8: Early Overland Mail Routes
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In the history of overland transportation in America, the Pony Express
is but one in a series of many enterprises. As emphasized at the
beginning of this book, its importance lay in its opportuneness; in the
fact that it appeared at the psychological moment, and fitted into the
course of events at a critical period, prior to the completion of the
telegraph; and when some form of rapid transit between the Missouri
River and the Pacific Coast was absolutely needed. To give adequate
setting to this story, a brief account of the leading overland routes,
of which the Pony Express was but one, seems proper.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, three great thoroughfares
had been established from the Missouri, westward across the continent.
These were the Santa Fe, the Salt Lake, and the Oregon trails. All had
important branches and lesser stems, and all are today followed by
important railroads—a splendid testimonial to the ability of the
pioneer pathfinders in selecting the best routes.
Of these trails, that leading to Santa Fe was the oldest, having been
fully established before 1824. The Salt Lake and Oregon routes date some
twenty years later, coming into existence in the decade between 1840 and
1850. It is incidentally with the Salt Lake trail that the story of the
Pony Express mainly deals.
The Mormon settlement of Utah in 1847-48, followed almost immediately by
the discovery of gold in California, led to the first mail route(1)
across the country, west of the Missouri. This was known as the "Great
Salt Lake Mail," and the first contract for transporting it was let July
1, 1850, to Samuel H. Woodson of Independence, Missouri. By terms of
this agreement, Woodson was to haul the mail monthly from Independence
on the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, twelve hundred miles, and
return. Woodson later arranged with some Utah citizens to carry a mail
between Salt Lake City and Fort Laramie, the service connecting with the
Independence mail at the former place. This supplementary line was put
into operation August 1, 1851.
In the early fifties, while the California gold craze was still on, a
monthly route was laid out between Sacramento and Salt Lake City(2).
This service was irregular and unreliable; and since the growing
population of California demanded a direct overland route, a four year
monthly contract was granted to W. F. McGraw, a resident of Maryland.
His subsidy from Congress was $13,500.00 a year. In those days it often
took a month to get mail from Independence to Salt Lake City, and about
six weeks for the entire trip. Although McGraw charged $180.00 fare for
each passenger to Salt Lake City, and $300.00 to California, he failed,
in 1856. The unexpired contract was then let to the Mormon firm of
Kimball & Co., and they kept the route in operation until the Mormon
troubles of 1857 when the Government abrogated the agreement.
In the summer of 1857, General Albert Sidney Johnston, later of Civil
War fame, was sent out with a Federal army of five thousand men to
invade Utah. After a rather fruitless campaign, Johnston wintered at
Fort Bridger, in what is southwestern Wyoming, not far from the Utah
line. During this interval, army supplies were hauled from Fort
Leavenworth with only a few way stations for changing teams. This
improvised line, carrying mail occasionally, which went over the old
Mormon trail via South Pass, and Forts Kearney, Laramie, and Bridger,
was for many months the only service available for this entire region.
The next contract for getting mail into Utah was let in 1858 to John M.
Hockaday of Missouri. Johnston's army was then advancing from winter
quarters at Bridger toward the valley of Great Salt Lake, and the
Government wanted mail oftener then once a month. In consideration of
$190,000.00 annually which was to be paid in monthly installments,
Hockaday agreed to put on a weekly mail. This route, which ran from St.
Joseph to Salt Lake City, was later combined with a line that had been
running from Salt Lake to Sacramento, thus making a continuous weekly
route to and from California. For the combined route the Government paid
$320,000.00 annually. Its actual yearly receipts were $5,142.03.
The discovery of gold in the vicinity of Denver in the summer of 1858
caused another wild excitement and a great rush which led to the
establishment in the summer of 1859 of the Leavenworth and Pike's Peak
Express, from the Missouri to Denver. As then traveled, this route was
six hundred and eighty-seven miles in length. The line as operated by
Russell, Majors, and Waddell, and that same year they took over
Hockaday's business. As has already been stated, the new firm of Pony
Express fame—called the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak
Express Co.—consolidated the old California line, which had been run
in two sections, East and West, with the Denver line. In addition to the
Pony Express it carried on a big passenger and freighting business to
and from Denver and California.
Turning now to the lines that were placed in commission farther South.
The first overland stage between Santa Fe and Independence was started
in May, 1849. This was also a monthly service, and by 1850 it was fully
equipped with the famous Concord coaches, which vehicles were soon to be
used on every overland route in the West. Within five years, this route,
which was eight hundred fifty miles in length and followed the Santa Fe
trail, now the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, had
attained great importance. The Government finally awarded it a yearly
subsidy of $10,990.00, but as the trail had little or no military
protection except at Fort Union, New Mexico, and for hundreds of miles
was exposed to the attacks of prairie Indians, the contractors
complained because of heavy losses and sought relief of the Post Office
and War Departments. Finally they were released from their old contract
and granted a new one paying $25,000.00 annually, but even then they
fell behind $5,000.00 per year.
By special act passed August 3, 1854, Congress laid out a monthly mail
route from Neosho, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with an annual
subsidy of $17,000.00. Since the Mexican War this region had come to be
of great commercial and military importance. A little later, in March
1855, the route was changed by the Government to run monthly from
Independence and Kansas City, Missouri, to Stockton, California, via
Albuquerque, and the contractors were awarded a yearly bonus of
$80,000.00 This line was also a financial failure.
The early overland routes were granted large subsidies and the privilege
of charging high rates for passengers and freight. To the casual
observer it may seem strange that practically all these lines operated
at a disastrous loss. It should be noted however, that they covered an
immense territory, many portions of which were occupied by hostile
Indians. It is no easy task to move military forces and supplies
thousands of miles through a wilderness. Furthermore, the Indians were
elusive and hard to find when sought by a considerable force. They
usually managed to attack when and where they were least expected.
Consequently, if protection were secured at all, it usually fell to the
lot of the stage companies to police their own lines, which was
expensive business. Often they waged, single-handed, Indian campaigns of
considerable importance, and the frontiersmen whom they could assemble
for such duty were sometimes more effective than the soldiers who were
unfamiliar with the problems of Indian warfare.
Added to these difficulties were those incident to severe weather, deep
snow, and dangerous streams, since regular highways and bridges were
almost unknown in the regions traversed. Not to mention the handicap and
expense which all these natural obstacles entailed, business on many
lines was light, and revenues low.
News from Washington about the creation of the new territory of Utah -
in September 1850—was not received in Salt Lake City until January
1851. The report reached Utah by messenger from California, having come
around the continent by way of the Isthmus of Panama. The winters of
1851-52, and 1852-53 were frightfully severe and such expensive delays
were not uncommon. The November mail of 1856 was compelled to winter in
In the winter of 1856-57 no steady service could be maintained between
Salt Lake City and Missouri on account of bad weather. Finally, after a
long delay, the postmaster at Salt Lake City contracted with the local
firm of Little, Hanks, and Co., to get a special mail to and from
Independence. This was accomplished, but the ordeal required
seventy-eight days, during which men and animals suffered terribly from
cold and hunger. The firm received $1,500.00 for its trouble. The Salt
Lake route returned to the Government a yearly income of only $5,000.00.
The route from Independence to Stockton, which cost Uncle Sam $80,000.00
a year, collected in nine months only $1,255.00 in postal revenues,
whereupon it was abolished July 1st, 1859.
By the close of 1859 there were at least six different mail routes
across the continent from the Missouri to the Pacific Coast. They were
costing the Government a total of $2,184,696.00 and returning
$339,747.34. The most expensive of these lines was the New York and New
Orleans Steamship Company route, which ran semi-monthly from New York to
San Francisco via Panama. This service cost $738,250.00 annually and
brought in $229,979.69. While the steamship people did not have the
frontier dangers to confront them, they were operating over a roundabout
course, several thousand miles in extent, and the volume of their postal
business was simply inadequate to meet the expense of maintaining their
The steamer schedule was about four weeks in either direction, and the
rapidly increasing population of California soon demanded, in the early
fifties, a faster and more frequent service. Agitation to that end was
thus started, and during the last days of Pierce's administration, in
March 1857, the "Overland Mail" bill was passed by Congress and signed
by the President. This act provided that the Postmaster-General should
advertise for bids until June 30 following: "for the conveyance of the
entire letter mail from such point on the Mississippi River as the
contractors may select to San Francisco, Cal., for six years, at a cost
not exceeding $300,000 per annum for semi-monthly, $450,000 for weekly,
or $600,000 for semi-weekly service to be performed semi-monthly,
weekly, or semi-weekly at the option of the Postmaster-General." The
specifications also stipulated a twenty-five day schedule, good coaches,
and four-horse teams.
Bids were opened July 1, 1857. Nine were submitted, and most of them
proposed starting from St. Louis, thence going overland in a
southwesterly direction usually via Albuquerque. Only one bid proposed
the more northerly Central route via Independence, Fort Laramie, and
Salt Lake. The Postoffice Department was opposed to this trail, and its
attitude had been confirmed by the troubles of winter travel in the
past. In fact this route had been a failure for six consecutive winters,
due to the deep snows of the high mountains which it crossed.
On July 2, 1857, the Postmaster General announced the acceptance of bid
No. "12,587" which stipulated a forked route from St. Louis, Missouri
and from Memphis, Tennessee, the lines converging at Little Rock,
Arkansas. Thence the course was by way of Preston, Texas; or as nearly
as might be found advisable, to the best point in crossing the Rio
Grande above El Paso, and not far from Fort Filmore; thence along the
new road then being opened and constructed by the Secretary of the
Interior to Fort Yuma, California; thence through the best passes and
along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging to San
Francisco. On September is following, a six year contract was let for
this route. The successful firm at once became known as the "Butterfield
Overland Mail Company." Among the firm members were John Butterfield,
Wm. B. Dinsmore, D. N. Barney, Wm. G. Fargo and Hamilton Spencer. The
extreme length of the route agreed upon from St. Louis to San Francisco
was two thousand seven hundred and twenty-nine miles; the most southern
point was six hundred miles south of South Pass on the old Salt Lake
route. Because of the out-of-the-way southern course followed, two and
one half days more than necessary were nominally-required in making the
journey. Yet the postal authorities believed that this would be more
than offset by the southerly course being to a great extent free from
On September 15, 1858, after elaborate preparations, the overland mails
started from San Francisco and St. Louis on the twenty-five day schedule—which was three days less than that of the water route. The postage
rate was ten cents for each half ounce; the passenger fare was one
hundred dollars in gold. The first trip was made in twenty-four days,
and in each of the terminal cities big celebrations were held in honor
of the event. And yet today, four splendid lines of railway cover this
distance in about three days!
These stages—to use the west-bound route as an illustration—traveled
in an elliptical course through Springfield, Missouri, and Fayetteville,
Arkansas, to Van Buren, Arkansas, where the Memphis mail was received.
Continuing in a southwesterly course, they passed through Indian
Territory and the Choctaw Indian reserve—now Oklahoma—crossed the
Red River at Calvert's Ferry, then on through Sherman, Fort Chadbourne
and Fort Belknap, Texas, through Guadaloupe Pass to El Paso; thence up
the Rio Grande River through the Mesilla Valley, and into western New
Mexico—now Arizona to Tucson. Then the journey led up the Gila River
to Arizona City, across the Mojave desert in Southern California and
finally through the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco.
Today a traveler could cover nearly the same route, leaving St. Louis
over the Frisco Railroad, transferring to the Texas Pacific at Fort
Worth, and taking the Southern Pacific at El Paso for the remainder of
As has been shown, the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861
made it necessary for the Federal Government to transfer this big and
important route further north to get it beyond the latitude of the
Confederacy. Hence the Southern route was formally abandoned(4) on
March 12, 1861, and the equipment removed to the Central or Salt Lake
trail where a daily service was inaugurated. About three months was
necessary to move all the outfits and in July 1861, the first daily
overland mail—running six times a week—was started between St.
Joseph and Placerville, California, 1,920 miles by the way of Forts
Kearney, Bridger, and Salt Lake City.
The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad had been built into St. Joseph and
was doing business by February 1859. For some time that city enjoyed the
honor of being the eastern stage terminal; but within a year the
railroad was extended to Atchison, about twenty miles down the stream.
The latter place is situated on a bend of the river fourteen miles west
of St. Joseph, and so the terminal honors soon passed to Atchison since
its westerly location shortened the haul.
In transferring the Butterfield line from the Southern to the Central
route, it was merged with the Central Overland California and Pike's
Peak Express Company which already included the Leavenworth and Pike's
Peak Express Company, under the leadership of General Bela M. Hughes.
This line was known to the Government as the Central Overland California
Route. As soon as the transfer was completed, through California stages
were started on an eighteen day schedule a full week less time than had
been required by the Butterfield route, and ten days less than that of
the Panama steamers. This was the most famous of all the stage routes,
and except for three interruptions, due to Indian outbreaks in 1862,
1864, and 1865, it did business continuously for several years.
Within a few months came another change of proprietorship, the route
passing on a mortgage foreclosure into the hands of Benjamin Holladay, a
famous stage line promoter, late in 1861. Early the following year
Holladay reorganized the management under the name of the Overland Stage
Line. This seems to have been what today is technically known as a
holding company; for until the expiration of the old Butterfield
contract in 1863(5), he allowed the business east of Salt Lake City to
be carried on by the old C. O. C. & P. P. Co.; west of Salt Lake, the
new Overland Line allowed, or sublet the through traffic to a vigorous
subsidiary, the Pioneer Stage Line(6).
Holladay was fortunate in securing a new mail contract for the Central
route which he now controlled. For supplying a six day letter mail
service from the Missouri to Placerville together with a way mail to and
from Denver and Salt Lake City, he was paid $1,000,000 a year for the
three years beginning July 1, 1861. At the expiration of this period he
was to get $840,000.
In the meantime gold was discovered in Idaho and Montana, and Holladay,
encouraged by his big subsidy from the Government, put stage lines into
Virginia City, Montana, and Boise City, Idaho.
In 1866 the Butterfield Overland Despatch, an express and fast freight
line, was started above the Smoky Hill route from Topeka and Leavenworth
across Kansas to Denver. Within a short time this organization, mainly
because of the heavy expense caused by Indian depredations, and was
consolidated with the Holladay Company. Just prior to this transfer, Mr.
Holladay received from the Colorado Territorial legislature a charter
for the "Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company," which was the full
and formal name of the new concern. This corporation now owned and
controlled stage lines aggregating thirty-three hundred miles. It
brought the service up to the highest point of efficiency and used only
the best animals and vehicles it was possible to obtain.
In addition to his federal mail bonus, Holladay had the following rates
for passenger traffic in force:
In 1863, from Atchison to Denver $75.00
In 1863, from Atchison to Salt Lake City $150.00
In 1863, from Atchison to Placerville $225.00
In 1865, on account of the rise of gold and the depreciation of
currency, these rates were increased; the fare from the Missouri River
to Denver was changed to $175.00; to Salt Lake $350.00. The California
rate varied from $400.00 to $500.00. A year later the fare to Virginia
City, Montana, was fixed at $350.00 and the rate to Salt Lake City
reduced to $225.00.
These high rates and Indian dangers did not seem to check the desire on
the part of the public to make the overland trip. Stages were almost
always crowded, and it was usually necessary for one to apply for
reservations several days in advance.
Late in the year 1866, Holladay's entire properties(7) were purchased
by Wells Fargo and Co. This was a new concern, recently chartered by
Colorado, which had been quietly gaining power. Within a short time it
had exclusive control of practically all the stage, express, and
freighting business in the West and this business it held.
Meanwhile the overland stage and freight lines were rapidly shortening
on account of the building of the Pacific railroads, and the terminals
of the through routes became merely the temporary ends of the fast
growing railway lines. By the early autumn of 1866, the Kansas Pacific
had reached Junction City, Kansas, and the Union Pacific was at Fort
Kearney, Nebraska. The golden era of the overland stage business was
from 1858 to 1866. After that, the old through routes were but fragments
"between the tracks" of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific roads
which were building East and West toward each other.
Wells Fargo & Co., however, clung to these fragments until the lines met
on May 10th, 1869, and a continuous transcontinental railroad was
completed. Then they turned their attention to organizing mountain stage
and express lines in the railroadless regions of the West,—some of
which still exist. And they also turned their energies to the railway
express business, in which capacity this great firm, the last of the old
stage companies, is now known the world over.__________
(1) Authority for Early Mail Routes is Root and Connelley's
Overland Stage to California.
(2) The reader will keep in mind that during the early days of
California history, practically all communication between that locality
and the East was carried on by steamship from New York via Panama.
(3) In June, 1860, Congress got into trouble with this company over
postal compensations. The steamship company, it appears, thought its
remuneration too low and it further protested that the diversion of mail
traffic, due to the daily Overland Stage Line and the Pony Express would
reduce its revenues still further. Congress finally adjourned without
effecting a settlement, and the mail, which was far too heavy for the
overland facilities to handle at that time, was piling up by the ton
awaiting shipment. Matters were getting serious when Cornelius
Vanderbilt came to the Government's relief and agreed to furnish steamer
service until Congress assembled in March, 1861, provided the Federal
authorities would assure him "a fair and adequate compensation." This
agreement was effected and the affair settled as agreed. At the
expiration of the period, the war and the growing importance of the
overland route made steamship service by way of the Isthmus quite
(4) The contractors are said to have been awarded $50,000 by the
Government for their trouble in haying the agreement broken.
(5) Holladay secured possession of the outfits of the C.
O. C. & P. P. Exp. Co., between the Missouri and Salt Lake City.
(6) The Pioneer Line which had recently come into power and prominence
had gained possession of the equipment west of Salt Lake. This line was
owned by Louis and Charles McLane. Louis McLane afterward became
President of the Wells Fargo Express Co.
(7) Holladay is said to have received one million five hundred thousand
dollars cash, and three hundred thousand dollars in express company
stock for his interests. Besides these amounts which covered only the
animals, rolling stock, stations, and incidental equipment, Wells Fargo
and Co. had to pay full market value for all grain, hay and provisions
along the line, amounting to nearly six hundred thousand dollars more.
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