The Overland Stage on the Oregon

It was to be expected that the contractors to transport the mails overland to Salt Lake City, and later to Denver, should engage in the business of carrying passengers in their wagons. Hockaday & Liggett put on a line of stage coaches from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City in connection with their mail contract. As the mail went out but twice a month this was a slow line, and if a passenger barely missed a departing coach he was doomed to a wait of two weeks.

In the winter of 1858 the Pike’s Peak gold excitement was at its most intense period. Denver was growing much as Jonah’s gourd had flourished. Two members of the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, Messrs. Majors and Russell were in Washington City in the winter of 1858-59. With them was one John S. Jones, of Pettis County, Missouri. Russell and Jones decided to establish a daily stage line from Leavenworth to Denver. It was proposed to have Mr. Majors interested in that line, but he said it would not pay, and declined to enter the new venture. The mules and coaches for the new stage line were bought on a credit of ninety days, notes being given to secure indebtedness. The route was quickly established. Stations were ten to fifteen miles apart—average, about twelve miles. The route was from the City of Leavenworth to Denver, striking the Kansas River about Indianola, a station three miles northwest of Topeka. Thence it followed the river—up the Smoky Hill—to the plains east of Denver, thence direct to that city. The service was good. The coaches made about one hundred miles every twenty-four hours, taking the mails and passengers the entire distance in six days. The eastern terminus was soon changed to Atchison, as much of the patronage of the line came to that town by the Hannibal railroad. The first coach over this line entered Denver May 17, 1859.

The judgment of Mr. Majors was soon confirmed. When the notes executed in payment for the coaches and mules fell due Russell & Jones could not take them up. Majors was appealed to in this crisis, and he consented to the payment of the notes by the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, who became by this transaction owners of the line. The service was continued. Having engaged in the passenger traffic, it was believed to be to the interest of their new line to add to it the old line of Hockaday & Liggett, from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City. It was accordingly bought. It was reorganized. The old coaches were inferior in quality and poor in arrangement. The plan had been to start out a coach and drive it several hundred miles without a change of mules or horses. The coach was halted and the team permitted to graze at stated intervals. The time from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City was often twenty days—sometimes longer. The new proprietors put up good stations every ten to fifteen miles. These stations were furnished with good stables where horses were kept to change the teams drawing coaches. Attendants were in waiting with fresh teams, and the time required to take out the tired team and hitch up the new team was reduced to a few minutes. It was sometimes accomplished in five minutes. A stage coach was started each day from each terminus. The time from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City was reduced to ten days.

The mail contract between these points was later awarded to the proprietors of the stage line, but not in time to prevent their suffering immense loss. The amount to be paid for carrying the mail was four hundred thousand dollars annually. The stage line was sold to Ben Holladay just before the first quarterly payment of one hundred thousand dollars was made.

Holladay became the great Overland Stage man. He was born on the old Blue Licks battlefield, in Kentucky, in 1824. He came as a young man to Western Missouri. For a time he kept a saloon or liquor shop at Weston. He was a good business man. With three associates he bought the Union Mills at Weston, and also a large body of land. The plains were familiar to him for he had gone with Doniphan in the Mormon War in Missouri as courier and express videt. He was a contractor to deliver rations to General Kearny and Doniphan’s expedition. At the close of the War with Mexico he purchased from the Government a large amount of war material, including wagons and oxen. In 1849 he organized the first trading expedition to Salt Lake City ever taken out by a gentile. The train consisted of fifty wagons. In this venture he had for partner Hon. Theodore F. Warner, who is said to have used his credit to buy the goods. How he succeeded in Salt Lake City is told by one who knew him in those days:

He was the first Gentile trader to the Mormons. He had a letter from Gen. A. W. Doniphan, to whom Joseph Smith and Brigham Young surrendered at Far West, in 1838, reciting that Holladay, as a boy, had been one of his orderlies at that surrender, and had then expressed sympathy for them, and had helped to render the condition of the women and children more comfortable after the leaders had been imprisoned.

Brigham Young received him, blessed him, and stated in his sermon at the Tabernacle the following Sunday that “Brother Holladay had a large stock of goods for sale, and could be trusted as an honorable dealer.” That speech was worth thousands of dollars to him, and it is said that he joined the Mormon church (only on probation, however).

Coming home in the fall, he started with three mules and a negro man to find a new road from Salt Lake to Fort Bridger, and wandered in the mountains for several days without food, and was saved from starvation by finding a broken-down buffalo, that furnished, he said, the sweetest morsel he had ever tasted.

In 1850 he traded his goods for cattle, drove them to California, fattened them on the Sacramento bottom, and sold them to the Panama Steamship Company at a large profit. First he sold a small lot, but wished to sell more and at a larger price. The superintendent of the company sent for him, and he answered that he did not have time, but that they must come to him. They did, and made a contract for thirty cents a pound on foot. He said afterwards that he would have crawled on his knees to their office when he had refused to go, but that he had been kept informed that they were short of beef and the market bare, and that if they came to him it would be worth five cents a pound.

To get his compensation increased for carrying the mail, he rode in one of his stages from Salt Lake to Atchison in eight days, the route then being estimated on the line traveled at 1,300 miles.

He was opposed to his children marrying foreigners, but was gratified that his son married a country girl in California.

His life showed the elasticity of American institutions; at fifteen, laboring on a farm in the mountains of Kentucky; at forty owned sixteen steamships, trading to every point of the Pacific; building a castle on the Hudson; children married to noblemen—all the result of his own talent and enterprise.

And, so it was, that when Holladay took over the line of Russell, Majors & Waddell that enterprise went into experienced hands. Holladay took possession of the line in March, 1862. Its legal name was the Central Overland California, and Pike’s Peak Express Company, and Bela M. Hughes had been its president and manager since April, 1861. Mr. Hughes was an able man. Under his management the first through coach reached California. It left St. Joseph July 1, 1861, and arrived at Placerville, California, in eighteen days, and on schedule time. On the 18th day of July, 1861, the first through coach from Placerville arrived at St. Joseph, carrying as the first passenger Major J. W. Simonton, one of the editors of the San Francisco Bulletin.

Holladay added other lines to his Central Overland—one to Virginia City, Montana, and one to Boise City, Idaho. This increased the mileage of his stage lines to thirty-three hundred miles. He secured additional contracts for transporting mails. Those which came to him with the old line he had the Government add materially to, as well as to authorize additional service and compensation.

In 1865, David A. Butterfield, of Atchison, founded Butterfield’s Overland Despatch. Its eastern terminus was Atchison, Kansas. The principal western point reached was Denver. It was both a freight and passenger line. The route was from Atchison by way of Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls) to Indianola; thence up the Kansas to the Smoky Hill, which it followed until that stream came out on the high plains, and thence to Denver. This line fell into Holladay’s hands, and was added to his lines. The Atchison Daily Free Press, March 17, 1866, contained a notice “To the Employes of the Overland Despatch Company.” This notice was to the effect that “The Overland Stage line and the Overland Despatch Company have become one property under the name of Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company.” It is beyond the limits of this book to trace the operations of all these stage, freight and mail lines. It is hoped to give an intelligent idea of the development of them in their relations to the progress of Kansas. In 1860 Richard F. Burton passed over the stage lines on the Oregon Trail. He wrote an account of his journey, from which are taken a few extracts describing the coaches, the country, and the people:

Precisely at 8 A. M. appeared in front of the Patee House—the Fifth Avenue Hotel of St. Jo—the vehicle destined to be our home for the next three weeks. We scrutinized it curiously.

The mail is carried by a “Concord coach,” a spring wagon, comparing advantageously with the horrible vans which once dislocated the joints of men on the Suez route. The body is shaped somewhat like an English tax-cart considerably magnified. It is built to combine safety, strength, and lightness, without the slightest regard to appearances. The material is well-seasoned white oak—the Western regions, and especially Utah, are notoriously deficient in hard woods—and the manufacturers are the well-known coach-wrights, Messrs. Abbott, of Concord, New Hampshire; the color is sometimes green, more usually red, causing the antelopes to stand and stretch their large eyes whenever the vehicle comes in sight. The wheels are five to six feet apart, affording security against capsizing, with little “gather” and less “dish”; the larger have fourteen spokes and seven fellies; the smaller twelve and six. The tires are of unusual thickness, and polished like steel by the hard dry ground; and the hubs or naves and the metal nave-bands are in massive proportions. The latter not infrequently fall off, as the wood shrinks, unless the wheel is allowed to stand in water; attention must be paid to resetting them, or in the frequent and heavy “sidelins” the spokes may snap off all round like pipe-stems. The wagon-bed is supported by iron bands or perpendiculars abutting upon wooden rockers, which rest on strong leather thorough-braces; these are found to break the jolt better than the best steel springs, which, moreover, when injured, can not readily be repaired. The whole bed is covered with stout osnaburg supported by stiff bars of white oak; there is a sun-shade or hood in front, where the driver sits, a curtain behind which can be raised or lowered at discretion, and four flaps on each side, either folded up or fastened down with hooks and eyes. In heavy frost the passengers must be half dead with cold, but they care little for that if they can go fast. The accommodations are as follows: In front sits the driver, with usually a conductor or passenger by his side; a variety of packages, large and small, is stowed away under his leather cushion; when the brake must be put on, an operation often involving the safety of the vehicle, his right foot is planted upon an iron bar which presses by a leverage upon the rear wheels; and in hot weather a bucket for watering the animals hangs over one of the lamps, whose companion is usually found wanting. The inside had either two or three benches fronting to the fore or placed vis-à-vis; they are movable and reversible, with leather cushions, and hinged padded backs; unstrapped and turned down, they convert the vehicle into a tolerable bed for two persons or two and a half. According to Cocker, the mail-bags should be safely stowed away under these seats, or if there be not room enough the passengers should perch themselves upon the correspondence; the jolly driver, however, is usually induced to cram the light literature between the wagon bed and the platform, or running-gear beneath, and thus, when ford-waters wash the hubs, the letters are pretty certain to endure ablution. Behind, instead of dicky, is a kind of boot where passengers’ boxes are stored beneath a stout canvas curtain with leather sides. The comfort of travel depends upon packing the wagon; if heavy in front or rear, or if the thorough-braces be not properly “fixed” the bumping will be likely to cause nasal hemorrhage. . . .

. . . We ought to start at 8:30 A. M; but we are detained an hour while last words are said, and adieu—a long adieu—is bidden to joke and julep, to ice and idleness. Our “plunder” is clapped on with little ceremony—a hat-case falls open—it was not mine, gentle reader—collars and other small gear cumber the ground, and the owner addresses to the clumsy-handed driver the universal G— d—, which in these lands changes from its expletive or chrysalis form to an adjectival development. We try to stow away as much as possible; the minor officials, with all their little faults, are good fellows, civil and obliging; they wink at nonpayment for bedding, stores, weapons, and they rather encourage than otherwise the multiplication of whiskey-kegs and cigar-boxes. We now drive through the dusty roads of St. Jo, the observed of all observers, and presently find ourselves in the steam ferry which is to convey us from the right to the left bank of the Missouri River. . . .

. . . Landing in Bleeding Kansas—she still bleeds—we fell at once into “Emigration Road,” a great thoroughfare, broad and well worn as a European turnpike or a Roman military route, and undoubtedly the best and the longest natural highway in the world. . . .

Passing through a few wretched shanties called Troy—last insult to the memory of hapless Pergamus—and Syracuse (here we are in the third, or classic stage of United States nomenclature) we made, at 3 P. M., Cold Springs, the junction of the Leavenworth route. Having taken the northern road to avoid rough ground and bad bridges, we arrived about two hours behind time. The aspect of things at Cold Springs, where we were allowed an hour’s halt to dine and to change mules, somewhat dismayed our fine-weather prairies travelers. The scene was the real “Far West.” The widow body to whom the shanty belonged lay sick with fever. The aspect of her family was a “caution to snakes;” the ill-conditioned sons dawdled about, as listless as Indians, in skin tunies and pantaloons fringed with lengthy tags such as the redoubtable “Billy Bowlegs” wears on tobacco labels; and the daughters, tall young women, whose sole attire was apparently a calico morning-wrapper, color invisible, waited upon us in a protesting way. Squalor and misery were imprinted upon the wretched log hut, which ignored the duster and the broom, and myriads of flies disputed with us a dinner consisting of dough-nuts, green and poisonous with saleratus, suspicious eggs in a massive greasy fritter, and rusty bacon, intolerably fat. It was our first sight of squatter life, and, except in two cases, it was our worst. We could not grudge 50 cents a head to these unhappies; at the same time, we thought it a dear price to pay—the sequel disabused us—for flies and bad bread, worse eggs and bacon.

The next settlement, Valley Home, was reached at 6 P. M. Here the long wave of the ocean land broke into shorter seas, and for the first time that day we saw stone, locally called rocks (a Western term embracing everything between a pebble and a boulder), the produce of nullahs and ravines. A well 10 to 12 feet deep supplied excellent water. The ground was in places so far reclaimed as to be divided off by posts and rails; the scanty crops of corn (Indian corn), however, were wilted and withered by the drought, which this year had been unusually long. Without changing mules we advanced to Kennekuk, where we halted for an hour’s supper under the auspices of Major Baldwin, whilom Indian agent; the place was clean, and contained at least one charming face.

Kennekuk derives its name from a chief of the Kickapoos, in whose reservation we now are. This tribe, in the days of the Baron la Hontan (1689), a great traveler, but “aiblins,” as Sir Walter Scott said of his grandmother, “a prodigious story-teller,” then lived on the Riviere des Puants, or Fox River, upon the brink of a little lake supposed to be the Winnebago, near the Sakis, (Osaki, Sawkis, Sauks, or Sacs), and the Pouteoustamies (Potawotomies). They are still in the neighborhood of their dreaded foes, the Sacs and Foxes, who are described as stalwart and handsome bands, and they have been accompanied in their southern migration from the waters westward of the Mississippi, through Illinois, to their present southern seats by other allies of the Winnebagoes, the Iowas, Nez Perces, Ottoes, Omahas, Kansas, and Osages. Like the great nations of the Indian Territory, the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, they form intermediate social links in the chain of civilization between the outer white settlements and the wild nomadic tribes to the west, the Dakotahs, and Arapahoes, the Snakes and Cheyennes. They cultivate the soil, and rarely spend the winter in hunting buffalo upon the plains. Their reservation is twelve miles by twenty-four: as usual with land set apart for the savages, it is well watered and timbered, rich and fertile; it lies across the path and in the vicinity of civilization; consequently, the people are greatly demoralized. The men are addicted to intoxication, and the women to unchastity; both sexes and all ages are inveterate beggars, whose principal industry is horse-stealing. Those Scottish clans were the most savage that vexed the Lowlands; it is the case here; the tribes nearest the settlers are best described by Colonel B—’s phrase, “great liars and dirty dogs.” They have well nigh cast off the Indian attire, and rejoice in the splendors of boiled and ruffled shirts, after the fashion of the whites. According to our host, a stalwart son of that soil which for generations had sent out her best blood westward, Kain-tuk-ee, the Land of Cane, the Kickapoos number about 300 souls, of whom one-fifth are braves. He quoted a specimen of their facetiousness; when they first saw a crinoline, they pointed to the wearer and cried, “There walks a wigwam.” Our “vertugardin” of the 19th century had run the gauntlet of the world’s jests, from the refined impertinence of Mr. Punch to the rude grumble of the American Indian and the Kaffir of the Cape.

Beyond Kennekuk we crossed the first Grasshopper Creek. Creek, I must warn the English reader, is pronounced “crik,” and in these lands, as in the jargon of Australia, means not “an arm of the sea,” but a small stream of sweet water, a rivulet; the rivers of Europe, according to the Anglo-American of the West, are “criks.” On our line there are many grasshopper creeks; they anastomose with, or debouch into, the Kansas River, and they reach the sea via the Missouri and the Mississippi. This particular Grasshopper was dry and dusty up to the ankles; timber clothed the banks, and slabs of sandstone cumbered the soil. Our next obstacle was Walnut Creek, which we found, however, provided with a corduroy bridge; formerly it was a dangerous ford, rolling down heavy streams of melted snow, and then crossed by means of the “bouco” or coracle, two hides sewed together, distended like a leather tub with willow rods, and poled or paddled. At this point the country is unusually well populated; a house appearing after every mile. Beyond Walnut Creek a dense nimbus, rising ghost-like from the northern horizon, furnished us with a spectacle of those perilous prairie storms which make the prudent lay aside their revolvers and disembarrass themselves of their cartridges. Gusts of raw, cold, and violent wind from the west whizzed overhead, thunder crashed and rattled closer and closer, and vivid lightning, flashing out of the murky depths around, made earth and air one blaze of living fire. Then the rain began to patter ominously upon the carriages; the canvas, however, by swelling, did its duty in becoming water-tight, and we rode out the storm dry. Those learned in the weather predicted a succession of such outbursts, but the prophecy was not fulfilled. The thermometer fell about 6º (F.) and a strong north wind set in, blowing dust or gravel, a fair specimen of “Kansas gales” which are equally common in Nebraska, especially during the month of October. It subsided on the 9th of August.

Arriving about 1 A. M. at Locknan’s Station, a few log and timber huts near a creek well feathered with white oak and American elm, hickory and black walnut, we found beds and snatched an hourful of sleep.

8th August, to Rock Creek.

Resuming, through air refrigerated by rain, our now weary way, we reached at 6 A. M. a favorite camping-ground, the “Big Nemehaw” Creek, which, like its lesser neighbor, flows after rain into the Missouri River, via Turkey Creek, the Big Blue, and the Kansas. It is a fine bottom of rich black soil, whose green woods at that early hour were wet with heavy dew, and scattered over the surface lay pebbles and blocks of quartz and porphyritic granites. “Richland,” a town mentioned in guide-books, having disappeared, we drove for breakfast to Seneca, a city consisting of a few shanties, mostly garnished with tall square lumber fronts, ineffectually, especially when the houses stand one by one, masking the diminutiveness of the buildings behind them. The land, probably in prospect of a Pacific Railroad, fetched the exaggerated price of $20 an acre, and already a lawyer had “hung out his shingle” there.

. . . The “ripper,” or driver, who is bound to the gold regions of Pike’s Peak, is a queer specimen of humanity. He usually hails from one of the old Atlantic cities—in fact, settled America—and, like the civilized man generally, he betrays a remarkable aptitude for facile descent into savagery. His dress is a harlequinade, typical of his disposition. Eschewing the chimney-pot or stove-pipe tile of the bourgeois, he affects the “Kossuth,” an Anglo-American version of the sombrero, which converts felt into every shape and form, from the jaunty little head-covering of the modern sailor to the tall steeple-crown of the old Puritan. He disregards the trichotomy of St. Paul, and emulates St. Anthony and the American aborigines in the length of his locks, whose ends are curled inward, with a fascinating sausage-like roll not unlike the Cockney “aggrawator.” If a young hand, he is probably in the buckskin mania, which may pass into the squaw mania, a disease which knows no cure; the symptoms are, a leather coat and overalls to match, embroidered if possible, and finished along the arms and legs with fringes cut as long as possible, while a pair of gaudy moccasins, resplendent with red and blue porcelain beads, fits his feet tightly as silken hose. I have heard of coats worth $250, vests $100, and pants $150; indeed, the poorest of buckskin suits will cost $75, and if hard-worked it must be renewed every six months. The successful miner or the gambler—in these lands the word is confined to the profession—will add $10 gold buttons to the attractions of his attire. The older hand prefers to buckskin a “wamba” or roundabout, a red or rainbow-colored flannel over a check cotton shirt; his lower garments, garnished a tergo with leather, are turned into Hessians by being thrust inside his cow-hide Wellingtons; and, when in riding gear, he wraps below each knee a fold of deer, antelope, or cow skin, with edges scalloped where they fall over the feet, and gartered tightly against thorns and stirrup thongs, thus effecting that graceful elephantine bulge of the lower leg for which “Jack ashore” is justly celebrated. Those who suffer from sore eyes wear huge green goggles, which give a crah-like air to the physiognomy, and those who can not procure them line the circumorbital region with lampblack, which is supposed to act like the surma or kohl of the Orient. A broad leather belt supports on the right a revolver, generally Colt’s Navy of medium size (when Indian fighting is expected, the large dragoon pistol is universally preferred), and on the left, in a plain black sheath, or sometimes in the more ornamental Spanish scabbard, is a buck-horn or ivory-handled bowie-knife. In the East the driver partially conceals his tools: he had no such affectation in the Far West; moreover, a glance through the wagon-awning shows guns and rifles stowed along the side. When driving he is armed with a mammoth fustigator, a system of plaited cow-hides cased with smooth leather; it is a knout or an Australian stockwhip, which, managed with both hands, makes the sturdiest ox curve and curl its back. If he trudges along an ox-team, he is a grim and surly man, who delights to startle your animals with a whip-crack, and disdains to return a salutation; if his charge be a muleteer’s, you may expect more urbanity; he is then in the “upper-crust” of teamsters; he knows it and demeans himself accordingly. He can do nothing without whisky, which he loves to call tarantula juice, strychnine, red-eye, corn juice, Jersey lightning, leg-stretcher, “tangle-leg” and many other hard and grotesque names; he chews tobacco like a horse, he becomes heavier “on the shoulder” or “on the shyoot” as, with the course of empire, he makes his way westward; and he frequently indulges in a “spree” which in these lands means four acts of drinking-bout, with a fifth of rough-and-tumble. Briefly, he is a post-wagon driver exaggerated. . . .

Beyond Guittard’s the prairies bore a burnt-up aspect. Far as the eye could see the tintage was that of the Arabian Desert, sere and tawny as a jackal’s back. It was still, however, too early; October is the month for those prairie fires which have so frequently exercised the Western author’s pen. Here, however, the grass is too short for the full development of the Phenomenon, and beyond the Little Blue River there is hardly any risk. The fire can easily be stopped, ab initio, by blankets, or by simply rolling a barrel, the African plan of beating down with boughs might also be used in certain places; and when the conflagration had extended, travelers can take refuge in a little Zoar by burning the vegetation to windward. In Texas and Illinois, however, where the grass is tall and rank, and the roaring flames leap before the wind with the stride of maddened horses, the danger is imminent, and the spectacle must be one of awful sublimity.

In places where the land seems broken with bluffs, like an iron-bound coast, the skeleton of the earth becomes visible—the formation is a friable sand stone, overlying fossiliferous lime, which is based upon beds of shale. These undergrowths show themselves at the edges of the ground-waves and in the dwarf precipices, where the soil had been degraded by the action of water. The yellow-brown humus varies from forty to sixty feet deep in the most favored places, and erratic blocks of porphyry and various granites encumber the dry water-courses and surface drains. In the rare spots where water then lay, the herbage was still green, forming oases in the withering waste, and showing that irrigation is its principal, if not its only want.

Passing by Marysville, in old maps, Palmetto City, a county town which thrives by selling whisky to ruffians of all descriptions, we forded before sunset the “Big Blue” a well-known tributary of the Kansas River. It is a pretty little stream, brisk and clear as crystal, about forty or fifty yards wide by 2:50 feet deep at the ford. The soil is sandy and solid, but the banks are too precipitous to be pleasant when a very drunken driver hangs on by the lines of four very weary mules. We then stretched once more over the “divide” the ground, generally rough or rolling, between the fork or junction of two streams, in fact, the Indian Doab—separating the Big Blue from its tributary, the Little Blue. At 6 P. M. we changed our fagged animals for fresh, and the land of Kansas for Nebraska, at Cottonwood Creek. . . .

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