The Butterfield Overland Mail and Its Impact on California

The Butterfield Overland Mail was a pioneering mail and passenger service that operated from 1858 to 1861. It was established by John Butterfield, who won a federal contract to transport mail twice a week between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, in 25 days or less. This service, known as the Butterfield Overland Trail, was crucial in connecting the eastern United States with the burgeoning populations on the West Coast. The route’s significance to California, in particular, cannot be overstated, as it facilitated communication, commerce, and the integration of the state into the broader national framework.

The Establishment of the Route

In 1857, the U.S. Congress awarded Butterfield a $600,000-a-year contract to establish an overland mail route. This contract was the largest land-mail contract ever awarded in the United States at the time. The route began from two eastern termini on the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee. It converged and followed a southerly course through Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before heading north through California to its western terminus in San Francisco. The southern path, known as the Oxbow Route, was chosen to avoid the harsh winter conditions of the Rocky Mountains.

Challenges and Operations

The undertaking was enormous. In association with the principals of Wells Fargo & Co., Butterfield invested over a million dollars to organize the stage line. This investment covered building or repairing roads and bridges, establishing and staffing about 150 stations, and purchasing stagecoaches, wagons, horses, mules, and feed. Additionally, water wells had to be dug, and mountain passes had to be cleared. The route’s operation required the coordination of 800 employees, from drivers and station keepers to blacksmiths and cooks.

Travel along the Oxbow Route was by stagecoach, which left twice a week carrying passengers, freight, and mail. The stagecoaches averaged 100 miles daily, ensuring that mail could be delivered to San Francisco within 25 days. Despite the logistical challenges, including the lack of water and conflicts with Native American tribes, the Butterfield Overland Mail managed to operate remarkably efficiently.

California’s Segment of the Route

The California segment of the Butterfield Overland Trail was particularly significant. After crossing the Colorado River near Fort Yuma, the route entered California and proceeded through the desert and mountain landscapes. Key stops included Los Angeles, where the stagecoaches resupplied and passengers rested, and San Francisco, the final terminus. The route’s passage through California was essential for integrating the state’s economy and population with the rest of the country.

Impact on California

The Butterfield Overland Mail significantly impacted California’s development. Providing a reliable and relatively fast mail service helped integrate California’s economy with the rest of the nation. The route facilitated commerce, allowing businesses to send and receive correspondence and goods more efficiently. It also enabled more effective governmental communication, which was crucial for the governance and development of the rapidly growing state.

Moreover, the Butterfield Overland Mail played a vital role in shaping California’s social and cultural landscape. The service brought many people, including settlers, businesspeople, and adventurers, who contributed to the state’s diverse population. The stagecoach route also supported infrastructure development, such as roads and stations, which continued to benefit the state long after the service ended.

Challenges and Legacy

Despite its success, the Butterfield Overland Mail faced numerous challenges. The harsh desert and mountain environments, the threat of Indian attacks, and the logistical difficulties of maintaining such an extensive route were significant obstacles. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 led to the suspension of the Butterfield Overland Mail as the route was deemed vulnerable to Confederate attacks. The U.S. government rerouted mail delivery to the Central Overland Trail, which was shorter and considered safer.

The legacy of the Butterfield Overland Mail endures as a symbol of American enterprise and determination. It demonstrated the feasibility of a transcontinental mail service and paved the way for future developments in communication and transportation. The route’s influence on California’s integration into the United States and its contribution to its economic and social development are lasting testaments to its significance.

In conclusion, the Butterfield Overland Mail was a monumental achievement in American history. Its establishment and operation represented a significant advancement in communication and transportation, particularly for California. Despite its relatively short operation, the service profoundly impacted the state’s development and integration into the broader national framework. The Butterfield Overland Mail symbolizes the pioneering spirit and the relentless pursuit of progress that characterized the era.

Butterfield Overland Trail National Historic Trail Special Resource Study (May 2018)

Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment Trail Study News (January 2012)

Butterfield Overland Trail Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment Scoping Report (September 2012)

Butterfield Overland Trail Special Resource Study Press Release — Termination of Environmental Assessment (December 7, 2016)

Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Map (c2012)

Committee Report: Butterfield Overland Mail (extract from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 36 No. 4, Winter 1958-1959)

Designation of the Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Public Law 117-345 136 Stat. 6196 (January 5, 2023)

Maps: Arizona • Arkansas • California-North • California-Central • California-South • Missouri • New Mexico • Texas-East • Texas-West • Texas & Oklahoma (c2012)

Marking the Butterfield: Retracing the Indian Territory Segment of the 1858-61 Butterfield Overland Mail Stagecoach Road (Susan Penn Dragoo, extract from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 97 No. 1, Spring 2019)

Potts’ Inn (Jack E. Porter, January 11, 1970)

Significance Statement: Butterfield Overland Trail (proposed National Historic Trail) (April 9, 2013)

The Butterfield Overland Mail Company (Mary A. Helmich, 2008)

The Butterfield Overland Mail One Hundred Years Ago (Muriel H. Wright, extract from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 35 No. 1, Spring 1957)

The Overland Mail 1849-1869 (Le Roy R. Hafen, 1926)

Southern Pacific Railroad Pages

Southern Pacific Railroad › mining-history › overview

The Southern Pacific. The Southern Pacific began construction at Mojave in February 1882 of a new line to Needles, on the Colorado River. The destination was …

Southern Pacific Railroad › railroads › southern-pacific-railroad

Historic RR Chronology … That railroad was never built, but the Southern Pacific constructed a line through the desert in 1882-83 from Mojave to Needles, …

The Southern Pacific and later Santa Fe transcontinental route › railroads › railroads-021

In taking over this Southern Pacific line, especially the part between Needles and Barstow, the Santa Fe System achieved ownership of a transcontinental …

Southern Pacific Railroad – Jawbone › railroads › jawbone

Jawbone branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad of the Mojave Desert.

Lancaster California › lancaster-ca

Lancaster, California. The Beginning. The Southern Pacific Railroad built a line from San Francisco to Los Angeles which was completed in 1876. Along the line …

Chronology/Timeline of Railroads of the Mojave Desert › railroads › chronology

Mojave Desert Historic Railroad Chronology · 1876 – 1915 · 1881 Southern Pacific – Mojave – Calico Station (Daggett) · 1883 Atlantic & Pacific builds to Kingman

California Southern Railway › railroads › california-southern

Notes asnd links regarding the California Southern Railway in the Cajon Pass to Barstow in 1887 – Mojave Desert.

Railroads in the Mojave (San Bernardino County) › railroads › railroad-history03

The First Railroads. The Southern Pacific. The first western railroad project was put forth in 1835, when a line starting from Lake Michigan and extending …

Railroads of the Mojave Desert › railroads

Atlantic & Pacific Railroad · Bullfrog Goldfield · Barnwell Searchlight · California Eastern Railroad/Railway · California Southern Railway · Carson and Colorado …

Carson & Colorado Railroad › railroads › carson-and-colorado

… Southern Pacific’s narrow gauge subsidiary, the Nevada and California Railroad. … In the early 20th century, it o

Borax Wagons

The 20-mule team borax ore wagons used in the late 1800s to transport borax from the mines in Death Valley, California, were quite large and had specific dimensions.

Here are the approximate dimensions for a typical 20-mule team borax ore wagon:

  1. Length: Approximately 30 feet (9 meters)
  2. Width: About 8 feet (2.4 meters)
  3. Height: Around 7 feet (2.1 meters)
  4. Weight: These wagons weighed approximately 7 tons when fully loaded with borax ore.

These massive wagons required a team of 18 mules and two horses to pull them across the harsh desert terrain. They were an iconic part of the borax mining industry in the late 19th century and were crucial in transporting borax to the nearest railroad for distribution.

  1. Two large ore wagons were used to transport the borax ore from the mines in Death Valley to the nearest railroad for shipment. They were massive and could carry a significant amount of borax.
  2. One water tank wagon: There was a specialized tank wagon in addition to the two ore wagons. This wagon carried water for the mules and horses that pulled the wagons. The desert environment of Death Valley was harsh, and providing water for the animals was crucial to their survival during the long and arduous journey.

So, the 20-mule team borax wagons actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses pulling two ore wagons and one water tank wagon. These wagons became an iconic symbol of the borax mining industry in the late 19th century.


20-Mule Teams


U.S. Highway 395

U.S. 395

U.S. Highway 395, often simply referred to as Highway 395, is a north-south highway that runs through the western part of the country. It spans approximately 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) from southern California to the border of Washington and Canada.

Part of this highway passes through the Mojave Desert in California. The Mojave Desert is known for its arid landscape, unique geological features, and desert flora and fauna. Highway 395 offers travelers the opportunity to experience the beauty and solitude of the Mojave Desert while providing access to various points of interest along the way.

Here are some key points about U.S. Highway 395:

  1. Route: U.S. 395 starts in Southern California and travels north through California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington before reaching the Canadian border near Laurier, Washington. It roughly follows the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
  2. Scenic Route: Highway 395 is renowned for its scenic beauty and passes through a diverse range of landscapes, including deserts, mountain ranges, valleys, and forests. It offers breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mono Lake, and the Eastern Sierra.
  3. Recreation: The highway provides access to numerous outdoor recreational opportunities, including hiking, skiing, fishing, camping, and boating in the various natural areas it traverses.
  4. Historical Sites: U.S. 395 also passes by several historical sites and attractions, such as the Manzanar National Historic Site (a former Japanese internment camp during World War II), the Eastern California Museum, and various mining and pioneer heritage sites.

Some notable places and attractions along U.S. Highway 395 in the Mojave Desert region include:

  1. Red Rock Canyon State Park: Located near Ridgecrest, this park features stunning red rock formations and hiking trails.
  2. Alabama Hills: Famous for its distinctive rock formations and used as a filming location for many Western movies.
  3. Manzanar National Historic Site: This site was once a Japanese internment camp during World War II and now serves as a reminder of this important period in American history.
  4. Death Valley National Park: While not directly on Highway 395, it’s a short drive to this famous national park known for its extreme heat, Badwater Basin, and unique desert landscapes.
  5. Lone Pine: A charming town with access to the Eastern Sierra, Mount Whitney, and the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center.
  6. Bishop: A larger town along the highway known for outdoor recreation, including fishing, hiking, and rock climbing.
  7. Mono Lake is a unique and ancient saline lake near Lee Vining with striking tufa towers.

Travelers along U.S. Highway 395 can experience the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert, explore its geological wonders, and access various outdoor recreational opportunities. It’s a popular route for road trips and exploration of California’s eastern Sierra region.

Overall, U.S. Highway 395 is a significant transportation corridor in the western United States, known for its stunning scenery, recreational opportunities, and historical significance. It offers travelers a chance to explore diverse landscapes and experience the beauty of the American West.

Midland Trail

Sierra Highway