John Butterfield was a true entrepreneur. In 1850, he founded the American Express Company. American Express was the result of a merger between the Wells Fargo Express company and Butterfield's own Butterfield and Wasson Express Company. The result was American Express with Butterfield in the top chair; however, Henry Wells and William Fargo both owned huge shares of the new company. The next time you see an American Express card, take a moment to reflect that it all started with a stagecoach.
Butterfield probably would have fared better if he had not won the bid on the mail contract. He spent the first two years' proceeds just getting the Butterfield Overland Mail Company started. Although the contract's primary purpose was mail delivery, passengers could also make the 25-day journey (2,800 miles) by purchasing a $200 ticket.
Most passengers probably only made the trip once. One writer described it as a "trip through Hell." In order to average more than 100 miles a day, the wagons were driven 24/7 at the fastest speeds allowed by the terrain and the team pulling them. They averaged slightly more than 5 miles per hour.
There were no sleeping quarters, the food at the stage stations was horrible, and they were subject to the full range of weather conditions. Attacks by Indians and outlaws were also common. The lack of water and the condition of the water in other locations added to the misery of the journey.
The Butterfield Overland Mail Company continued its trips twice a week in each direction for the next 2-1/2 years. During that time, Butterfield was pushed out of American Express due to huge debts. Wells and Fargo took over the Butterfield Overland Stage Company contract. They were almost immediately facing a new problem due to the Civil War. In 1861, Texas joined the Confederacy, so the route had to be moved.
Officials in Washington rewrote the mail contract to use a new route across Nebraska and Wyoming. It is unlikely the Butterfield Overland Mail Company had even made its initial investment back at that point. Nevertheless, the company had to abandon its stations, pack up all the animals, and move more than 20 empty stagecoaches back to California where they could connect to the new designated route.
Wells Fargo prospered where Butterfield had failed. By 1866, the company dominated the overland stage and mail business throughout the country. It continued to dominate that business until 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad put overland stagecoaches out of business.
Most of the route used by the overland stage has been swallowed by modern developments. There are a few locations around the country where sections of it can be followed by vehicle, and some others where only hikers and horseback riders are permitted.
We decided to visit a short 4x4 section east of Gila Bend in Arizona. That section skirts the southern boundary of the Sonoran Desert National Monument and is maintained by the Boy Scouts of America. Historic signs and trail markers along the way take visitors over Butterfield Pass to the location of a stage stop designated on most maps as Desert Station. It's more modern name is simply Happy Camp.