The Butterfield Overland Trail, the first transcontinental route for mail delivery by stagecoach in the mid-1800s, has been approved for recognition by the National Park Service as a national historic trail.
Fort Smith was the junction point for the short-lived stagecoach trail that branched west from St. Louis and Memphis to San Francisco from 1858 to 1861.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., announced Tuesday the National Park Service had finally determined the Butterfield Overland Trail “meets the requirements to become a national historic trail.”
Boozman, a Fort Smith native, penned Public Law 111-11 in 2009 when he was the Third District Congressman. It called for the National Park Service to conduct studies on dozens of places that could be designated with special status within the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Congress would still need to approve the designation for the Butterfield Overland Trail to become a national historic trail.
“NPS concluded the Butterfield Overland Trail meets the requirements after conducting a study to evaluate the significance, feasibility, suitability and desirability of designating the routes associated with it as a national historic trail,” a news release from Boozman’s office states.
The trail is named for its founder John Butterfield, a former stage driver from New York who received a six-year, $600,000 federal contract to create 2,812-mile-long mail delivery service.
The demand for mail delivery in California was so high in the mid-1850s following the 1849 gold rush that the state threatened to secede if a faster mail service was not established, according to an Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry on the Butterfield Overland Trail. Congress voted in 1857 to subsidize a mail run from the Mississippi River to San Francisco.
The contract required that supplies and passengers also be safely carried in 25 days or less.
The first Butterfield stage entered Fort Smith at 2 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 19, 1858. According to Loren McLane at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the route took it across the Arkansas River by ferry from Van Buren and down what is now Midland Boulevard, through Second Street by the old John Rogers Inn and skirted the fort before crossing the Poteau River 100 yards south of the Historic Site's boundary. The trail then traveled on the south side of the Arkansas River to Skullyville.
“Even at that hour, its arrival was greeted with music, cheering and cannon fire, which continued until the coach left for California,” Nancy Hendricks writes at http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2308 about the first Fort Smith stop.
A plaque can be found at the Fort Smith Museum of History downtown commemorating the stage's first stop.
John Butterfield rode the stage to Fort Smith on the inaugural trip. While he could use existing roads from St. Louis and Memphis to Fort Smith, the route west into Texas and Arizona to California required work. He hired frontiersmen who were friendly with native tribes and used hard surfaces that would allow passage during snowy and rainy seasons. Eventually there were 141 way stations.
By 1861, the Butterfield Overland Express employed several thousand people and included stops in Paris and Charleston from Memphis, as well as Rogers, Fayetteville, Chester, and Van Buren from St. Louis.
The Pony Express, the Western Union telegraph and the transcontinental railroad eventually put the Butterfield Overland Express out of business. It’s founder however, went on to be a founder of the American Express Company and due to debt, in 1860 joined his stage line with Wells Fargo and continued to carry mail until 1869.
It is noted in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry by Hendricks that Butterfield recruited his son to manage the station in Fayetteville and bought property there.