Overland stagecoach service to San Francisco begins

John Butterfield

John W. Butterfield was born in 1801 and began driving stagecoaches from Albany to Utica by age 19. He soon opened his own stage line but expanded into steamboat service on Lake Ontario and then into railroads. In 1850 his company, Butterfield, Wasson and Co., joined with other express companies owned by Henry Wells and William Fargo to form the American Express Co. Two years later these same men were also instrumental in forming Wells Fargo. Then in 1857, under Butterfield’s leadership they started the Butterfield Overland Mail to deliver U.S. Mail by stagecoaches to the west coast. The first coaches left from both St. Louis and San Francisco on September 15, 1859. The run was supposed to take 25 days but the coach from the west arrived in St. Louis 23 days later with six very happy passengers and the mail.

Map of the Butterfield Overland Mail route

The Butterfield Stages went south to Fort Smith, Arkansas then on to El Paso, Tucson, Fort Yuma, and Los Angeles before turning north to San Francisco. This southern route was chosen to avoid the winter closures of the mountain passes along more northern routes and insure year round service. A ticket cost $200 and the trip was rough on the passengers. One man said, “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.” Still the line used top quality animals and Concord stages and hired experienced frontiersmen as drivers, each man working a 60-mile stretch of road that he knew inside out. There were 139 relay stations set up along the way to provide food for passengers and animals. To meet its schedule stages ran night and day.

Butterfield Stage Station, Oak Grove CA 1960

The opening of the Pony Express in 1860 offered a more direct route across the country and 10-day mail service to California, but prices for letter delivery were high and the stage line still kept the government mail contract. Then that same year, due to mounting debt, Wells Fargo forced Butterfield out of the company. Because of the impending Civil War the last run along the southern route was made in March 1861, but Wells Fargo continued to operate what parts of the line it could. Throughout this period of turmoil Pacific Mail Steamships would reliably carry mail, packages and passengers to California until the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Relay station in San Luis Obispo



  1. roy a. harrison says

    Very informative, however I was interested in unsolved robberies on these stage lines.

    • Roy, I haven’t done a study on the ones that got away, but early on Tom Bell and Reelfoot Williams were known bad guys. They were both run to ground after a woman was killed in a stage robbery, but there must have been plenty more they got away with. Later on the famous Black Bart hit Wells Fargo stages often until he was tracked down by a laundry tag in something he left behind. A fellow named Sugarfoot did okay until he was gunned down by a stage driver named Charlie Parkhurst.

      Good luck, I hope I’ve helped some. It’s a great subject.

  2. Loved the overview. The book on Charlie Parkhurst sounds like a good one to read, one of these days. Until the trains started over the mountains in this area, the stage and freight wagons were the means to carry people, mail and goods through the passes. They would run on a three day a week schedule, but would rarely run in the winter. The trains changed that of course.

    • The trains eventually took over almost everything in California except the ferry service on the bay and they owned that too. I have a collection of short stories I hope to publish on kindle in the next week or so and one of them, “Uncle Charley,” has to do with Charley Parkhurst. Thanks for your comment. You always bring a lot of good insights.

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