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The Butterfield Overland Stage Route

Posted in Events on June 1, 2007 Comment (0)
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A poster at the Butterfield Overland Stage station provided fair warning to anyone interested in purchasing a ticket: "You will be traveling through Indian Country, and the safety of your person cannot be vouchsafed by anyone but God."

To fully understand how the Butterfield Overland Mail Company came to be, step back in time to 1846 when the United States declared war on Mexico. It needed soldiers to push the Mexicans south and to formally take possession of lands that now make up much of the Southwest from Texas to California.

During that same time period, Mormon pioneers based in Iowa were migrating to Utah, but they needed government cooperation for their westward migration. An agreement between President James Polk and the Mormon Church resulted in the formation of the U.S. Mormon Battalion, which was tasked with blazing a wagon road from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Los Angeles, California, and pushing back any Mexican armies that happened to be in that area.

On July 20, 1846, the Mormon Battalion of nearly 550 men left Council Bluffs and marched to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where each soldier was issued personal weapons and supplies. A cash allotment was also provided to purchase uniforms, but soldiers were not required to wear uniforms so many of them used the money for other purposes such as sending it back to their families in Iowa.

During the months of January and December, the Battalion crossed Arizona and arrived in the San Diego area in the last week of January. No Mexican armies had been encountered; however, they had marched across the most hostile lands in the territory being claimed from Mexico. They had been the first to take wagons through that country and had established a wagon route for future use.

Before the Gold Rush of 1849, California was just a place somewhere out West that very few people cared about. Then, someone discovered gold. Some references claim it was discovered by a retired member of the Mormon Battalion. Regardless of who made the discovery, gold fever spread across the country, and all of a sudden, everyone wanted to know where California was. The year of the '49ers put California on the map. In 1850, it officially became a state.

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When dust from the Gold Rush began to settle, most of the '49ers discovered the best that they could hope for was a working-man's wage. They began to miss the homefolks. Getting a letter from California to the states back East was nearly impossible. Some of it went around the continent on ships, and other mail went by private companies at inflated rates. Nothing was done to improve the lack of communications between the East Coast and West Coast until 1858.

Government officials in Washington decided to establish a mail route using the wagon route blazed by the Mormon Battalion 12 years earlier. A government contract was awarded to John Butterfield who resided in New York. He would be paid $600,000 a year for six years to carry mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Stagecoaches left St. Louis and San Francisco twice a week. The journey was completed in 25 days or less.

John Butterfield was a true entrepreneur. In 1850, he founded the American Express Company. American Express was the result of a merger between the Wells Fargo Express company and Butterfield's own Butterfield and Wasson Express Company. The result was American Express with Butterfield in the top chair; however, Henry Wells and William Fargo both owned huge shares of the new company. The next time you see an American Express card, take a moment to reflect that it all started with a stagecoach.

Butterfield probably would have fared better if he had not won the bid on the mail contract. He spent the first two years' proceeds just getting the Butterfield Overland Mail Company started. Although the contract's primary purpose was mail delivery, passengers could also make the 25-day journey (2,800 miles) by purchasing a $200 ticket.

Most passengers probably only made the trip once. One writer described it as a "trip through Hell." In order to average more than 100 miles a day, the wagons were driven 24/7 at the fastest speeds allowed by the terrain and the team pulling them. They averaged slightly more than 5 miles per hour.

There were no sleeping quarters, the food at the stage stations was horrible, and they were subject to the full range of weather conditions. Attacks by Indians and outlaws were also common. The lack of water and the condition of the water in other locations added to the misery of the journey.

The Butterfield Overland Mail Company continued its trips twice a week in each direction for the next 2-1/2 years. During that time, Butterfield was pushed out of American Express due to huge debts. Wells and Fargo took over the Butterfield Overland Stage Company contract. They were almost immediately facing a new problem due to the Civil War. In 1861, Texas joined the Confederacy, so the route had to be moved.

Officials in Washington rewrote the mail contract to use a new route across Nebraska and Wyoming. It is unlikely the Butterfield Overland Mail Company had even made its initial investment back at that point. Nevertheless, the company had to abandon its stations, pack up all the animals, and move more than 20 empty stagecoaches back to California where they could connect to the new designated route.

Wells Fargo prospered where Butterfield had failed. By 1866, the company dominated the overland stage and mail business throughout the country. It continued to dominate that business until 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad put overland stagecoaches out of business.

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Most of the route used by the overland stage has been swallowed by modern developments. There are a few locations around the country where sections of it can be followed by vehicle, and some others where only hikers and horseback riders are permitted.

We decided to visit a short 4x4 section east of Gila Bend in Arizona. That section skirts the southern boundary of the Sonoran Desert National Monument and is maintained by the Boy Scouts of America. Historic signs and trail markers along the way take visitors over Butterfield Pass to the location of a stage stop designated on most maps as Desert Station. It's more modern name is simply Happy Camp.

The stage route runs parallel to Highway 238. Access roads connect the two routes. Since we came from Phoenix, we used the east access.

We were threatened all day with heavy clouds but rain never came, so using four-wheel drive was not required. The surface was sandy and rocky with occasional deep washouts. Careful navigation kept the running boards on our rental vehicle out of harm's way.

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Due to the cloud cover, you won't find a lot of blue sky in the photos, but the area is beautiful even without sunshine. We found a variety of cactuses, including an abundance of saguaros. These giants come in many different sizes and shapes. They can live up to 200 years and grow 40 different arms. Being experts at absorbing moisture, they can live up to two years on one good rainstorm. When full of water, a single saguaro can weigh as much as 7 tons.

The saguaro cactus normally blossoms in May or June. Its flowers are white and carry the official status as Arizona's state flower. There can be hundreds of flowers on a single plant, but they only open a few at time over a period of about a month. Each flower will open at night and then close the following day, with a life span of less than 24 hours. They have a waxy feel and fragrant aroma.

You can find other roads to follow in the area, including more of the Mormon Battalion route. For those who enjoy hiking, the national monument provides enough diversions to keep busy for weeks.

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Weather can be dangerous, especially in the summer. It is not unusual for temperatures to exceed 100 degrees F and stay there for weeks. Nighttime offers very little relief. The best time of year to vacation in this desert is when everything to the north is digging out of snow.

There are numerous primitive campsites along the route, but we were only there for a day trip. Although we would have really enjoyed a night under the stars, time just did not afford that luxury. Another coach was waiting to be moved. No, not a stagecoach, but a modern-day coach, also known as a motorhome.Another part-time job that keeps us busy is moving motorhomes across the country for others. It's a lot more pleasant than it would have been to drive a stagecoach, but there is a part of us that would really enjoy going back in time and experiencing the rough-and-tumble 2,800-mile journey in a Concord coach.

Larry E. Heck is the author and creator of numerous books and videos dating back to 1985. For more information, visit his website at www.lone-writer.com or call (303) 910-7647.

NAVIGATION
Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Description
0.0 33 0.0705 112 25.3194 Begin trail at highway billboard on Highway 238between Mile Post 17 and 18.
1.4 33 0.8419 112 26.3182 Right fork goes to stage trail.
4.4 33 3.2799 112 26.7269 Left is Butterfield Trail. Right is Mormon Battalion Trail.
5.6 33 2.9760 112 27.8861 Butterfield Trail campsite.
7.6 33 2.2105 112 29.5309 Water collector.
8.3/0 33 1.8268 112 30.0146 Happy Camp Desert Station. Reset trip meter.
1.6 33 1.2422 112 31.5367 Right fork.
1.9 33 1.1100 112 31.7060 Continue going straight. From here, there are several roads branching off. Stay on the main road until it reaches a T-intersection.
2.7 33 0.5395 112 32.2256 Left at T-intersection.
3.0 33 0.4497 112 31.9647 Pit toilets and corral.
4.2 32 59.5951 112 31.3622 Highway 238. Between Mile Posts 10 and 11.
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