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Smoky Hill Trail and Butterfield Overland Despatch

Fort FletcherFollowing the Civil War immigrants went west in search of new homes or quick riches in the Colorado gold fields. Many traveled to Denver on the long-established Santa Fe Trail or the Platte River Road but many others chose to make the trip across Kansas on the shorter but more hazardous Smoky Hill Trail. 

The Smoky Hill Trail had been used as early as 1858. It was 500 miles long but it was still 100 miles shorter than the other routes and could shave one to two weeks off the travel time.  It earned a bad reputation early on, though. The road was not clearly marked west of Fort Riley and there was little water for the last 130 miles to Denver.  Travelers often arrived in Denver reciting ghastly stories of danger, hunger, and death along the “starvation trail” and travel virtually ceased in early 1859. But in 1865 David Butterfield saw the Smoky Hill Trail as an opportunity to create a thriving business.

Butterfield was born in Maine but was fascinated with the West.  After the Civil War he moved to Atchison, Kansas, where he began to solicit financial backing to bring his dream to reality.  Thus was born Butterfield’s Overland Despatch or the BOD.  Butterfield commissioned a new survey of the Smoky Hill route and on June 24, 1865, even before all the stations had been established along the trail, the first freight train left Atchison for Denver. The first stage coach left on September 11, reaching Denver 12 days later. 

David ButterfieldThe cost for traveling aboard a BOD coach, $175 per person one-way, was not considered extravagant. Eventually 39 stations were established and manned along the trail west of Fort Riley at an average interval of about 12 miles.  Some of these were "home stations" where passengers could get meals at an added cost of from 50 cents to one dollar per meal. 

The trip was fairly comfortable from Atchison to Fort Ellsworth but from there westward the terrain was rougher.  In addition, American Indians, primarily Cheyennes and Arapahos, took exception to this invasion of their traditional hunting grounds and began to attack coaches and stations along the trail.  Initially there was no military protection west of Fort Ellsworth, but as the attacks increased the government established forts along the trail.  Fort Fletcher was established at the confluence of Big Creek and the North Fork of Big Creek, and Camp Pond Creek, later renamed Fort Wallace, was established near the Kansas/Colorado state line.  Although the military protection increased and troops were often carried aboard coaches for protection, their tactics were largely ineffective save for giving the traveler a sense of security.  The attacks on stages and stations continued.

The Indians, who were intimately familiar with the territory, could easily strike and disappear.  Their hit-and-run attacks were organized and the military, unfamiliar with this type of Plains warfare, became increasingly frustrated.  Not even the onset of winter could stop the raids.  

David Butterfield was realizing that his dream was fast disappearing.  He was losing money as stations, wagons, and coaches were destroyed and livestock was driven off, stolen, or killed, not to mention the human toll.  Freighting companies and travelers were scared off as the Smoky Hill Trail became too dangerous to use.  In March 1866 Butterfield was forced to sell his operation to his rival Ben Holladay, who ran a very profitable shipping and passenger business along the Platte River Road.  Holladay continued to run stages along the Smoky Hill Trail but fared no better than Butterfield and sold the route to Wells Fargo and Company in November 1866.  Wells Fargo in turn sold out to the United States Express Company in February 1867 and, although passenger traffic continued along the trail for a short time, this operation also eventually failed.  However, it was not Cheyennes or Arapahos who sounded the death knell for stage coach traffic along the Smoky Hill Trail.  It was the coming of the railroad.

Entry: Smoky Hill Trail and Butterfield Overland Despatch

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.