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The Second Butterfield Stage (Sort Of)

When I was writing a chapter for the second volume of my book, The Yankee Road, I told the story of John Butterfield and his Overland Mail Company, which operated a stagecoach line between St. Louis and San Francisco between 1858 and 1861; its existence cut short by the outbreak of the Civil War.

The trip took 25 days of jolts, bumps and dust to reach the West Coast and the fare was around $3000 one way in today’s money. Butterfield was a substantial citizen who was one of the founding partners in American Express and had been involved in early telegraph companies. He finished his career as Mayor of Utica NY, dying in 1869. I noted that, contrary to movie lore, he never used his name on his stage line.

Needless to say, I was surprised somewhat later to find there had been a second stage line (more or less) run by a Butterfield and it actually had the Butterfield name on its equipment. Maybe the movies were right (in part) after all. I thought I’d better look into this.

It turns out that a ‘Colonel’ David Butterfield had been involved in the Colorado goldfields in the late 1850s. He was a Yankee, being born and raised in Maine, but was no relation to his more famous namesake, John. He was in Kansas when the ‘Smoky Hills’ trail from what is now Kansas City to Denver, Colorado, was explored near the end of the Civil War. He accumulated a goodly amount of capital and started the Butterfield Overland Despatch, the B.O.D., consisting primarily of wagon trains pulled by oxen that carried mining equipment and supplies, as well as passengers, across the Great Plains to Denver. The first B.O.D. wagon train left for Denver in June 1865.

The trail led right through the Cheyenne’s and others’ hunting grounds, which was both not appreciated by these horsemen and also presented an opportunity for plunder. Bluntly put, it was a slow-moving (12 days or more) way to get from the Kansas City railhead west to Denver, but it had its obvious dangers.

The B.O.D. did not last long. First, Butterfield found he was losing money and 18 months after he began, he sold out to his competitor, Ben Holladay, who then later sold out to Wells Fargo Express. When the Union Pacific Railroad reached southern Wyoming, the wagon route was truncated into a shorter north-south route from there to Denver. Colonel Butterfield died in 1873, shot by an unhappy investor in his urban railway in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

It strikes me that the accounts of Indians and bandits chasing a Butterfield stage through the deserts and mountains of the Far West was just a fictional amalgam of real attacks on the B.O.D.’s slow oxen train, or convoy, on the flat prairies transposed to the more interesting scenery of the mountainous land a thousand miles west and south of the ‘Smoky Hills’ trail.

Learn more about The Yankee Road volumes 1 and 2 and download sample chapters here.