By Waterman L. Ormsby, only through passenger on the first westbound stage
Edited by Lyle H. Wright and Josephine M. Bynum
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Sixth Printing, 1968
The following was written by Waterman L. Ormsby during his journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, on the first westbound coach of the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. He was a reporter writing for the New York Herald and sending accounts by mail to the newspaper as he traveled. The excerpt covers the period when the stagecoach traveled through Arkansas. It arrived in Fayetteville on September 18, 1858.
[Page 18] We kept travelling all day and night, of course, our way during Friday afternoon and evening being through an extremely dusty, hilly, and stony road, as will appear when I state the fact that the first fourteen miles took two hours [to Ashmore’s]; the next twenty, three hours [to Smith’s]; the next fifteen, two hours and forty-five minutes [to Couch’s]; the next seventeen, three hours [to Harburn’s]; and the next eighteen, three hours and twenty minutes. This brought us to breakfast time on Saturday morning, at Callahan’s, but about twelve miles from Fayetteville, Arkansas, very near the border line. Here we found Mr. Crocker, the superintendent of the line between [Page 19] St. Louis and Memphis and Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the two mails converge and proceed together. We greased our wagon, changed horses, and got some breakfast — all in an incredibly short space of time — after which we set out for Fayetteville.
The route leads over those steep and rugged hills which surround the Ozark range in this section of Arkansas, and we were just three hours going from Callahan’s to Fayetteville. [Fitzgerald’s Station in between.] This town is located up among the hills, in a most inaccessible spot, in Franklin County [sic, Washington County], said by its inhabitants to be the star county of the state. It has two churches, the county court house, a number of fine stores and dwellings, and, I believe, about 1,800 inhabitants. It is a flourishing little town, and its deficiency of a good hotel will, I understand, be supplied by Mr. Butterfield, who has bought some property for that purpose. He is the most energetic president of a company I ever saw. He appears to know every foot of the ground and to beknown by everybody, while his son John has been very active in getting good stock on this end of the route, in which, I think, he has succeeded.
We made a small addition to our mail here, and at just ten minutes to twelve started for Fort Smith, on the border line between Arkansas and Indian Territory, and about sixty-five miles distant. We started at ten minutes to twelve on Saturday, when the time table only required us to start at a quarter past ten on Sunday — so we were at this point twenty-two hours and seventeen minutes ahead of time as set down in the time table by which the Post Office De- [Page 20] partment required us to run — this, too, in spite of the one or two little annoyances referred to, and a pretty heavy load of baggage and passengers which had not been expected. It could only have been accomplished by the most perfect arrangement for, and promptness in, the relays of horses and the excellence of the stock purchased. We had now gone two hundred and forty-three miles, through, I think, some of the roughest part of the country on the route, and yet gained time. I must confess that I began to get quite enthusiastic on the subject of the mail myself, and looked upon the mail bags and the horses with quite as much interest as I should have had in the Atlantic cable had I been on that world renowned expedition. I jumped out and got water for the horses, kept an eye on the mail bags, walked up the steep hills, and forgot the terrible pain in the back which such incessant riding without sleep occasioned.
We have now arrived at Colheet’s [Colbert’s] Ferry on the Red River, about eight miles below Preston, on the Texas border; we are just thirty-five hours ahead of the time table. An express is just leaving us for Fort Smith, and as I wish to send this I must cut off my letter without the most interesting portion — our reception at Fort Smith, meeting the Memphis mail, journey through the Indian Territory, and arrival here today at about ten o’clock. I must send this and take my chance to send the rest. I have one comfort, at any rate: the Herald will have the exclusive news, and I can wait with a better grace. We have the strongest hopes of reaching San Francisco in less than the twenty-five days. I find roughing it on the plains agrees with me, so that I guess I could go without eating or sleeping for a week.I hope I shan’t have to try it, though.
New York Herald, Sunday, October 24, 1858
The Overland Mail
Our Special Overland Correspondence
Overland Mail Wagon, near Fort Belknap
Young Co., Texas, Sept. 22, 1858
The Route from Fayetteville to Fort Smith. Difficulties of the Ozark Range. Magnificence of the Mountain Scenery. The Choctaw Reservation. Condition of the Negroes among the Indian Slaveholders. A Visit to Governor Walker. Accidents of the Road. Dreams and Realities, &c, &c.
My last letter left the overland mail en route from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Since then we have passed through the Indian Territory, crossing the Red River at Colbert’s Ferry, through Grayson, Cooke, Montague, Wise, and Young counties, Texas, to Fort Belknap, and are now on our way to Fort Chadbourne, from whence I expect to send this; and when we reach there we shall have gone 945 miles on our journey.
Fayetteville is in Franklin County [sic,Washington County], Arkansas, among [Page 22] the hills of the Ozark range of mountains. We left there on Saturday, the 18th inst., at two minutes before noon — just twenty-two hours and thirteen minutes ahead of the time required of us by the time table. Even among these hills you do not lose sight of the prairie nature of the West; for just after leaving Fayetteville you see a fine plain, surrounded with hills — in fact, a prairie in the mountains. After a rather rough ride of fourteen miles, which we accomplished with our excellent team in one hour and three-quarters, we took a team of four mules [at Park’s Station] to cross the much dreaded Ozark range, including the Boston Mountain. I had thought before we reached this point that the roads of Missouri and Arkansas could not be equalled; but here Arkansas fairly beats itself.
I might say our road was steep, rugged, jagged, rough, and mountainous — and then wish for some more expressive words in the language. Had not Mr. Crocker provided a most extraordinary team I doubt whether we should have been able to cross in less than two days. The wiry, light, little animals tugged and pulled as if they would tear themselves to pieces, and our heavy wagon bounded along the crags as if it would be shaken in pieces every minute, and ourselves disembowelled on the spot. For fifteen miles the road winds among these mountains at a height of nearly two thousand feet above the Gulf of Mexico. The approach to it from Fayetteville is through a pleasant and fertile valley; and I understand that these valleys comprise some of the best agricultural districts of Arkansas. The mountains abound in splendid white oak timber. As the road winds along the ridges you are afforded most magnificent views of the surrounding hills and valleys [Page 23] — especially in the winter, when the foliage is less an obstruction than it was when we passed over. But we had a clear day, and I can only say that our mountain views in the Highlands of the Hudson are but children’s toys in comparison with these vast works of nature.
The term “Boston Mountains” is, I believe, derived from a prevailing western fashion of applying that name to anything which is considered very difficult. But Connecticut hills and roads are mere pimples and sandpaper compared with the Ozark ranges. By hard tugging we got up, and with the aid of brakes and drags we got down; and I can assure you we were by no means sorry when that herculean feat was accomplished. The mules which took us over the mountains carried us, in all, about nineteen miles, when we took another team of horses [Bailey reports this station as Brodie’s Station and records a Woolsey’s station between Brodie’s and Fort Smith] to carry us to Fort Smith.
We crossed the Arkansas, in a flatboat much resembling a raft, at Van Buren, a flourishing little town on its banks. [First known as Phillip’s Landing, it was named after Martin Van Buren, in 1836, and later became the county seat of Crawford County. See Centennial History, ed. Herndon, I, 884-85.] Our course through the soft bed of the flats (which were not covered, owing to the low state of the river) was somewhat hazardous, as our heavy load was liable to be sunk on the quicksands which abound here. But by the aid of a guide on horseback, with a lantern (for it was night), we crossed the flats, and up the steep sandy bank in safety. Picking our way cautiously for five or six miles, we reached Fort Smith on the Arkansas River, just on the border of Arkansas and the Indian Territory, at five min- [Page 24] utes after two o’clock A.M., having made the sixty-five miles from Fayetteville in fourteen hours and seven minutes, or three hours and seven minutes less than schedule time. We had anticipated beating the mail which left Memphis, Tenn., on the 16th to meet us at Fort Smith, several hours; but as soon as we entered the town, though at so unseasonable an hour, we found it in a great state of excitement on account of the arrival of the Memphis mail just fifteen minutes before us. But, though they had 700 miles to travel, five hundred of them were by steamboat, from Memphis to Little Rock, and it was said that they got their mails before we did.
Fort Smith is a thriving town of about 2,500 inhabitants, and they boast that every house is full. There are two newspapers, both of which were, I believe, started by Judge Wheeler, who was a passenger by the overland route from St. Louis. As several other routes over the plains pass through this place, and have contributed much to its growth, the people evinced much interest; and the news that both the St. Louis and Memphis stages had arrived spread like wildfire. Horns were blown, houses were lit up, and many flocked to the hotel to have a look at the wagons and talk over the exciting topic, and have a peep at the first mail bags. The general interest was so contagious that I, though I had but a few minutes to spare before the stage started again, actually employed the time in writing ten lines to my wife instead of the Herald. I [Page 25] must say, however, that I expected you would hear of the few facts I could then communicate, before a letter from me could reach you, by means of the telegraph.
An hour and twenty-five minutes was consumed in examining the way mails, arranging the way bill, joining the two mails from Memphis and St. Louis, and changing stages; and precisely at half-past three A.M. on Sunday, the 19th inst., the stage left Fort Smith, being exactly twenty-four hours ahead of the time required in the time table, which had been gained in the first four hundred and sixty-eight hours miles of our journey. I was the only person in the wagon which left Fort Smith — beside Mr. Fox, the mail agent, and the driver. Mr. John Butterfield, the president of the Overland Mail Company, had accompanied us thus far, and, thought sixty-five years of age [actually only 57], had borne the fatiguing, sleepless journey as well, if not better, than any of the rest. Indeed, I felt ashamed to complain when I saw one of his years stand out so well. Certainly, if the overland mail does not succeed, it will not be for lack of his arduous personal exertions. He urged the men in changing horses at every station, often taking hold to help, and on one occasion driving for a short distance. He is, however, an old stager, and is in his element in carrying on this enterprise. I cannot be too grateful to him, on your behalf, as well as my own, for the kind facilities which he extended to me.
We forded the Arkansas at Fort Smith, and for the first time since our departure from St. Louis I had an opportunity to sleep in the wagon, wrapped up in blankets and stretched on the seats. It took some time to get accustomed to the jolting over the rough road, the rocks, and [Page 26] log bridges; but three days’ steady riding without sleep helped me in getting used to it and I was quite oblivious from the time of crossing the Arkansas to first stopping place in the Indian Territory, about sixteen miles from the river, which we reached about daylight.