travel options in the early days of Texas and the country were limited.
Before railroads came
to Texas, the main options for long distance travel, aside from
walking or riding a horse, were buggy or stagecoach. The buggy had
its distance limitations and the stagecoach was great if you
were a piece of mail. "Remember, boys, nothing on God's earth must
stop the United State mail!" stagecoach magnate John Butterfield vigorously
reminded his drivers.
Instructions to conductors on the Overland Southern Mail Route,
usually referred to as the Butterfield Trail, were as follows: "You
will be particular to see that the mails are protected from the wet
and kept safe from injury of any kind…and you will be held personally
responsible for the safe delivery at the end of your route…of all
mails and property in your charge."
Passengers, however, were mostly on their own. An information sheet
from the Overland company warned passenger against jumping off the
stage if the horses broke away and not to grumble if they had to get
out and walk. They were told to anticipate extreme weather, hunger
and thirst. Additionally, the company accepted no responsibility for
Indian attacks. "You will be traveling through Indian country and
the safety of your person cannot be vouchsafed by anyone but God."
The stagecoach stations suffered the most from Indian attacks. For
the passengers, robberies were the bigger problem. Early day Texas
humorist Alexander Sweet opined that stagecoach robberies were so
common in West Texas that passengers "complained to the stage companies
if they came through unmolested."
Overland also advised passengers that the seat closest to the driver
was the best one, even if riding backwards brought on a bout of queasiness.
"You will get over it and will get less jolts and jostling," the info
sheet advised. "Do not let any sly elf trade you his mid-seat."
Butterfield (or Southern) Overland Mail operated from September 15,
1858, until March 1, 1861, as a semiweekly mail and passenger stage
service from St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee across Arkansas
to San Francisco. Congress authorized a mail contract for the route
in 1857, calling for the conveying of letter mail twice weekly, in
both directions, in four-horse coaches or spring wagons suitable for
carrying passengers. John Butterfield, a New England coach maker with
years of experience running stage lines in the Northeast, got the
The classic stagecoach of movies and art is the Concord Coach, which
was manufactured in New England and could carry six, nine or 12 passengers,
depending on the size of the particular coach. These were the country's
top-of-the-line coaches but that's not necessarily what you rode if
you hopped on a stagecoach in Texas, especially along the Butterfield
Trail's rugged western sections where the traveler would most likely
be riding a celerity wagon.
Celerity wagons were four-horse (or mule) wagons covered with a canvas
tarp, which was rolled up when it was hot and unfurled when it was
cold or rainy. They were lighter and faster than the Concord and were
ideal for the short, rugged routes of West Texas where mules were
often called in to pinch-hit for the horses when the going got tough.
People tended to call these stretches "the jackass route."
The big coaches generally had three wide seats forward, middle
and rear each accommodating, more or less, three people. Some
companies made accommodations for passengers to ride on top of the
coaches, and sometimes people rode up there even without accommodations.
The wagon seats could also make a bed. Reporter Waterman Ormsby, who
rode the entire Butterfield route and wrote a valuable account of
the experience, noted that the celerity wagon "was capable of accommodating
from four to ten people, according to their size and how they lie."
In due time, railroads replaced stagecoaches, but the stagecoach era
left its mark on the state, not only in art and history but in many
of the roads most taken. First the railroads and later the country's
highways and byways often followed the routes laid out by the stagecoaches,
which often traced old Indian trails that began as trails established
by the buffalo and other animals.