Thursday, April 30, 2020

Author's Notes on Stagecoaches by Zina Abbott

I am playing “beat the clock” in an effort to get my next book published according to schedule. Although I stated earlier that I would share about frontier forts along the Santa Fe Trail, I’ve decided, for this month, to digress by sharing part of my Author’s Notes at the end of my book instead. It should give readers a general idea of some of the elements in my story without giving the plot away. Here goes:

         The earlier stagecoach company to operate in the vicinity of Ellsworth, Kansas was the Kansas Stage Company.

         In 1865, David Butterfield (no relation to John Butterfield who operated the Butterfield Overland Mail Company from St. Louis, Missouri south through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona Territories, and California before the American Civil War), decided to capitalize on the Smoky Hill Trail being the shortest route from shipping points in the east to Denver, Colorado. He formed the Butterfield Overland Despatch (B.O.D.) After putting together his financing, he began building stations, and buying stagecoaches and livestock.

         Several styles of stagecoaches were used throughout the West. Some were referred to as “mud wagons” because they were designed to travel over many types of difficult road conditions such as those found in less-developed regions.
"Mud Wagon" style stagecoach
         David Butterfield bought what are referred to as Concord coaches from the New Hampshire company of Abbott and Downing. These coaches were distinctive in that they used a style of suspension and construction involving leather thorough braces which suspended passengers who were in constant motion while the coach was moving. The swaying was accepted by passengers because of the shock-absorbing action of the leather straps which eased the coach over the rough terrain of nineteenth century roads. Wells, Fargo & Company, which eventually bought out the Butterfield Overland Despatch line, also used Concord coaches. The distinctive red coaches with yellow wheels are still recognized today as a symbol for Wells Fargo.

Concord Coach courtesy of the B&O Museum Collection
          The B.O.D. operated three types of stations. Home stations were run by families. They provided meals for a fee. Stations where stock was kept might have one to three stock tenders that changed out teams. Stops there might be only five to ten minutes, barely long enough for passengers to use the necessary. The third type of station was a cattle station where oxen were kept for freighters who wished to change their yokes of oxen for fresh teams. (Butterfield also operated oxen-pulled freight trains along this route.) All B.O.D. cattle stations were also home stations.

         The first B.O.D. stagecoach run left Atchison, Kansas on September 11, 1865 and arrived in Denver on September 23rd. The section from Atchison to Fort Ellsworth was fairly well established and travel was smooth. The stations from Fort Ellsworth westward were not completely built or filled with necessary livestock at first. Conditions were rougher and fraught with danger the entire time the B.O.D. was in operation.
Most of the B.O.D. Stations mentioned in Mail Order Roslyn
         Tensions between the white Americans and the native Americans escalated in western Kansas during this period of time. The Cheyenne, predominantly, but also the Arapaho and Kiowa, resisted being driven from their prime southern bison hunting grounds (between the Platte River to the north and the Arkansas River to the south). As much as they attacked the forts, the stagecoaches were a bigger target for them because they increasingly brought white Americans to their lands. Some attacks involved perhaps ten to twenty natives. Survivors of other attacks claim there were 100 or more native warriors involved. 

         The Native Americans fought desperately to stop anything and anyone from crossing their hunting lands. They feared the coming of the railroad. Bison were disturbed by the activity of the forts and stagecoaches, but would not cross railroad tracks. This disrupted the normal bison migration pattern of moving to the southern plains during colder weather, but north to the new grass during the summer months.

Indians attacking a stagecoach

         Along the Smoky Hill Trail, the Ellsworth stagecoach station was built close to Fort Ellsworth (later changed to Fort Harker.) Fort Fletcher (later Fort Hays) and Fort Wallace were originally military camps at stagecoach station sites. The primary duties of the frontier forts at that time included protecting the mails (Ben Holliday held the mail contract and used the Overland route along the Platte River), the stagecoaches, and the railroad crews.

         Due to tremendous losses of stock, stagecoaches, stations, and personnel, in March 1866, the Butterfield Overland Despatch company was sold to Ben Holladay, who continued to operate the stage operation, even though a month after he bought the company, he sold the majority of the stock in the company to Well, Fargo & Company. The B.O.D. ceased operation in 1870.

         As far as real history goes, the Ellsworth B.O.D. station was a home station, which meant it would have been operated by a family. I found lists of B.O.D. stations along the Smoky Hill Trail, but no details about the schedule other than the stagecoaches ran thrice weekly. Atchison would have been the division headquarters for the eastern part of the route. I did find reference to a resident division agent at Big Creek Station just west of Fort Fletcher (later Fort Hays) who was in charge of the route from that point to the west. The schedule I devised for my story is fictional, although possible, based on what I found in my research. It is also possible that stagecoach runs by one driver for the eastern division might have gone from Atchison, Kansas to Big Creek Station.

         I found records of a raid by hostiles on Fort Ellsworth on August 7, 1864. The natives captured five mules from the Kansas Stage Company and fifty horses from the fort. There is a record of another attack on the fort on June 17, 1865, but there were no details given in the report regarding losses. Both instances took place before the B.O.D. operated a station by the fort.
Fort Ellsworth in 1867-photo by famous CW photographer, Mathew Brady
         During this period, Fort Ellsworth was manned by the Seventh Iowa Cavalry under the command of 2nd Lt. Allen Ellsworth. Any online reference to this regiment’s history involved either their Civil War service, or action by some of their companies in Indian Wars campaigns in the Nebraska area. I have no idea if the company at Fort Ellsworth had a post surgeon with them. I doubt the regimental surgeon was stationed there. I write my story as if they did not have a medical officer with them. Shortly after, the original site of Fort Ellsworth built on the Smoky Hill River, which had a tendency to flood, was abandoned and rebuilt about a mile northeast.

         For the sake of my fictional story, I moved the June 17, 1865 attack at Fort Ellsworth closer in time a year to 1866 and included the B.O.D. station in the attack. Although this is not historically accurate, there were several attacks by the three hostile tribes, particularly by the Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers,” against B.O.D. stagecoach stations farther west from Ellsworth during the time period of my story.

             Mail Order Roslyn is not on preorder, and there is a reason I am not yet sharing the book description.  It is scheduled to be published Friday, or no later than Saturday, depending on how things go with Amazon. When it is available, I will notify my readers through my newsletter, my Zina Abbott Books blog, plus the Mail-Order Bride Romance Readers group on Facebook.


  1. This was so interesting Zina!! There is so much wonderful history. Of course it is so sad about the Bison and how so much was effected as progress occurred. Cannot wait to read this one! Beautiful cover! Congratulations!!

  2. Great research, Zina. I had the thrill of sitting in a Wells Fargo stagecoach displayed in Sacramento.

  3. Thanks for the information on stage lines, Zina. In a museum near us there is a replica of a Concord coach donated by a man who built them for the movie industry. I hope it's still there. Apparently the detailed replica is very valuable and after his death his family wanted the stagecoach returned to them. Good luck with Rosalyn!


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