A Look at John Butterfield's Overland Mail Company
In July, we looked at ocean mail routes between California and the East Coast of the United States. The 1850s saw the development of a number of overland mail routes traversing the same span, some of which were decidedly more successful than others. While I plan on covering all transcontinental mail routes in due time, today I’d like to talk about John Butterfield’s Southern Overland Route.
It was while I was a student at the University of Southern California that I first took an interest in philately, so it should come as no surprise that envelopes with the words “Overland Via Los Angeles” prominently displayed on them would catch my eye. For the first time I felt a connection between my hometown and the postal artifacts I was learning about. But before I get into breaking down the Butterfield Route, let’s talk for a minute about the namesake himself.
John Butterfield was born in 1801 in Berne, New York, a short distance from Albany. While entire books have been written about the man’s life, I will do my best to stick to the basics here.
Butterfield moved to Utica at the age of 19 and began laying the groundwork for a stagecoach empire across New York state. In 1850 he was a founding member of the American Express Company, and by the mid-1850s his decades of experience in the stage industry made him a prime candidate for the establishment of reliable overland mail between California and the East.
Figure 1: This two-line wavy handstamp reading "Overland Mail Via Los Angeles" indicates that the cover was carried by Butterfield rather than one of the numerous other routes available.
On September 16, 1857, Butterfield and his associates were awarded Mail Contract No. 12578 for twice-weekly service between San Francisco and both Saint Louis and Memphis, Tennessee (the route splitting at Fort Smith, Arkansas). For this service he would be paid $600,000 annually. The first mails left St. Louis exactly one year later on September 16, 1858, and would take 24 days to reach San Francisco. Although the Butterfield Route was considerably longer than the Central Overland Route it had the advantage of being free of snow and ice year-round; it was this reliability that quickly made it the preferred route.
Figure 2: Envelopes with illustrated designs featuring locomotives were a popular form of propaganda in the years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
The contracts for the Panama mail route explored here last time expired on September 30, 1859, and so on December 17 of that year, Postmaster General Joseph Holt declared the Butterfield Route the default route for all transcontinental mail. Mail sent prior to that date had to be specifically endorsed “Overland via Los Angeles,” “Overland Via Southern Route,” or something similar in order to have been carried by Butterfield stage, whereas mail sent after that date would be carried by Butterfield stage if no specific endorsement was made.
The secession of Texas in February 1861 essentially sealed the fate of the Southern Overland route, and by April of that year Butterfield was making its final journey due to the dual threat of Confederate sympathizers and Native Americans. From July 1, 1861, mail would be carried by the Central route by default.
Although it only existed for about two and a half years, Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company left postal historians with some incredible artifacts.
Figure 3: Butterfield's stagecoaches, such as the one illustrated on this cover from Woodside, California, have become an icon of the American West.
A number of different illustrated covers were produced showing the Butterfield stagecoaches in action, an icon of the American West which would be memorialized in films such as 3:10 to Yuma. Other designs took a propagandistic approach, demanding a transcontinental railroad to improve upon the speed and reliability of the stages (the transcontinental railroad would not be completed for nearly another decade).
Lastly, one can find handstamped devices bearing the “Overland Mail Via Los Angeles” notation rather than the more common manuscript endorsements.
Although the Overland Mail Company may have met its end 162 years ago, its legacy is still alive and well today.
On January 1, 2023, Congress passed a law designating 3,292 miles across seven states as the Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail, with numerous stagecoach stops and monuments along the way for travelers in the southwest to learn about this important era in the history of the post. I hope that this new trail may even attract a new collector or two to pick up one of those “Overland Via Los Angeles” covers that enticed me so much as a burgeoning collector.