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Butterfield Stage Route - Bound For Gila Bend

Sonoran Desert
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted August 1, 2010

Wagon Wheels Across Arizona

Gold strikes in California during 1848 and 1849 had created the California Gold Rush. The West Coast was booming. Lack of communication between the East and the West was a problem that had to be fixed. With the ocean on one side and the deserts on the other, California was viewed as an island to itself.

The first route for getting mail to and from California was all the way around the tip of South America; Cape Horn. In an effort to shorten the time mail traveled, a new route was formed across the Isthmus of Panama. A one way trip from New York to San Francisco took about 30 days.

Much of the land between St. Louis and San Francisco had just been acquired from Mexico during the American-Mexican war. There were settlements scattered across those territories but they were few and far between. They were isolated from the rest of the country with almost no communications with either the East or the West. Sending mail by ship was not fixing that problem.

A transcontinental mail and passenger route was authorized by an act of Congress in March of 1857. It would be the first mail and passenger government contract to connect the East Coast to the West Coast over land. The new contract, when awarded, would establish a route to connect St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco. The biggest advantage would be inter-connecting all other communities along the route.

On September 16, 1857, John Butterfield and his associates signed a six-year contract with the Postmaster General. It provided for semi-weekly 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. He had been in the stagecoach business for many years and was also involved in railroads. One by one, his stage routes were being replaced by trains so he was aware that crossing the western territories was the last frontier for stagecoach use. His business partners were Henry Wells and William Fargo. They owned Wells Fargo, which at that time was primarily involved in the banking business.

Using Wells Fargo financing, John Butterfield, put it all together. He established relay stations an average of 20 miles apart all the way from Tipton, Missouri, to San Francisco. The wagon route was built by utilizing existing roads where possible and building new ones where necessary. Most rivers were forded but ferries were in place for use across the biggest ones.

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