Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Stagecoaches were vehicles that transported passengers, mail, and light freight over designated routes. Patterned after the English coach and four, which was introduced into the American colonies, the name of the vehicles described both the enclosed carriage and traveling in stages between stations.

Stagecoaching in the Great Plains was stimulated by the California gold rush and the need for faster service than could be supplied by wagons. In 1857 James E. Birch of the California Stage Company contracted with the federal government to run a biweekly mail service over the 1,500-mile route from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California. But the next year the contract was awarded to the Butterfield Overland Mail. After the outbreak of the Civil War the Overland Mail was transferred to the central or California route that ran through the Platte River valley and South Pass. Butterfield subcontracted with Russell, Majors and Waddell, the leading overland freighters, to run stages from the Missouri River to the recently opened Colorado gold fields. After the bankruptcy of Russell, Majors and Waddell, Ben Holladay, who came to be known as the Stagecoach King, dominated the business for several years before selling out to Wells, Fargo and Company in 1866. Wells Fargo and many local companies adjusted to the construction of transcontinental railroads by providing feeder service to those lines. Stagecoaching was finally discontinued after the establishment of railroad networks.

The Concord, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, was the most famous stagecoach. Because of its large size, rugged construction, and attractiveness, it was preferred by large companies. As a symbol of frontier life the stagecoach has captured the popular imagination, which continues to be fed by movies and television.

William E. Lass Mankato State University

Greeley, Horace. An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859. New York: C. M. Saxton, Barker and Company, 1860.

Winther, Oscar Osburn. The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1865–1890. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

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