A Line in the Sand: Musings & Essays on Stagecoaching

A Line in the Sand: Musings & Essays on Stagecoaching

by Joseph M. Nixon B. A. Ph. D.


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 23
3 New & Used Starting at $16.22


As a part of three series of essays, A Line in the Sand: Volume II, Dusty Trails to Shiny Rails examines the rise and decline of stagecoaching as an industry in the Frontier West. The first volume, Ancient Footprints, considers very early (6,600 years ago) development of a series of footpaths describing transportation networks in place long before the arrival of Euro American settlers, leading to the precursors of stagecoach trails appropriated and adapted by Spanish, Mexican, and later American (US) governments. The third volume, Where the Dust Settles, focuses on the use of adobe as an architectural medium along early stagecoach routes. In aggregate, the three volumes consider the rise and efflorescence of transportation systems crossing the desert culminating with the advent of the modern interstate highway system in place today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781546268079
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 11/14/2018
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Residing in Southern California, Dr. Nixon works and writes from there. He has researched and visited many of the venues pertaining to the history of local stagecoaching and follows prehistoric and historic regional development. Prior to retirement, he participated in decision making processes involving local, county, state, federal, commercial, and Tribal representatives. As an Anthropologist, he has absorbed much local - desert - lore and is at home in this sometimes taxing environment. With prior experience in the Midsouth, Midwest, and Southwest, his perspectives encompass Western desert adaptations in the context of the early US frontier.

Read an Excerpt


Appropriating Prehistory

Writing in 2001, Maury Hoag notes movement of orders and correspondences played an important role in Anglo-American exploration of the 'New World.' In this colonial initiative, the British focused on the Eastern Coast of modern US.

The French occupied portions of southeastern Canada around modern Montreal with sister settlements along the (US) Gulf Coast, interests focused on trade and military expansion. They settled along the Mississippi River and its tributaries at places in Canada, particularly Quebec & Montreal, and in the US, at New Orleans (La), Ste. Genevieve, and St. Louis, Missouri (MO).

Initial Spanish interests in the New World began offshore. Reaching the mainland, they explored and settled southward from their headquarters in modern Mexico penetrating portions of Central and South America. Relying on military advance missions accompanied by clergy, they established outposts and missions, laying groundwork later to include civilian contingents.

Exploring northward, the Spanish pursued a pincer-like, strategy. First, extending their holdings and interests northeast, they employed ocean going vessels to navigate around the Golfo de California and up the Colorado River where they established settlements at inland locations such as Tubac (Arizona [AZ]). Second, looking northwest, they explored the California (CA) Coast founding outposts and a series of missions still discernable by place names.

To maintain contact among fledging outposts, the Spanish relied on ocean going travel augmented by overland transportation using local pedestrian and equestrian trails. The time required for water based transport of people and goods marginally satisfied the need for connection, whether commanding troop movement or announcing the birth of a granddaughter. As diligently as these arrangements moved local mail, couriers stopped at the edge of the desert separating outliers like Tubac from the Coastal counterparts (e. g. San Diego), riders wary of forlorn, merciless, harsh, and, probably in their minds, uninviting deserts between. They looked to ground based overland routes traversing the dangerous, broad wasteland. As O'Connell (2017) observes, "Upon their arrival in the 1500s, Spanish explorers found the native trails, naturally widening them as their large parties passed over" which, with time, "... became well-utilized wagon roads ... to ... new ranching communities eagerly awaiting mail delivered by horseback and stagecoach."

Unaware of the pedestrian crossing of Mother Nature's cosmetic fashioned by Native Americans millennia before, a letter posted from a young Doña in Tubac gleefully announcing the arrival of a baby girl travelled via ship around Baja California, then north to Coastal counterparts, to alert Grandmother in a couple of weeks – assuming good fortune and freedom from mishap en route.

North of Mexican headquarters lay vast expanses of harsh desert. Unable to traverse this geologic barrier, and unfamiliar with regional topography, the Spanish endured a communication gap. Contact between Coastal settlements and those in modern AZ remained dependent on slow moving, long, water routes. The Spanish sought a shorter, quicker, overland trail traversing the desert to move news, goods, and people among dispersed settlements.

Recognizing this need and attempting to rectify it, in 1772 Pedro Fages, Commandante of CA, pursued deserters eastward into the arid territories from his San Diego headquarters. He gave up on the deserters, apparently reasoning the desert constituted punishment enough, but he succumbed to exploratory urges. In his ramblings, Fages may have stumbled onto portions of the elusive overland route.

Near the same time, Juan Bautista de Anza served as Commandante of the inland Spanish settlement at Tubac (AZ). Envisioning an overland connection, he petitioned the Viceroy to explore the Gila and Colorado rivers in search of a trans-desert route. Permission arrived in 1774 and on Saturday, January 8, he and an entourage set off in search of a land link to Coastal settlements. On Tuesday, March 22, 1774, they arrived in San Gabriel (CA) establishing the connection.

The Spanish did not abandon the search for a trans-desert link. To the contrary, they succeeded more than once locating segments of a trans-desert route, finally settling on a southern crossing along portions of the current Mexico-US border. This did little to advance Spanish trans-desert initiatives beyond the pedestrian/equestrian level. While efficiently transferring mail, this arrangement did not allow movement of passengers or freight between settlements separated by searing sand and effulgent sun.

For years the Spanish operated without benefit of a land route across the desert. As noted by Hoag (2001), they relied on the military to move communications, sometimes negotiating arrangements with local Tribal entities. Eventually their explorations pieced together a suitable overland southern crossing and from, "... 1774 to 1781 Anza's trail over Yuma Crossing, through today's Imperial County, into San Diego, and then on to Riverside County ... [served] as a mail route" (Johnston 1987:95). In 1781, strained relations with the Yuma forced them to abandon their crossing. Later, in February of 1821, Spanish representatives from Tucson (Johnston 1987:96),

... had a long council with Jose, a leader among the Maricopa Indians. As a result Jose agreed to carry mail from Tucson to San Gabriel Mission over a trail used by his people and the Cahuillas.

Employing Native runners to carry mail marked one of the first recorded uses of ancient trails for Euro-American purposes, albeit traversed by Native American couriers (Johnston 1987:96-97).

Possibly segments of the southern route used by the Spanish moved on the Gila Trail or the Gila Route. Under the Spanish regime at least a portion of the trail served temporary purposes linking Old Mexico through AZ to CA. Fraught with its own hardships, this route did not directly traverse the desert, rather it skirted the southern periphery of arid territories avoiding the meanest conditions.

Noteworthy is Spanish appropriation of ancient trails to accommodate remote desert settlements. First, sources indicate from 1774-1781 they used a southern route to move mail, possibly crossing portions of the Gila Trail. Second, unable to navigate a suitable overland crossing themselves, they arranged with Chief José to use his resources to move mail. Third, if they did not use the actual Gila Trail, they likely traveled another route in proximity, perhaps locally known by a different name. Whatever the particulars, evidence records active Spanish accommodation of ancient trails for various purposes, including addressing their original goal of moving mail between distant settlements. As Pracchia (1994:2) observed, the availability of water made these passages desirable, prompting their appropriation.

Further west, along the Coast, Spanish authority extended northward penetrating Alta California and establishing a series of mission settlements. To insure hegemony, their military circulated orders, directives, and other communications using a N/S route parallel to the coastline. Hoag (2001:13) notes,

Soldiers on horseback rode north from San Diego and south from San Francisco. ... They would travel as far as Nipomo from either direction, drop their mail there, and pick up the return mail, and go back the way they had come, delivering mail as they went.

When stages ruled, the Dana Adobe in Nipomo reached 11/2 stories serving as "... a stage stop that had a hearty welcome for the weary traveler" (Hoag 2001:76). The Nipomo overland arrangement worked within western provinces, but similar facilities were not functional beyond.

Bowing to politics and geography, Spanish control relinquished to the Mexican government. Overland routes established with fractional success by the Spanish fell to Mexican control, their government appropriating what the Spanish left behind.

In 1848, conflict erupted as the Mexican-American War. One item at issue – the southern boundary of Texas (TX). Would contested territory belong to the US or Mexico? The Mexican-American conflict short lived (1846-1848), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Treaty n. d.) transferred territory – with attendant mail movement difficulties – from the Mexican to the US government which suddenly found itself in possession of expanding, marginally explored lands west of the Mississippi River stretching to the (now) US Southwest and West.

Recognizing the potential for expansion, the US mounted efforts to discover – or embellish – an overland crossing. As if by example, the US appropriated Spanish/Mexican mail routes, reaching the same solutions as predecessors – moving mail using the military employing pedestrian and equestrian energy.

US plans to develop included a continuing military presence in newly acquired lands, appropriating selected fortifications, creating new ones. Military patrols and guard garrisons provided security for outlying settlements. Whether stationed or settling in these isolated parts, the military, their posts, attached and independent civilian contingents, all relied on movement of mail to sustain communication. Serving the resulting population, the military continued an already established delivery service.

As settlement advanced, military mail systems fell victim to inevitable overload. The volume of military and private correspondence amplified as population increased and settlement density waxed, the problem of increasing mail volume neither going away nor fixing itself. Both civilian needs for connections beyond settlements (e. g., a letter from Tubac to San Diego) and military communications (orders, requisitions, etc.) swelled mail bulk, all still under military auspices.

Faced with burgeoning demand, the US pondered awarding contracts to the private sector to augment – or assume - mail delivery service. Doubtless it became a point of contention, the military intent on preserving their mission, function, and integrity. Imagine the 'brass' encapsulating their position before a committee arguing,

We simply cannot allow civilian correspondences to interfere with military communication.

We cannot transfer confidential documents with civilians on board, our mission takes precedence. It's a matter of National Security. Especially in these times of conflict!

We need all space for military maneuvers all the time. We must be prepared. We must meet military needs and plan to defend civilians when summoned. All space must be reserved for military purposes first!

Once the US assumed control of the western territory (Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, 1848) glimpses of shining fortune winking from the ground commanded widespread attention. News spread and the golden glimmer beckoned residents from around the state, adventurers from back East, and speculators from abroad, all who heard the news and flocked to the US West on a quest for fortune.

Arguments forwarded, the military lost, and the government undertook initiatives leading to privatization of mail delivery. They issued Invitations for Bids (IFBs) to entice private sector contractors to submit proposals to deliver mail, insuring circulation of their solicitations to known and successful corporate leaders in the transportation industry. The government reserved the right to select the best offer – on behalf of the public, of course.

In this initiative, "On [Tuesday] March 3, 1857" Congress (James Buchanan, Pres.) "... authorized the U.S. postmaster general, Aaron Brown, to contract for delivery of the U.S. Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco" to replace the necessity to ship the Western bound post "... across the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, where it was freighted across the isthmus to the Pacific," on to its destination in CA (Anonymous 2018a). "The Post Office Department advertised for bids for an overland mail service on [Monday] April 20, 1857. Bidders were to propose routes from Mississippi River westward" (Anonymous 2018a). The winning route would stretch from,

... St. Louis, Missouri, and from Memphis Tennessee, converging at Little Rock, Arkansas, thence, via Preston, Texas, or as nearly so as might be found advisable, to the best point of crossing the Rio Grande, above El Paso and not far from Fort Fillmore; thence along the new [route] being opened and constructed under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, to Fort Yuma, California; thence through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditions staging ...

The destination - the West Coast, especially San Francisco (Anonymous 2018a). Altogether, offerors submitted nine separate bids (Anonymous 2018a also Katz 1996-2017).

In the mid 1800s, discovery of gold at places like La Paz (western AZ, north of Tubac) magnified the need to move people across the desert. To anxious soon to be millionaires milling on the Coast - hell-bent to reach beckoning inland fortunes - the ocean voyage simply took too long. As Duryee (2017) observes, "By 1856, California became extremely vocal in demanding adequate communication with the east." The combination of federal contracts to privatize mail delivery and the looming awareness of profit in simultaneous movement of passengers and post stimulated private Investors to weigh a desert crossing to transport both on a reliable, dependable, mutually satisfactory schedule.

Private sector transportation providers embraced the shift in services from mail to a combination of post and passengers. Many already operated customer services left only to reconcile individual schedules with stringent mail delivery deadlines. Public desire stimulated this market, demand fluctuating with the discovery of gold and the rush to get to it.

The Pony Express provided relief from swelling mail volume but did not keep apace. In response, the government embellished its mail conveyance focus to include larger, more spacious, stagecoaches which, while certainly holding more mail, also accommodated passengers. Pursuing this alternative, the US distributed requests for proposals to move mail from points East to the West Coast (CA). Enter Butterfield.

On Saturday, September 16, 1848, John Butterfield and a group of investors received authorization to deliver mail from the St. Louis /Memphis collection point to San Francisco aboard Concord Model stagecoaches. They mounted competition for William Russell, William Waddell, and Alexander Majors, founders of the Pony Express, which remained limited to individual riders. Maximizing speed, Russel et al. carried the post between St. Joseph (MO) and Sacramento (CA) in ten days (Helmich 2009), half the time Butterfield et al., but offering no passenger transport. Ultimately the Pony Express operation succumbed to expenses just as Butterfield et al., but as of April, 1861, it competed with them, servicing a lucrative mail contract. Butterfield's organization later fell victim to devastating expenses during a technological advance. The Pony Express using a like business model, suffered similarly.

No single transportation corporation monopolized stagecoaching in the US West. Beyond the current sample, other Investors gambled fortunes on companies organized and outfitted to offer similar mail and passenger service. As an example, Butterfield's consortium ultimately won a federal mail delivery contract crossing the desert between MO and the CA Coast, holding it for 21/2 years. But Butterfield's winning the competition did not spell disaster for competing stagecoach operations.

There is no question other stagecoach companies competed for postal delivery projects, but in this case Butterfield et al. prevailed, earning the opportunity driving their iron rimmed Concord Coach wheels into history. Mary Helmich (2009) estimates the Butterfield consortium " ... invested more than a million dollars getting the stage line organized."

During proposal preparation, aspiring Investors anticipated reasonable expenses (see Overland's acquisition list in Settle and Settle 1966:96-97). Keep in mind contemporary planning focused on an unfamiliar operation designed to lead in transportation technology, modelled coarsely on Eastern examples. Details of this process by Overland planners survive within the literature illustrating Jones & Russell's anticipated expenditures in the face of an unknown desert context.

The discovery of gold outcrops at various locations in the West spurred Investors to expand mail delivery to include passengers, responding to escalating demand. Stagecoaches grew in utility, ubiquity, popularity, and acceptance, from direct involvement at the federal level (moving mail) to participation in the private sector through expansion of passenger and prospector ridership.

The stagecoach passenger service crossing these trails appeared in the West unchallenged. It did not move into territories held by others with the intent of usurpation of markets; it moved into a vacuum. Stagecoaching technology already proved itself in the East, the only untested variable in the Western overland crossing - a hostile desert.

History texts recall the CA Gold Rush complete with images illustrating discovery of the precious metal in 1848 and ending at some unspecified date not meriting textbook mention. On Monday, January 24, 1848, the discovery at Sutter's Mill along the south fork of the American River in Coloma, CA, ignited a westward movement. Short lived, few fortunes birthed but word spread the US West held valuable untapped resources. Soon additional exposures elsewhere in the West lured single-minded prospectors, the occasional dream come true magnified by rumors of mineral fortunes.


Excerpted from "A Line in the Sand: Musings & Essays on Stagecoaching"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Joseph M. Nixon, B. A., Ph. D..
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface, ix,
Acknowledgements, xi,
Dedication, xiii,
Introduction, xv,
Appropriating Prehistory, 1,
A Sample from the Sand, 24,
Stageline Essentials, 47,
Corporate Leadership, 49,
Non-Severability, 67,
Upper Management, 70,
Pragmatic Staffing, 114,
Corporate Citizenship: Good Neighbors, 155,
Dusty Trails: Appeasing the Muses, 164,
Dusty Trails to Shiny Rails, 190,
Shiny Rails: Adaptive Essentials, 201,
Stagecoaching in Retrospect, 211,
Epilogue, 227,
References Cited / URL Addresses, 235,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews