September 16, 1858 — In the early mist of a warm Ozark morning, John Butterfield rose from the seat of the stage, lifted his whip over the backs of a team of six horses, and cracked open the late summer stillness. Tall and robust at 56 years of age, he was about to ride into his place in history.
After unloading packets of mail from the train from St. Louis to Tipton, Butterfield drove the coach on the first leg of its journey west. The brightly painted stage arrived in San Francisco a scant 24 days later, one day under the contracted agreement.
In 1857, after winning the government contract to deliver the United States Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in the seemingly impossible time of 25 days, John Butterfield sent out agents who spent a year surveying existing roads which could be used to fulfill that contract. They built no roads, but sometimes constructed short cuts between established routes. In effect, Butterfield was overseeing the creation of the first Interstate thruway. It had to be short and fast to meet the demands of the contract.
In the twelve months prior to opening the route, Butterfield had some 2,800 miles of route surveyed, purchased land for stations and mapped out river and mountain crossings. The firm purchased 1,200 horses and 600 mules, branded each with an OM (Overland Mail)and shod and distributed them to the 141 stations. Over 1,000 men were hired and trained to serve as conductors, superintendents, drivers, station masters, veterinarians, blacksmiths, and wranglers. Orders and specs were drawn for over 250 regular coaches, special mail wagons, freight wagons and water tank wagons. Coaches were painted either red or green and the running gear was bright yellow. The colorful coach, inscribed with the O.M.C. insignia on the doors, weighed 3,000 pounds and had a load capacity of 4,000 pounds. Though contracted to deliver the mail in the shortest time possible, the stages would carry six to nine passengers inside and an unlimited number on top. Celerity wagons, or mud wagons, were used on the rougher sections of the route, which included the rugged Boston Mountain crossing south of Fitzgerald’s Station near Shiloh (Springdale) Arkansas, and the hotel stop in the county seat of Fayetteville.
The difficulty of Butterfield’s accomplishment has been compared to that of sending a man to the moon in our lifetimes. For our growing nation, no other achievement may compare, for not only did he create a reliable line of communication by establishing the longest mail route in the world, he increased the rate of speed of overland travel. It was believed that no one could manage more than 25-30 miles in 24 hours. He proved them wrong by traveling 120 miles in that length of time. His mail deliveries often made faster time than ocean steamships. But most important to our country’s history, he cemented a bond of common interests between the East and the West that saved California to the Union when the Civil War broke out a few years later. Ironically, the war would shut down the southern route of the Butterfield Mail route. But in those three short years, one man’s ingenuity, fortitude and stubbornness earned him a permanent place in history.
Many people today confuse the Butterfield Stage Route with the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. When Washington County decided to mark the route from Shiloh to Van Buren, my husband and I were asked to locate, verify and map the miles from Strickler through the Boston Mountains into the Arkansas River Valley to the river crossing.
This endeavor was one of the more satisfying of my efforts while researching and writing about the history of the Boston Mountains. So many people held different ideas of that route because the Butterfield Stage had many routes through Missouri, Arkansas and on west. We were able to locate and order the books written by a couple who followed the route in an old Buick and mapped every mile. We also located a man who lived near Strickler whose father rode it often on horseback.
One beautiful Ozark morning we and the board responsible for the mapping met and spent five hours with him. He pointed out every gap crossing, watering hole and actual existing road for us. It was truly a trip into the past, for many of us imagined we heard chains rattling, wheels creaking and animals chuffing on their way alongside us. Unfortunately, though the route was officially marked from Shiloh to the southern city limits of Fayetteville, it has never been marked along the rugged Boston Mountain Route where only mules were used to pull the wagon. But we spent hours walking many of those miles precisely where John Butterfield laid them out.
Each of us who assisted in this effort signed the large sign that marks the beginning of the route at the northern border of Arkansas.