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Borderlands: El Paso Was Midpoint of Overland Mail Service 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

El Paso Was Midpoint of Overland Mail Service

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.

By Raul H. Arteaga

One of the dominant images of the Old West is a stagecoach rumbling into a small town, clouds of dust billowing behind it. The driver stops long enough to deliver and pick up bags of mail and take on a passenger or two, replenish water and perhaps change horses. Then he's off again.

In reality, this is close to what happened in the middle of the 19th century when the Butterfield Overland Mail Company made El Paso its midpoint on the route from Missouri to California.


Image caption: Stage leaving town from a mural by Bill Rakocy at the El Paso Museum of History.   Photo by Danny Martinez

The need to transport mail over land stemmed from the great expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The end of the War between the United States and Mexico in 1848 resulted in the Americans acquiring more than half of Mexico's land including the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

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In 1849, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, California, and the rush was on to reach the far West. Western expansion opened the way for uninterrupted avenues of travel and communication among the states.

In 1858, population increase caused by this western movement motivated Congress to authorize delivery of mail to and from California by land. As early as 1847, steamships had been used to carry mail cargo to California via ocean routes. Mail had traveled by steamships commanded by U.S. Naval officers around South America then through the Isthmus of Panama, but these journeys took a long time and were dangerous. The trip from New York to San Francisco by the Panama route usually took about thirty days.

Historians Roscoe and Margaret Conkling explain that the ocean mail business also became corrupt, encouraging monopolies and poor service. The California press and other businesses waged war against the steamship monopoly, and with the aid of public sentiment and political influence, the Overland Mail bill of 1858 authorizing delivery of mail by land passed Congress.

After the bill was passed, the Postmaster General solicited bids for contractors who could provide service with good four-horse coaches or spring wagons "that would secure the mail as well as the safety of the passengers." The contractor would have the right of preemption to 320 acres of land for a station, which could not be closer than ten miles to another station and service should be completed within 25 days per trip. The bid for inland mail consisted of delivery of mail twice a week between St. Louis and San Francisco. Several business and companies submitted bids to the United States Postmaster General. Three transcontinental routes were considered, but the most northerly route was rejected because it wound through the Rocky Mountains and meant traveling during extremely cold winters. Another route beginning at Springfield, Missouri, and passing through Albuquerque was also dismissed because of problems with thieves, murderers and Indian slave hunters there.


Image caption: Drawing of stagecoach by Gabriela Guzman

Businessman John Butterfield, Sr. chose the southernmost route because of the availability of water and few geographical problems. This route began at Tipton, Missouri, continued to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Franklin, Texas (now El Paso), to Arizona City (now Yuma, Arizona), to Los Angeles and terminated in Yerba Buena (San Francisco). This trail would later be known as the Butterfield Trail. It operated from 1858 to 1861.

Shorter "Jack Ass Mail" routes operated during this time from San Antonio to San Diego, taking 30 days for a one-way trip. Another mail route served the Mormon settlement in the Great Salt Lake Basin from Independence, Missouri. But the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, as it was named, became the first transcontinental transportation system in the United States. The distance traveled by the Butterfield Trail was 2,795 miles, the longest route of any system using horse-drawn conveyances in the country.

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The Butterfield Trail helped shape the entire Southwest and helped improve transportation and commerce in El Paso. As the midpoint of the Butterfield Trail, the Franklin stop helped El Paso develop into a sizable town, with new buildings and streets. The Butterfield Overland stages left El Paso going east to St. Louis and west to San Francisco twice a week.

Historian Frank Mangan says business was so good the company built El Paso's first two-story building on the southeast corner of El Paso and Overland Streets. Leon Metz adds that the Overland Stage office was the largest building in El Paso for forty years. The Butterfield Trail Overland Company stations offered permanent construction of corrals, outbuildings, maintenance and repair shops and eating facilities as well as employing harness makers, blacksmiths, horse wranglers, armed guards and cooks.

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As a result of increased commerce and transportation, the town of Franklin was surveyed to make a map of the community, showing each block in town. Most of the downtown streets were given Butterfield Overland Trail route names such as Santa Fe, Oregon, Wyoming, Arizona, Missouri and San Francisco. A real estate company was formed to sell lots. At last, El Paso was recognized as a real town.

Trading and businesses improved in El Paso because of the trail. Francisco Lopez, tour guide at Hueco Tanks, says, "Downtown El Paso as well as Hueco Park developed because of the Butterfield Trail. Hueco Tanks was used by the Butterfield Trail as the last stop for water before it reached El Paso."

The Butterfield Trail also set examples that would later be followed by the transportation industry. It operated through the best passes and valleys that allowed staging suitable for passengers and for carrying mail securely and efficiently. Frank Mangan explains that the trail was so well designed that in later years, when highway engineers first built the El Paso-Carlsbad highway, they closely followed the original route of the Butterfield Trail. Today, Interstate 10 west of El Paso parallels the Butterfield route as well.

The railroad also followed the Butterfield routes. The Texas and Pacific lines traveled from El Paso to St. Louis basically through the same stops. Writer G. C. Tomkins says the railroad actually laid track on some stretches of the Overland route and took on water for the locomotives from wells dug by Butterfield's men.

Before the first train would arrive 20 years later in 1881, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company had done much to set El Paso on its way to becoming a prosperous city. Downtown El Paso would have looked very different without the Butterfield Trail, and streets would be known by different names. Although many residents today choose to use e-mail rather than the postal service, or "snail mail," it was this very service that helped develop El Paso 140 years ago.

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