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Overland Mail Company

aka Butterfield Overland Stage Company and/or Butterfield Overland Mail Company


The need for mail service to California began almost immediately after the discovery of gold in 1848. By Christmas of that year, steamships were carrying mail from New York to California via the Isthmus of Panama. When the ships reached Panama, the mail was taken off and transported in canoes or on pack animals to the Pacific coast. Another steamship collected the mail on the Pacific side and headed north. It could take months for a letter to make its way from the East Coast to California (and vice versa), and it was not uncommon for a prospector to have already returned east before his letter telling his family that he had arrived in California safely had even made it across the Isthmus of Panama. In about 1850, Congress authorized four mail routes that linked the new settlers in California with the rest of the nation over land.

U.S. mail was once carried from New York to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama
the 'via Panama' route

First Overland Routes

The first overland mail service to California came by way of Salt Lake City. In the spring of 1851, Absalom Woodward and George Chorpenning agreed to carry mail from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. (Mail had been carried between Independence, Missouri, and Salt Lake City since the previous year.) For $14,000 a year Woodward and Chorpenning agreed to leave from each end of the route once a month and complete the trip in 30 days. The men were beset with problems almost from the start, including the death of Woodward sometime in 1851 or 1852, probably at the hands of Indians. Despite complaints about the service, Chorpenning managed to get his contract extended, and by the end of 1858 he was making weekly trips between Salt Lake City and Placerville, California (the new western terminus).

the routes used by George Chorpenning
George Chorpenning's mail routes

Second Overland Route

In 1857, the Post Office Department contracted with James Birch, the former president of the successful California Stage Company, for twice a month service between San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, California. (Mail arrived at San Antonio from the East by way of New Orleans.) The first mail left San Antonio on July 9, 1857, and, after many difficulties with mules, finally arrived in San Diego on September 8. Birch was on a steamship bound for New York City when his first contract run was completed, leaving his mail carriers unpaid. On September 12, the U.S. Mail steamship Central America, on which Birch had been traveling, sank off the coast of the Carolinas. Birch did not survive, and his contract was subsequently awarded to another carrier. Although Birch's service was short-lived, much of the route he established became an integral part of what became the Overland Mail Company.

James Birch's route
James Birch's route

The Overland Mail Company

On April 20, 1857, the Post Office Department advertised for bids for an overland mail service from the Mississippi River to San Francisco. Although the bill passed by Congress authorizing the contract called for the contractor to choose the starting point and route, Postmaster General Aaron Brown dictated the route -- from St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee, converging at Little Rock (soon changed to Fort Smith), Arkansas, then on to San Francisco via El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona. All nine of the bidders for the contract agreed to follow this course. The contract also required that the trips be completed within 25 days. Nine companies vied for the contract, which on September 15 was awarded to the American Express Company. American Express subsequently organized the Overland Mail Company, of which John W. Butterfield (an American Express founder) was made president.

the route mandated by Postmaster General Aaron Brown
Overland Mail Company route

The Overland Mail Company was given one year to make any and all preparations, during which over a million dollars was spent improving the route, building bridges and way stations, hiring men, and buying coaches, horses, mules, etc. The first Overland Mail coach, carrying both mail and passengers, departed from Tipton, Missouri, on September 16, 1858. Despite a number of difficulties with stubborn mules, the passengers and mail arrived at San Francisco on October 10, one day under the contracted deadline. By 1859 the average trip had been reduced to just 21-1/2 days.

Overland Mail Company coach, with passengers
an Overland Mail Company coach

The 21-to-25-day service provided by the Overland Mail Company became obsolete after the Pony Express began carrying mail across a more northerly route in as little as 10 days. The looming Civil War made the southern route even less desirable, and Congress formally dissolved the contract with the Overland Mail Company on March 2, 1861.


Legends of America
United States Postal Service

See Also

California Gold Rush
Pony Express
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> Postal Service

This page was last updated on September 16, 2018.