line influenced

and intersected much of the nation's frontier history.

While some of our story today

takes place within the Lone Star State,

this is an American tale.

Many of the same concerns that challenged 19th century

Texans confronted citizens across the frontier.

Thank you.

MITCHELL: Okay. Now we have about fifteen minutes for Q&A.

So, I have the mic.

So for those of you who are interested in asking a question,

let me know, and I will hand you the mic.

AUDIENCE: I'm wondering, what was the situation

before the overland -- the, uh, Butterfield stage?

Say you were in St. Louis

and you wanted to get a letter to California.

What would you do? If you had a letter

and you wanted to get it to San Francisco from, say, St. Louis,

what was involved in doing that?

How did you get a letter prior

to this 1858 effort to San Francisco?

ELY: Okay. So typically,

it would go by ship then around on the mail steamers

that would take the mail that way around to San Francisco.

So the need was, was try to connect the country internally,

provide mail and passenger service

so that all these communities in the interior of the country

could receive their mail

and also bring passengers across the country,

connecting California to, to the rest of the country.

AUDIENCE: And where would that steamer go?

ELY: Okay. So they would go around,

I believe, around South America and come around up there.

AUDIENCE: All the way...

they wouldn't come across the Isthmus of Panama?

They would come all the way around South America?

ELY: There was none.

AUDIENCE: It would be by land.

ELY: It could have.

I'm not an expert on the seagoing vessels.

Perhaps some of you know that. I'm not sure on that.

AUDIENCE: I think I've heard that the safer way was to go

all the way around South America

and the risky way was to go overland through Panama.

AUDIENCE: Because of the diseases.

-AUDIENCE: Yeah. -ELY: Right.

AUDIENCE: Thank you. You talked about Concho.

The U.S. Army had a post there, Fort Concho,

which is still there in museum quality today.

Did this... you talked about all the events

that were occurring at the Butterfield station.

At that time was Fort Concho there

and would have the troops responded?

Or, um, do you have any information on that?

ELY: So Fort Concho was constructed in 1867.

AUDIENCE: Okay, after the Civil War.

ELY: Yeah. I'll actually be there in a couple of weeks,

and so they... they're literally on their own out here.

AUDIENCE: Thank you.

ELY: Yes, sir. Thank you. Yes, sir.

AUDIENCE: Any recorded mail robberies...

any recorded mail robberies in that period?

ELY: No. We have Indian attacks,

Comanches attacking the stagecoach.

And many of the stations along the Texas route got hammered,

not just once, twice, three times.

A number of people killed, as you heard.

But I did find... I went through all the newspapers.

I did find a robbery in Arkansas.

And it's also a myth.

They also say that the, uh, Overland Mail Company

never carried gold or silver, but they did.

I have an account in the book which talks about in early 1861

when the country's coming apart, you actually have...

this is true... Texas Rangers attacking mail company stations,

stealing their forage, and taking materials from...

from the Overland Mail line.

Uh, and so one coach,

the conductor said that he waited off the road

in some bushes for a while 'til the rangers went by

because he was carrying a quantity of gold and silver,

and he didn't want it liberated by the Texas Rangers.


AUDIENCE: Thank you, Dr. Ely.

Um, you talked about the dissolution of the Overland.

Um, can you tell us a little bit more

whether that was rather sudden with secession

or whether there was

sort of a gradual deterioration of service?

ELY: Yeah. It was the latter case.

So Congress on March 2nd, 1861, ordered Butterfield

to move the route up to the central route,

okay, through the middle of the country

off the southern route.

But that actually didn't take place until...

the last time I can find an overland coach

going through Texas is the first week of April.

And a postmaster general in San Francisco on April 5th uh,

says that no more coaches are going to be going eastward.

So roughly about the first week of April.

And then I have an account uh, of the newspaper

and there's a huge caravan going westward out of Texas,

uh, to Union territory, of all these coaches

and several hundred livestock and employees.

This big exodus.

So they're closing down the route

and actually leaving Texas in early May 1861.

AUDIENCE: Hearing of all the travails going across country,

how hard was it to recruit people to work for that line?

Because I certainly wouldn't want to volunteer.

ELY: Well, as you saw, I mean, a lot of people...

a dollar a day back then was pretty good pay,

and that's what cowboys were often paid

during the 19th century was a dollar a day.

So people needed jobs.

And as I pointed out,

several people were working several jobs at once

to maximize their opportunities. Yeah.

You wouldn't have gotten me to go out there,

but a lot of times,

UH, especially like in this area here,

you had German American immigrants

who lived several hundred miles from here.

So their homes might be in Fredericksburg or Mason, Texas.

And they would come out here to the mail line

and then you know they could take a break and go home.

Obviously, some of these station managers like Shephard

would come all the way from Kansas.

I'm sure he got paid more. But, yeah.

It would have been a pretty rough deal.

Cover of the book The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861

In 1857, the U.S. Postmaster General awarded a $600,000 annual contract for the nation’s first transcontinental mail service from St. Louis to San Francisco. The contract went to the Overland Mail Company. Company president John Butterfield was the namesake of this 2800-mile mail route, which became known as the Butterfield Overland Mail. The Overland Mail Road was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the modern interstate highway system, stimulating passenger traffic, commercial freighting, and business. Many of the people living and working on the frontier during this period had connections to the mail line. Indeed, one cannot talk about the antebellum western frontier without also discussing the U.S. Post Office and its economic imprint upon the region. Dr. Glen Sample Ely spent a quarter century documenting 740 miles of this famous mail route from the Red River to El Paso. Ely’s engaging presentation will not only feature fascinating little-known postal history, but will also take the audience on a journey aboard a Butterfield stagecoach for a firsthand look at America’s rowdy frontier and those who shaped it.

A book signing took place following the lecture.

About Dr. Glen Sample Ely

Glen Ely portrait

Dr. Glen Sample Ely is a Texas historian and documentary producer. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Texas Christian University. Ely’s work has won The Award of Excellence in Preserving History from the Texas Historical Commission as well as Gold and Silver Wilder Awards from the Texas Association of Museums. His first book, Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity, was published by Texas Tech University Press in 2011. His latest book, The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, published by University of Oklahoma Press, has won twelve awards and honors to date. Earlier this year he was inducted as a Fellow to the Texas State Historical Association in recognition of his “distinguished published works” and “exemplary scholarly activity.”