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The Butterfield Overland Express carried the first overland transcontinental mail by stagecoach through Arkansas as it went from the Mississippi River to California. Though only running from 1858 through 1861, it was the longest stagecoach line in world history at approximately 2,812 miles and was a major factor in the settlement and development of Arkansas and the American West before the Civil War. Its two main routes ran through Arkansas, westward from Memphis and south from Missouri, connecting in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Many sites in Arkansas, such as Butterfield Trails Village in Fayetteville (Washington County), still reflect the era of the Butterfield Express.
Before modern technology, the mail was America’s lifeblood. “Post roads” were created in the original colonies even before military routes so that the mail could be carried. As the new country expanded west of the Mississippi, Congress recognized the need for an overland mail service to the Pacific. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, bringing over a quarter of a million people to the West Coast, there was a huge demand for transporting mail, supplies, and passengers. At the time, the usual route was by boat, either around South America or with an overland crossing in Panama, both of which were time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. After California threatened to secede if a faster mail service was not established, Congress voted in 1857 to subsidize a mail run from the Mississippi River to San Francisco. It required that supplies and passengers also be safely carried in twenty-five days or less. The six-year, $600,000 contract was awarded to John Butterfield, a former stage driver from New York, who was one of the founders of the American Express Company.
Butterfield’s contract demanded that service begin within a year. He hired experienced people, such as frontiersmen who were friendly with the Indian tribes whose land would be crossed. He then had to lay out the route to be followed, needing hard surfaces, gentle grades, and passes that would not be snow-bound in winter. He began the run just west of St. Louis, Missouri, in the town of Tipton, following a southwesterly route through Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona on the journey to California. A connecting route ran from Memphis to Fort Smith, where it joined the Tipton route.
Hundreds of horses, mules, harnesses, food, supplies, and wagons, along with other equipment, had to be purchased, but even before that, 141 way stations had to be established along the route. From Tipton to Fort Smith, Butterfield was able to use existing roads, though from Fort Smith westward he had to create new ones or use routes that were little more than trails.
On September 16, 1858, the first stagecoach of the Butterfield Overland Mail originated in Tipton, and on September 18, it made its first stop in Arkansas. On this inaugural trip, John Butterfield himself rode the stage to Fort Smith. Its first Arkansas stop was at a spring near what is today Rogers (Benton County) and was called Callahan’s Tavern. It then went south to Fayetteville. This was a major stop, since the route from Fayetteville through the rugged Boston Mountains to Fort Smith required that the horses be exchanged for mules, animals that could better make the arduous trip.
Butterfield seemed impressed by the town of Fayetteville. Before the Civil War, it boasted educational institutions such as the Fayetteville Female Seminary and Arkansas College. He may have recognized it as an important destination for students, educators, and their families, for he recruited his own son to manage the way station in Fayetteville and bought property there, where he entertained friends and business associates.
The first Butterfield stage entered Forth Smith on Sunday, September 19, 1858, at 2:00 a.m. Its route took it over Fort Smith’s old Washington Street, which today is 2nd Street. Even at that hour, its arrival was greeted with music, cheering, and cannon fire, which continued until the coach left for California.
Butterfield’s advice to his drivers was: “Remember, boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the mail!” When the Butterfield stage came to isolated towns, it was cause for celebration. Butterfield coaches were their connection to the rest of the country. Mail, supplies, and new settlers were transported to remote places in the vast American West.
A well-preserved Arkansas way station for the Butterfield Express, the Potts home, is still standing in Pottsville (Pope County) and is maintained as the Potts Inn Museum on Highway 247 by the Pope County Historical Foundation. Other Arkansas stops between Memphis and Fort Smith included Madison (St. Francis County), Des Arc (Prairie County), Atlanta—now Old Austin (Lonoke County), Cadron (Faulkner County), Plumer’s Station—now Plumerville (Conway County), Hurricane (Pope County), Norristown (Pope County), Dardanelle (Yell County), Stinnett’s Station (Logan County), Paris (Logan County), and Charleston (Franklin County). The northwestern route that came out of Missouri included stops at Callahan’s Station—now near Rogers (Benton County), Fitzgerald’s Station—now Springdale (Washington County), Fayetteville, Park’s Station—now Hogeye (Washington County), Brodie’s Station—now Lee Creek (Crawford County), Woolsey’s Station, also called Signal Hill (Crawford County), and Van Buren (Crawford County), where, beginning in 1860, the stage crossed the Arkansas River on its way to Fort Smith.
By 1861, the Butterfield Overland Express employed several thousand people. But the Pony Express which started on April 3, 1860, could carry mail faster and more economically. Though the Pony Express did not carry passengers, and the Butterfield Stage was unmatched in passenger service, carrying people proved uneconomical. Another factor in the demise of the Butterfield Express was the completion, on October 24, 1861, of Western Union's transcontinental telegraph line, which built its lines mainly along railroad rights-of-way. John Butterfield was forced out of the company in 1860 due to debt, though the stage line joined with Wells Fargo and continued to carry mail until 1869. On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, signaling the end of the stagecoach era. Today, its colorful past can be found in towns with streets called Stagecoach Road, a tribute to the courage and tenacity of those who rode Butterfield coaches into history.
For additional information:Conkling, Roscoe P., and Margaret B. Conkling. The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857–1869. Glendale, CA: A. H. Clarke Company, 1947.
Greene, A. C. 900 Miles on the Butterfield Trail. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994.
Ormsby, Waterman L. Butterfield Overland Mail. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1988.
Rose, F. P. “Butterfield Overland Mail Company.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 15 (Spring 1956): 62–75.
Arkansas State University
Last Updated 3/21/2012
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