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Chapter One:


On September 16, 1857, a six-year contract went to John Butterfield for a semi weekly mail/passenger service stagecoach line, which could carry five to six hundred pounds of mail. [29] A year later, on September 15, 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company line was in service along what became known as the southern route. [30] The established route was nearly 2,800 miles long. From St. Louis, a railroad brought the mail 160 miles west to Tipton, Missouri, where the mail/passenger stage line began. The Butterfield route turned southward to Springfield, Missouri, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then southwest across Texas to El Paso, then westward to Tucson, and to Fort Yuma. From Yuma, it headed northwestward through Warner Pass to Los Angeles, and then northward over the San Bernardino Mountains through the central California Valley, eventually reaching San Francisco. The entire trip was scheduled to take no more than twenty-five days. The initial run took just under twenty-four days. With improvements in operation of the organization, the average time fell to less than twenty-two days during the fall-winter months of 1859-1860. [31]

To accomplish this task against the difficulties of inclement weather, arduous physical terrain, and an occasional skirmish with Apache and Comanche Indians, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company line ran a well-organized system of labor, horses, and equipment. Approximately 1,000 horses, 500 mules, and 500 Concord passenger coaches were purchased to start the line, and 800 men hired to run the operation. Stations were established a distance of eight to twenty-five miles from one another. Each station housed and supported stationkeepers and other help, teams of horses to replace weary ones, and adequate stores of hay, grain, and sometimes even water. Every few stations, there was a "home" station, where the weary traveler could procure a meal, and coach repairs could be made by a resident blacksmith, or wheelwright. [32]

Even though northern interests continued to criticize the selection of a southern route by postmaster general Brown, mail service on the southern route proved satisfactory, averaging twenty-one to twenty-five days. First-class postage for letters was three cents per half ounce, and each stage carried an average of 170 pounds of letter mail and another 140 pounds of newspapers. By 1860, more mail was carried by Butterfield coaches than by any other means of transportation. [33]


The success and regularity of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company line did not discourage the northern proponents of a central route. They appealed to the postmaster general that the terms of the current postal contracts for service between Independence to Salt Lake City ($32,000 per annum with S.B. Miles), and from that city to California ($30,000 per annum with George Chorpenning), were unfavorable compared to the Butterfield contract. The postmaster general agreed and new contracts were let.

The contract for the eastern division of the central mail service route from Independence to Salt Lake City went to John M. Hockaday for a "weekly service in four-mule wagons or carriages at $190,000 per annum on a twenty-two day schedule." The length of this contract ran two years (May 1858 to November 1860), and the additional monies allowed for improvements along the trail. Hockaday had been a partner of the failed W.M.F. Magraw Independence to Salt Lake City mail route, whose contract had been annulled in 1856. The new Hockaday line followed the same route up the Platte River and through South Pass that the preceding company used. During the lifetime of this contract, the mail usually reached Salt Lake City within an acceptable twenty day span of time with few real problems. [34]

Unlike the eastern division, the contract for the overland mail/passenger route from Salt Lake City to California had several problems. The contract for the western division from Placerville, California, to Salt Lake City went to George Chorpenning again. For service west of Salt Lake City, Chorpenning started out with a semi-monthly twenty-day schedule for $34,400, but by July 1858, this service was upgraded to a semi-weekly, sixteen—day schedule for $130,000 per annum. [35]

At first, Chorpenning used his original 1851 northern route, which ran north of the Great Salt Lake and then followed the Humboldt River Valley to and across the Sierras and into Placerville, California. A one-way trip took approximately twelve days, making the entire trip from Missouri to California approximately twenty-nine to thirty traveling days, but sometimes longer. The people of Sacramento were happy with the results and publicly celebrated the arrival of the first overland mail from St. Joseph on July 20, 1858. By the end of July, Chorpenning established a continuous line of stations halfway to Salt Lake City. [36]

However, compared to the much lengthier Butterfield Overland Mail Company line, the Chorpenning/Hockaday schedule was slow, and particularly needed improvement along the western division from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. To remedy the situation, in October 1858, Chorpenning set about exploring a more direct route between Salt Lake City and California—the so-called Egan Trail. In September 1855, Howard Egan, a Mormon, outlined a much shorter route south of the Great Salt Lake along the fortieth parallel, north latitude that took only ten days from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. [37]

Clearly Egan's trail suited Chorpenning's needs and he "immediately set about moving his mail line to this more direct route." By December 1858, the contractor removed his stock and coaches to the new road. Passengers who came through spoke in high terms of the road, believing that soon the line would be running between California and Salt Lake City in a week's time without any difficulty. Chorpenning still had difficulties during the winter months. But when snow blocked the path of the horse coaches, the mail was transferred to horseback or even to the backs of men on snowshoes to see that it was delivered on time. [38]

The "joint" venture of Chorpenning/Hockaday formed the "first central Overland mail stage, bringing letters and passengers from the East." In December 1858, it received extraordinary praise in the postmaster general's annual report. The report stated:

The routes between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Salt Lake City, and between Salt Lake and Placerville, California, have been so improved, that the trips through from St. Joseph to Placerville, and back, are performed once a week in thirty-eight days each way. For some months past this service has been performed with remarkable regularity, insomuch as to merit special consideration. It has received from the people of California the warmest applause, and called forth public demonstrations of a most enthusiastic character. [39]

Additional improvements on the road, as well as more stations and additional stock and coaches, allowed them to carry more passengers. By April 1859, they were carrying 500 pounds of mail on the east-bound stage, and their central route put them in direct competition with Butterfield's southern line and the ocean route mail service. Their success during the winter of 1858-1859 threw into question postmaster general Brown's assertion that the southern route was the only viable way for carrying the mails across the West during inclement winter months. [40]

Nevertheless, because of the limits of government compensation, Chorpenning/ Hockaday could only maintain relay stations every fifty to seventy miles. Confident in their operations and hoping to prove the superiority of the central overland route, Chorpenning/Hockaday offered to cut the mail delivery time to twenty days and to provide tri-weekly service, if they could be assured of equal compensation ($600,000) with the Butterfield line. With additional funding they wished to establish mountain relay stations in the High Sierras and to use snowplows to keep the road open during the harsh winter months. [41]

So confident were Chorpenning/Hockaday in their operations, they arranged a contest with the Butterfield line. In December 1859, they vied with the Butterfield line to deliver President Buchanan's annual message to Congress in the quickest time to California.

This "race against time" did take place, but the Chorpenning/Hockaday line lost the contest and the Butterfield line reached the finish line first. Nevertheless, Chorpenning/Hockaday lost for several good reasons. First, President Buchanan's partisanship to his friend Butterfield and other shenanigans by supporters of the southern route delayed the arrival of the message to Chorpenning/Hockaday in St. Louis by two days. By that time, ice had closed the Mississippi River, which delayed its passage from St. Louis to St. Joseph. Together, these delays gave the Butterfield line a head start of more than a week. The second reason for their loss was the blizzard conditions prevailing from the Midwest to the High Sierras. In the end, Chorpenning/Hockaday proved the superiority of the central overland route because, despite the delays and the adverse weather conditions, Chorpenning/Hockaday delivered Buchanan's message in seventeen days and twelve hours—two full days less than it took the Butterfield line. For some unexplained reason, the public never acknowledged this point. [42]


The Butterfield Overland Mail Company route, the Chorpenning/Hockaday route, and the United States Mail Steamship Company, the Panama Railroad Company, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company ocean route carried the vast majority of mail from the East to California. After 1858, a number of new routes emerged that competed briefly with these established routes.

First, there was the Kansas City, Missouri to Stockton, California, route, which began in October 1858. Though this route was authorized in 1854, it was not until 1857 that postmaster general Brown entered into a contract with Jacob Hall and John M. Hockaday for this monthly mail route. The contract called for a six-mule coach to provide mail/passenger service for approximately $80,000 and take no longer than sixty days round trip. The overland route left Kansas City and followed the well-established trail to Santa Fe and then Albuquerque, New Mexico. From Albuquerque, the route went westward along the Little Colorado River, and then onward to the recently established Fort Mohave, where the route crossed the Colorado River. From the river, the route crossed the Mohave desert to Fort Tejon, then up the central California valley to Stockton, California. The first trip took fifty-four days. Thereafter, depredations along the route by Mohave Indians interrupted the service. Only two mail trips made it all the way to the western terminus, Stockton, California. Only four mails reached Kansas City, Missouri, during the nine-month duration of the contract. [43]

In 1857, another southern overland postal route was established from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California. Under a four-year contract, James E. Birch provided semi-monthly and later semi-weekly mail service from San Antonio to San Diego via El Paso, Texas, for $149,800. The 1,200-mile route used familiar trails from San Antonio to Fort Yuma, but from this point it struck across the inhospitable desert to San Diego. Southern Californians and Texans were very enthusiastic about the route, which was very successful in maintaining a regular schedule of approximately twenty-two to twenty-six days between San Antonio and San Diego. The San Antonio to San Diego route employed about "sixty men, fifty coaches, and four hundred mules." When the Butterfield line duplicated the route from El Paso to Fort Yuma, the postmaster general cancelled this portion of the contract, but improved the route from San Antonio to El Paso and the route from Fort Yuma to San Diego to a weekly service. [44]

In addition to the Kansas City to Stockton, California, route, and the San Antonio to San Diego route, postmaster general Brown also initiated a new ocean route for transporting mail. Known as the New Orleans/Tehuantepec/San Francisco ocean route, it began in October 1858, under contract to the Louisiana Tehuantepec Company. Starting from New Orleans, a Concord coach carried mail and passengers to Minatitlan on the east coast of Mexico. From there, the route crossed the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the Pacific Coast. Mail and passengers were then transferred to steamships going to San Francisco. The new overland ocean service from New Orleans to San Francisco took approximately fifteen to eighteen days one way. The accomplishment of the new company clearly presented itself as a shorter and faster alternative to all previous ocean and overland mail routes. [45]

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008