• The Butterfield Overland Mail & Waterman Lilly Ormsby

By 1856, the people of California had become extremely vocal in demanding faster mail service with the east. In March 1857, Congress passed a Post Office Appropriations Bill with amendments providing for an overland mail route. Coaches were to carry passengers and mail and make the trip from Missouri to San Francisco in 25 days.

John Butterfield was awarded the mail contract to San Francisco in September of 1857. It took a year for John and his company to secure sites for stage stations, buy equipment, obtain horses and mules, and find men to work for him. Bridges had to be built over rivers and streams, large rocks had to be removed from trails, wells had to be dug, and passes through mountains had to be cleared. The first trip was started from Tipton, Missouri on September 16, 1858. Butterfield’s son drove the first leg of the journey with Waterman Lilly Ormsby, Jr. (my 7th cousin, once removed) a reporter from the New York Herald.


Waterman Lilly Ormsby

Ormsby was the sole through passenger of the Butterfield Overland Mail stage on the trip to San Francisco. Ormsby’s dispatches, which promptly appeared in the New York Herald, are lively and exciting. He describes the journey in close detail, giving full accounts of the conveyances, the accommodations, the other passengers, the country through which they passed, the dangers to which they were exposed, and the constant necessity for speed. (Ormsby’s description of the journey from Missouri to San Francisco on the Butterfield-Overland stage is recounted in his book The Butterfield Overland Mail, published in 1942 by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, CA.)

Most stops along the trail were for only a few minutes to change horses and drivers. Passengers had a good meal only once every 24 hours at what were called “Home Stations. There were two coaches a week, and passengers could wait for the next coach, but the only sleeping accommodations were their own two blankets on the dirt floor.

The cost for one way fare was $200 or $.15 per mile for shorter trips and usually took 22 days as opposed to the contracted 25. The Concord stagecoaches carrying the passengers averaged 5-9 miles per hour and were fairly comfortable by the day’s standards. Only when the trail was very rough did the passengers have to switch to a more uncomfortable but rugged Celebrity stagecoach. There were 139 relay stations and forts, 1800 head of stock, and 250 Concord and Celebrity Overland Stage Coaches used by the 800 men that Butterfield employed.


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