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Rugged Individual Trailblazes Through Ozark History

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October 13, 2011 by Devils Den

​By Rebekah Spurlock

“Remember, boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the mail!” With a drive to carry mail, supplies, and passengers to the new frontier of the west, John Butterfield made a way through the rugged countryside of Northwest Arkansas that is still evident today. Meet the man himself, this Friday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. at the amphitheater at Devil’s Den State Park.

If you have ever visited Devil’s Den State Park, you have probably pushed the button on the diorama in the center of the Visitor Center highlighting the Butterfield Hiking Trail and seen it light up the ceiling with its blue glow. The Butterfield Hiking Trail is a 15-mile loop trail that begins in the park and meanders through the Ozark National Park and back into Devil’s Den again. It is a beautiful trail and one of the few in the state that offers a loop perfect for overnight backpacking, but have you ever wondered where its name came from?

The Butterfield Hiking Trail is named for the longest stagecoach route in world history – the Butterfield Overland Express. It ran approximately 2,812 miles from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco, Calif. Two of its main routes ran through Arkansas, westward from Memphis, Tennessee, and south from Missouri, connecting in Fort Smith. Although only in service from 1858 – 1861, the Butterfield Overland Express was an important step to the settlement and development of Arkansas and the American West before the Civil War.

When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the demand for transporting mail, supplies, and passengers to the west coast was so great that Congress voted to subsidize a route. They required that passengers and supplies could be transported safely from the Mississippi River to San Francisco in twenty-five days or less. John Butterfield, a stage driver from New York, was awarded the six-year, $600,000 contract that required that service was available within a year.

Butterfield hired experienced frontiersmen and purchased hundreds of mules, horses, supplies, and wagons and began establishing way stations along the route to be followed that provided gentle grades and passes that would not be snow-bound through the winter. It was along the route from Fayetteville to Fort Smith through the rugged Boston Mountains that the horses were exchanged for mules to make the arduous trip.

Within a few years, the Butterfield Overland Express employed several thousand people. However, with the advent of the Pony Express and Western Union’s transcontinental telegraph line, the Butterfield Overland Express’s era was coming to an end. Though the line joined with the Wells Fargo and continued to carry mail until 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed, John Butterfield lost the company many years earlier due to debt. Nevertheless, John Butterfield’s courage and determination made a route that opened communication and passage for hundreds of thousands. His legacy is still seen in the landscape today, so don’t miss your opportunity to hear his story this Friday night at the Devil’s Den amphitheater. ​​​

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