Part I: The Original Overland Mail Route
Prior to September 1858 there had never been an overland mail route from St. Louis, Missouri, or Memphis, Tennessee, to anywhere in California. Mail going in either direction had to do so by steamship all the way around Cape Horn at the very tip of South America. That journey took about six weeks.
Gold strikes in California during 1848 and 1849 had created the California gold Rush, and the West coast was booming. Lack of communication between the East and the West was a problem that had to be fixed.
A transcontinental mail and passenger route was authorized by an act of congress in 1857. On September 16 of that same year, John Butterfield and his associates signed a 6-year contract with the postmaster general. It provided for semiweekly mail service in both directions between St. Louis/Memphis and San Francisco. According to the contract, the first mail sacks had to leave the three cities within one year, then continue doing so twice each week. Opponents claimed it could not be done.
John Butterfield was president of American Express. His business partners were Henry Wells and William Fargo. They owned Wells Fargo which at that time was primarily involved in the banking business and financed Butterfield's overland mail venture.
John Butterfield put it all together. At 8 a.m. on September 16, 1858, exactly one year to the day from the signing of the contract, he personally picked up the first mailbag in St. Louis, took it to Tipton, Missouri, using the Pacific Railroad, then rode as a passenger on the stage from Tipton to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with his son in the driver's box.
The mail from Memphis was placed onboard a steamship to Little Rock, Arkansas, then placed on another stage that would meet the Tipton stage in Fort Smith. The Memphis mail was loaded onto the Tipton stage, and the journey resumed. For the next two and a half years, mail and westbound passengers left St. Louis and Memphis on Mondays and Thursdays.