Butterfield Stage & the Overland Mail


By 1856, the people of California had become extremely vocal in demanding faster mail service with the east.  In March 1857, Congress passed a Post Office Appropriations Bill with amendments providing for an overland mail route.  Coaches were to carry passengers and mail and make the trip from Missouri to San Francisco in 25 days.  While bids were being considered, James E. Birch, (No relation to John Birch), entered into a contract to carry mail from San Antonio to San Diego.  The first trip began in August of 1857.  It passed through Vallecito but took the old Fages route through the Oriflamme Mountains.  This required that passengers and mail had to be transported on mules over the mountains.  Because of this, the route became known as the "Jackass Mail".  It lasted only 18 months until Birch was drowned at sea when his ship sank off Cape Hatteras enroute back from Washington DC . 

John Butterfield was awarded the mail contract to San Francisco in September of 1857, and a year later, after securing sites for stations and buying equipment, horses and mules and hiring men, the first trip was started from Tipton, Missouri on September 16, 1858. Butterfield's son drove the first leg of the journey with Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter from the New York Herald.  (Ormsby's description of the journey from Missouri to San Francisco on the Butterfield-Overland stage is recounted in the book The Butterfield Overland Mail, published in 1942 by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, CA.) 

Most stops along the trail were for only a few minutes to change horses and drivers.  Passengers had a good meal only once every 24 hours at what were called "Home Stations".  Vallecito was a Home Station, and good meals were provided to the travelers from produce and meat supplied by farmers on Mt. Palomar.  Meals mentioned as having been served at Vallecito include beef stew, venison and sauerkraut.  There were two coaches a week, and passengers could wait for the next coach, but the only sleeping accommodations were their own two blankets on the dirt floor.

The Civil War Era in the Anza-Borrego

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Butterfield Stage Route was moved north to the 34th parallel to avoid going through Arizona and New Mexico, which were contested territories and both under Confederate control at the outbreak of war.  Although stages no longer stopped at Vallecito, it was still an important stopping place for emigrants and the military. There were many men going east to enlist in one side of the War or the other, and soon there were many veterans and deserters from both sides travelling west through Vallecito seeking a better life in California.

During the Civil War, there were approximately 15,000 troops enlisted into the California Volunteers.  Most of these troops saw no real battles in the war, however the 2nd Regiment of Cavalry and the 3rd Infantry kept the overland route to California open and free from attacks from Indians.  California troops manned posts from Puget Sound to Texas while the regular troops from these posts were sent to battles in the east. In the Anza-Borrego region, these troops manned the forts near Warner's Ranch and Yuma.  The old stage stations at San Felipe, Vallecito and Carrizo Creek were pressed into service as supply stations.