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, 1858-1861.

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.


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.”