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This Month in Business History

Butterfield Overland Mail Awarded Contract for Western Mail Delivery

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Sign denotes the nearby location of a stop on the old Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line in Mesilla, New Mexico. 2021. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The United States was a growing country in the mid-19th century. People were moving west and the country needed a better and more consistent mail service for those who had moved west. On March 3, 1857, Congress passed the Post Office Appropriation Act which authorized the Postmaster General to establish delivery of mails from a point on the Mississippi River to San Francisco.

The law stipulated that proposals had to be delivered to the postmaster by the last day of June 1857. There were several bidders including John Butterfield of New York who had many years of experience with stagecoach lines in New York including running his own line. The contract was awarded in July 1857. This is what the Post Office’s 1857 annual report had to say:

“Therefore, looking at the respective bidders, both as to the amount proposed and the ability, qualifications, and experience of the bidders to carry out a great mail service like this, I hereby order that the proposal of John Butterfield, of Utica, New York, William B. Dinsmore, of New York city, William G. Fargo, of Buffalo, New York, James V. P. Gardner, of Utica, New York, Marcus L Kinyon, of Rome, New York, Alexander Holland, of New York city, and Hamilton Spence, of Bloomington, Illinois, at the sum of $595,000 (five hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars) per annum for semi-weekly service, be accepted.”1

The contract itself did identify a general route, but that work on the route and stage station locations had been developed by Marquis L. Kenyon and John Butterfield Jr. Ultimately, there were nine divisions corresponding to arcs of the route that were noted in the Post Office’s 1858 annual report. The contractor had one year from the signing of the contract to commence service, so work began in early 1858. There were two first trips. The first trip to San Francisco left St. Louis on September 16, 1858, while the first trip from San Francisco arrived in St. Louis October 9, 1858.2 A news article reported that the trip east was made in 23 days and four hours.3

There had been disagreement over the route. Northern interests felt the choice of the contract and the route favored slave states and expressed a fear that the route would increase chances of slavery moving westward. In the end, part of the route ended up going through Texas with stops in El Paso and Waco, but the onset of the Civil War did impact company services because of its route.

In 1861, the contract of Butterfield Overland Mail, officially known as Overland Mail Company, was transferred to Union-led Central Overland Trail (Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company) which operated the Pony Express. The Overland name continued to be used, but after the war and with the advent of the telegraph, three mail firms were consolidated. This included Pioneer Stage Line, the Overland Mail Company, and Wells, Fargo & Co. The new company became Wells, Fargo and Company. While the coming of the railroads, particularly the Transcontinental Railroad, and the use of the telegraph changed postal delivery to larger towns and cities as well as those that were stops on the railroads, mail to some of the more remote locations continued to be delivered by stagecoach. The route the company chose became an important east-west route particularly for the many immigrants moving west. So many used the route that it became very closely connected to westward migration.

Stagecoach mail delivery seems such an integral part of the story of settling of the west, but Butterfield Overland Mail itself only operated for a few years. Its impact and place in the history American west was such that in 2009 legislation directed the Park Service to conduct a study of designating the trail a National Historic Trail. That work culminated in 2022 when Congress passed the Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Designation Act (Public Law No: 117-345).

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  1. Annual Reports. Report of the Postmaster General, (Washington: 1857) p. 28.Back to text
  2. "Overland to San Francisco," New York Herald, (New York: September 16, 1858) p. 2.Back to text
  3. "The Latest News: Very Late from California, Arrival of the First Overland Mail" New York Herald, (New York: October 10, 1858) p. 4. Back to text