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The Butterfield Overland Stage Route

Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted June 1, 2007

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.

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