San Antonio-El Paso Mail

By: Wayne R. Austerman

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: February 12, 2019

Between 1851 and 1881 a series of contractors carried the United States mail and passengers westward from San Antonio to El Paso. During various periods the stage line also served Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Diego, California. On September 20, 1851, Henry Skillman obtained a government contract to carry the mail between San Antonio and Santa Fe via El Paso. He dispatched his first mail west on November 3. By December he was offering passenger service also, despite the continual threat of Indian attack. In October 1854 Skillman formed a partnership with George H. Giddings, a San Antonio merchant and freighter. They continued to operate the stage line for the next three years in the face of mounting losses to the Indians. In July 1857 Giddings entered a partnership with James Birch, a wealthy New Englander who had prospered in the California express business. Giddings and Birch operated under government contract to furnish mail service between San Antonio and San Diego on a semimonthly basis; this "San-San" was said to be the first American transcontinental mail and passenger service. The first California mail departed San Antonio on July 9, 1857, and reached San Diego on August 30 after an arduous passage. Over the next year the 1,476-mile biweekly journey was made in an average time of twenty-seven days; the record was twenty-one days. For passengers the one-way fare, including meals, was $200.

Birch's death at sea in October 1857 threatened to destroy the new company, but Giddings kept the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line in operation by going deeply into debt. In September 1858 the Butterfield Overland Mail Company began operations between El Paso and California as part of its transcontinental route. This resulted in the post office department making successive reductions in the compensated portions of Giddings's line. His branch service to Santa Fe was terminated in December 1858, and by May 1860 he was receiving payment for service only on the route between San Antonio and Fort Stockton, Texas. Giddings continued to run his coaches all the way to El Paso but operated at a loss. After Texas left the Union in February 1861 Giddings obtained a Confederate government contract to provide service between San Antonio and California, but the Union authorities and hostile Indians soon crippled his operations beyond El Paso. By August 1862 he had been forced to suspend all service west of Fort Clark, Texas. Henry Skillman operated a covert courier service between San Antonio and El Paso for the Confederate agents and sympathizers remaining in the area during Union occupation, but federal troops killed him in an ambush near Presidio del Norte in April 1864.

Bethel Coopwood revived the San Antonio-El Paso service in April 1866, but by the following November he reputedly yielded control of the company to the firm of Sawyer, Risher, and Hall. Frederick P. Sawyer provided the financial backing, and his general superintendent, Benjamin F. Ficklin, directed field operations. Ficklin rapidly became the dominant figure in the business. He was a former Confederate officer who had seen antebellum service as a government surveyor in the West and had served as a route superintendent for the Central Overland and Pike's Peak Express Company before overseeing the establishment of the Pony Express. During his five-year tenure as director, Ficklin reinvigorated the Texas line by rerouting the stages toward the Middle Concho River before turning west to Fort Stockton and by establishing branch routes that served northwestern Texas, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory. When Ficklin died in 1871 his assistant, Francis C. Taylor, took over. An equally aggressive manager, Taylor enlarged the company's headquarters on the Middle Concho and named the village Benficklin in honor of his friend. He was also instrumental in the organization of Tom Green County in March 1874, and in January 1875 the growing community of Benficklin was chosen as the county seat.

Taylor provided strong leadership after Sawyer's death in 1875. He maintained the service to El Paso despite Indian raids, banditry, and charges of corruption made by political opponents. Charles Bain assumed control of the company following Taylor's death in June 1879. Despite declining revenues and losses to the Indians he kept the line functioning until the Texas and Pacific Railroad reached El Paso on January 1, 1882, and put the stage company out of business. Bain died in March 1894. The San Antonio-El Paso stage line rarely turned a profit for its successive operators, but it did have a favorable impact on the state's development. The introduction of a regular means of commercial transportation and the establishment of a chain of fortified relay stations along the road west to El Paso encouraged travel and settlement in the region. The government funds that partially sustained its operations were also welcome additions to the local economy. Most Texans gave the service their enthusiastic support during the 1850s because they saw it as a direct precursor to the construction of a transcontinental railroad across the state. In the post-Civil War period the stage line was a source of valuable intelligence about Indian movements for frontier army garrisons. Gen. William T. Sherman called it "the skirmish line of civilization." See also STAGECOACH LINES.

Wayne R. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules: The San Antonio-El Paso Mail, 1851–1881 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

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

Wayne R. Austerman, “San Antonio-El Paso Mail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 12, 2019