Butterfield Overland Mail

By: Rupert N. Richardson

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 1, 1994

The Butterfield (or Southern) Overland Mail, which operated from September 15, 1858, until March 1, 1861, was a semiweekly mail and passenger stage service from St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee, across northern Texas to San Francisco, California. The routes from the two eastern termini united at Fort Smith, Arkansas. From St. Louis to San Francisco the distance was 2,795 miles, probably the longest route of any system using horse-drawn conveyances in the history of the United States. An act of Congress, effective on March 3, 1857, authorized a mail contract calling for the conveying of letter mail twice weekly, in both directions, in four-horse coaches or spring wagons suitable for carrying passengers; it was further specified that each trip should be completed within twenty-five days. Awarded to John Butterfield and associates, the contract provided for a compensation of $600,000 per year, in addition to receipts for passengers and express.

As of 1858 the route extended from San Francisco to Los Angeles, thence by Fort Yuma, California, and Tucson, Arizona, to Franklin, Texas (present El Paso). From Franklin it ran nearly due east to Hueco Tanks, thirty miles; a little north of east to the Pinery, fifty-six miles; twenty-four miles on to Delaware Springs; down Delaware Creek, almost to its junction with the Pecos River, and across the river to Pope's Camp, near the thirty-second parallel, forty miles; down the east side of the Pecos, to Emigrant Crossing, sixty-five miles; and fifty-five miles on to Horsehead Crossing. Thence the trail ran east-northeast to the headwaters of the Middle Concho River, seventy miles; slightly more northward through the vicinity of Carlsbad, Texas, to a camp or station, about thirty miles; to Grape Creek near the south line of present Coke County, twenty-two miles; to Fort Chadbourne in what is now Coke County. Thence the route ran more to the north across Valley Creek, twelve miles; to Mountain Pass, sixteen miles; passed the route of the Texas and Pacific Railway, a mile west of the site of present Tye, to Fort Phantom Hill, thirty miles; to Smith's station, twelve miles; to Clear Fork station, twenty-six miles; to Franz's station, thirteen miles; and to Fort Belknap, twenty-two miles. From Fort Belknap the line turned eastward to Murphy's station (a site near present Graham), sixteen miles; to Jacksboro, nineteen miles; to Earhart's station, sixteen miles; to Davidson's station, twenty-four miles; to Gainesville, seventeen miles; to Diamond's station (one mile west of the site of present Whitesboro), fifteen miles; to Sherman, fifteen miles; and across the Red River at Colbert's Ferry, eight miles below Preston. The route was changed slightly from time to time, the most important change being made late in 1858, when, in order to secure a better water supply, the stages between Franklin and the Pecos followed the El Paso-San Antonio road to Camp Stockton (now Fort Stockton) and thence to the Horsehead Crossing.

The mails went through almost without exception in the twenty-five days allowed. The postage rate of ten cents per half ounce resulted in receipts in 1860 of $119,766.77. Early in 1859 Sherman was made a distribution point, through which Texas settlements were given postal service. In addition to mail and express the Concord coaches had room for five or six passengers, and at times more were crowded in. The fare averaged $200 one-way. Passengers, with firearms ready to meet attacks by Indians, generally endured the ordeal of the trip without rest; for if a traveler laid over, he forfeited his seat, and he might be marooned for a month before he could secure another. Stage service on the southern route was terminated in March 1861, when an agreement was made to modify the contract and move the route northward out of Texas.

Roscoe P. and Margaret B. Conkling, The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857–1869 (3 vols., Glendale, California: Clark, 1947). LeRoy R. Hafen, Overland Mail, 1849–1869 (Cleveland: Clark, 1926). Waterman L. Ormsby, The Butterfield Overland Mail (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1942; rpt. 1955). Rupert N. Richardson, "Some Details of the Southern Overland Mail," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 29 (July 1925). J. W. Williams, "The Butterfield Overland Mail Road across Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61 (July 1957). J. W. Williams, The Marcy and Butterfield Trails across Texas (M.A. thesis, Hardin-Simmons University, 1938).
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rupert N. Richardson, “Butterfield Overland Mail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/butterfield-overland-mail.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994