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The Butterfield Stagecoach Line

A restored Concord stagecoach used by Wells Fargo.
By Kathryn Coe

Manifest destiny was an idea born out of a world that seemed ripe for expansion; it drove American Indians into the New World, just as it drove Vasco de Gama to travel to India and Columbus to cross the Atlantic. In a young America, it inspired Protestant preachers to proclaim from their pulpits that this New World was the Promised Land and that possessing that land was a national destiny. This fervor propelled western expansion. Government officials realized that the development of the west depended upon their ability to move people, cargo and mail. In 1857, the Congress of the United States authorized and funded the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach and Mail Service to accomplish those aims.

The stage route, which was determined by the U.S. Post Office, traveled south from Memphis or Saint Louis, through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and then on to the coast; this southern route was chosen to avoid the harsh winters to the north. This trip, the government funders insisted, had to be completed within 25 days. To accomplish this aim, the stage would have to travel 24 hours a day, making only brief stops. This required the development of a solid infrastructure; 128 relay stations were built and 1800 mules and horses and 250 Celerity wagons and Concord Stagecoaches were purchased. Eight hundred people were hired. Soon, most trips were being completed in a little over 22 days.

Two times a week, sometimes three, the Butterfield Stage carried passengers, freight, and up to 12,000 letters. Passengers paid $200 and were given a tiny bit of space and an uncomfortable seat and allowed to carry 25 pounds of luggage, two blankets and a canteen. One complaint was that the passengers, in order to accommodate the cargo, had to travel leaning over and that when the stage was full, with 12 passengers aboard, there was room for only ten sets of legs. An article written by a New York Herald correspondent explained the trip this way: “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I know now what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.”

During the few, very brief stops the passengers could purchase overpriced food—coffee or tea, beans and cured meat. The tea, as described by Mark Twain in his book Roughing It, was bad. He wrote: “It purported to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.” To add to the travails of travel, the trip could be dangerous. A detachment from the 9th Kansas Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William O. Collins, was assigned by Lincoln’s War Department to help ensure the safe and uninterrupted passage of the stage,

The stage line was not profitable. In 1860, due to unpaid debt, Wells Fargo took over the stage line. By 1861, it had become increasingly clear that a war seemed unavoidable and that Texas could secede from the Union, thus closing down that portion of the route. The U.S. Post Office formally canceled the contract and funded the Pony Express to carry the mail over a more central route. The Confederacy stepped in to begin operating the Butterfield Stage Line running from Texas to Southern California, using soldiers to keep the stations between Tucson and Mesilla open, while destroying the stations between Tucson and Yuma, which was home to Union soldiers. At least four of the western battles of the Civil War occurred on or near these Butterfield stations. One of these battles, which occurred at the station at Picacho Pass, stopped the western advance of the Confederacy.

As mentioned above, many of our ancestors felt that drive to move and explore, convinced that the land just over the mountain or across the river was a promise, a gift bestowed upon them. Long before any Europeans arrived in the New World, an ancient people wandered into the Southwest settling down where they found water and sources of food. Building on even earlier paths, they created trails, some with petroglyphs marking the way, and used them to follow the seasons and harvest fruits and seeds and hunt migrating game. Over time these trails grew longer and one of the east-west trails moved across the southern Arizona desert, below Apache Junction. This trail, which also would be used many centuries later by the Butterfield Stage Line, made it possible to keep in touch with distant relatives, to trade with other people, and, for news carriers, the early troubadours, to keep people informed. Two different people, in events widely separated by time, used the same route for the same purposes.


  1. The US Post Office nor any other government entity contracted nor funded the Pony Express to carry mail. It was a private enterprise.

  2. Hi Arleta, although it was and continues to be strongly associated with the Post Office, you are right that the Pony Express was a private enterprise. William H. Russell, who came up with the idea for the Pony Express, tried repeatedly but was unsuccessful in getting backing from the Post Office. This seems curious, as its primary function was to carry the mail. I have to wonder if the costs incurred by the Civil War did not play a role in his failure. Thank you very much for writing and making that correction.

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