The Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, also known as the Oxbow Route, the Butterfield Overland Stage, or the Butterfield Stage, was a stagecoach route in the United States, operating from 1857 to 1861. It was a United States mail delivery service that began in two cities – Memphis, Tennessee and (Tipton) St. Louis, Missouri. The mail routes converged at Fort Smith, Arkansas and continued through Indian Territory, New Mexico, and southern Arizona to its final destination in San Francisco, California. (See map above.) The service provided communication between the eastern United States and the western states and territories before coast-to-coast railroad service began. The cost of mailing a letter was 10 cents.
The trip, about 2,800 miles, was made in twenty-five days and sometimes less. Lack of water and possible hostile attacks constantly troubled the route.
Though the coaches had the mail as their first priority they also accepted adventurous passengers at a cost of $150 – $200. Passengers were allowed 25 – 40 pounds of luggage, two blankets and a canteen. The coaches traveled at very fast speeds twenty-four hours a day; there were no stops for bed and breakfast – only the hurried intervals at the station houses when they changed horses or mules – at all hours of the day and night.
As they approached the stations, they would blow a brass horn to let the station keepers know they were near and to get ready. Up to ten men worked at the stations to help with the exchanges.
At some of these stops, travelers were offered meals of bread, coffee, meat and, sometimes, beans, costing passengers an extra $25. Coaches passed through southeast Arizona twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays – from both California and Missouri.
The route through southeastern Arizona from 1858 to 1861 crossed into what is now Arizona from Mesilla, New Mexico Territory at Stein’s Pass, and then headed west/southwest to San Simon, through Apache Pass, Ewell Springs, and Dragoon Springs (about twenty miles north of Tombstone). It crossed the San Pedro River just north of present-day Benson and then veered slightly north to pass Cienega and head up to Tucson and on to San Francisco via Yuma and Los Angeles. In Arizona, the most dangerous station stop was at Apache Pass. It was situated there because of the availability of fresh water at Apache Spring.
The outbreak of the Civil War caused the quick withdrawal of almost all military troops from the frontier territory, leaving the area unprotected. In February 1861, when Texans voted to secede from the Union, the southern mail route was discontinued in favor of a northern route.
In fact, during the Civil War, Arizona Territory was cut off from much communication with the outside world. The next public mail to reach Tucson came from California on horseback on September 1, 1865. Regular mail delivery wasn’t restored until the 1870s and 1880s.
Although the Butterfield Overland Stage mail and passenger delivery lasted only 2 1/2 years, it opened up the West to further settlement and introduced the country to its newest territories.
The Celerity Butterfield Stagecoach
The Celerity or mud stagecoach (see above) carried mail, newspapers, small packages and passengers through the rougher, more mountainous western leg of the trip. It was lighter in weight, faster, could carry luggage on top, and had a canvas roof and curtains. (Though the curtains weren’t able to keep the wind, dust and rain off of passengers.)
It was one-half the cost of the deluxe Concord coach used on the earlier leg of the route. The red and yellow-trimmed mud coaches carried 9 passengers and its three seats could be folded into a small bed. A team of horses or mules – the number depended on weather and weight – pulled the Celerity. The name, Celerity, came from the Latin root, celer, meaning “swift”.
The stagecoaches traveled at an average speed of 4 – 7 miles per hour covering anywhere from 70 to 120 miles each day. It made stops at 139 relay stations or frontier forts, located every 20 miles, on the journey. They would load and unload the mail and passengers, eat, get fresh water and new horses. Butterfield employed over 800 people to drive the mail and passengers across the country.
The Butterfield Stage was only attacked once by Apaches, but also could be stopped by highway thieves or outlaws; due to this possibility, Butterfield did not allow gold or silver to be transported on his stagecoaches.