Mail, Overland, and Stagecoaches

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MAIL, OVERLAND, AND STAGECOACHES. Overland mail and stagecoaches followed the covered wagon into the trans-Missouri West. Monthly government mail services were established from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe and to Salt Lake City in 1850. Thirty days were allowed for the one-way trip on each line. A similar service between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, California, began in 1851. These routes paid poorly, so only one team was usually employed for the trip. No way stations were maintained, making the carriers' journey lonely and sometimes perilous. Because of these limited facilities, practically all mail for California went by steamer, via Panama, with a thirty-day schedule from New York to San Francisco.

Proponents of overland mail service lobbied for increased subsidies for the maintenance of stations and changes of teams. In 1858 the semiweekly Southern, or Butterfield, Overland Mail Company began carrying mail between El Paso and Tuscon. The choice of a southern route, however, angered proponents of the central route (via Salt Lake City). The postmaster general defended the southern route as the only one feasible for year-round travel. To disprove this contention, William H. Russell, of the firm Russell, Majors, and Waddell, in 1860 inaugurated the Pony Express, which carried mail on a semimonthly schedule. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Southern Overland Mail was moved to the central route in Union-controlled territory, further strengthening Russell's position as the leading candidate for government mail contracts.

The Pony Express, with its legendary relay system and record delivery times, was a popular sensation. But the more important development of the 1860s was the gradual expansion of an efficient mail and stagecoach system in the West. In February 1860 the Kanasas legislature chartered a daily service, the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express, also run by William H. Russell. It absorbed the stage lines running from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Denver and to Salt Lake City; service was extended to California in May 1860. Letter mail on this system traveled from the Missouri River to California in an unprecedented twenty days.

Revenues never met expenses, however, and the Pony Express failed after eighteen months of operation. Ben Holladay purchased the line and contract in 1862. A vigorous organizer, he improved the line and extended branches to Oregon and Montana. Some Native American tribes interrupted the coaches and destroyed stations in 1864, but the distribution of additional soldiers cleared the road. Wells Fargo purchased Holladay's lines in 1866 and continued operations until the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. Coaches continued for many years to serve localities not reached by rail.

The Concord stagecoach, manufactured by Abbot, Downing, and Company of Concord, New Hampshire, was the great overland carrier of passengers, mail, and express before 1869. Its frame rested on leather thorough-braces in lieu of springs and it accommodated nine passengers inside and others on the top. A team of four or six horses or mules powered the coach, which usually made a hundred miles in twenty-four hours. Although replaced by the railroad in the late nineteenth century, the stagecoach lived on as a symbol of conquest, progress, and opportunity for Americans heading west.


Hafen, LeRoy R. The Overland Mail, 1849–1869: Promoter of Settlement, Precursor of Railroads. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, and Peter Rohrbach. Stagecoach East: Stagecoach Days in the East from the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Ormsby, Waterman L. The Butterfield Overland Mail. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1991.

Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

LeRoy R.Hafen/a. r.

See alsoCarriage Making ; Overland Trail ; Postal Service, U.S. ; Stagecoach Travel ; Taverns and Saloons .