November 4, 2004
Riding The Overland Stage, 1861
by lyle e davis
San Diego County has had
its share of stagecoach history . . . but probably none has been recorded by as
great a writer as one Samuel Clemens, known to most of us as “Mark Twain.” In
the following feature, Twain recounts his journey via stage coach. Lean back,
relax, and drift back to a rougher time . . . when life was not quite as easy as
we have it. Enjoy the read:
In 1861, Mark Twain's
(real name Samuel Clemens) brother Orion was named Secretary of Nevada
Territory. Twain joined his brother for the trip west. (Some contend the young
Twain deserted from the Confederate Army to do so.) Eleven years later Twain
described his journey in the book Roughing It. Although its approach is
humorous, the book's descriptions are accurate. As Twain notes in his preface,
". . . there is information in the volume; information concerning an interesting
episode in the history of the Far West, about which no books have been written
by persons who were on the ground in person, and saw the happenings of the time
with their own eyes."
The movies create an
idyllic impression of riding the overland stage - smooth travel in roomy
comfort. Twain paints a much different picture - passengers crammed together
with mailbags, jostled by every bump, breathing dust, and at the mercy of Mother
Nature. However, for its time, the stagecoach offered the latest technology in
travel, carrying its careening passengers across the Western Plains at speeds
greater than any other transport available.
Twain begins his journey
in St. Joseph, Missouri, the starting point for the overland route to
Sacramento, California. Twain and his brother Orion discover that passengers are
limited to only 25 pounds of baggage. After shedding much of their luggage, the
intrepid travelers are on their way across the plains of Kansas.
"Our coach was a swinging
and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description - an imposing cradle on
wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat
the 'conductor,' the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to
take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We
three were the only passengers this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About
all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags - for we had three days' delayed
mail with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter
rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage,
and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds
of it aboard, the driver said - 'a little for Brigham, and Carson, and 'Frisco,
but the heft of it for the Injuns, which is powerful troublesome 'thout they get
plenty truck to read.' But as he just then got up a fearful convulsion of his
countenance which was suggestive of a wink being swallowed by an earthquake, we
guessed that his remark was intended to be facetious , and to mean that we would
unload the most of our mail matter somewhere on the Plains and leave it to the
Indians, or whosoever wanted it.
We changed horses every
ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the hard, level road. We jumped
out and stretched our legs every time the coach stopped, and so the night found
us still vivacious and unfatigued."
The next day, the stage
suffers a breakdown forcing its passengers to evacuate while repairs are made.
The conductor lays the blame for the mishap on the extra weight of too many
mailbags. After throwing half the mail onto the prairie, the stage resumes its
journey. Orion's large Unabridged Dictionary causes trouble along the way.
"Whenever the stage
stopped to change horses, we would wake up, and try to recollect where we were -
and succeed - and in a minute or two the stage would be off again, and we
likewise. We began to get into country, now, threaded here and there with little
streams. These had high, steep banks on each side, and every time we flew down
one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed somewhat. First
we would all lie down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a
sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end and stand on
our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of
mail-bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from
the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble,
and probably say some hasty thing, like: 'Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can't
you quit crowding?'
Every time we avalanched
from one end of the stage to the other, the Unabridged Dictionary would come
too; and every time it came it damaged somebody. One trip it 'barked' the
Secretary's elbow; the next trip it hurt me in the stomach, and the third it
tilted Bemis's nose up till he could look down his nostrils - he said. The
pistols and coin soon settled to the bottom, but the pipes, pipe-stems, tobacco,
and canteens clattered and floundered after the Dictionary every time it made an
assault on us, and aided and abetted the book by spilling tobacco in our eyes,
and water down our backs."
The Way Station
A stagecoach stops at a way station, ca. 1869
Soldiers riding on top provide protection
Each evening, the stage
announces its approach to a way station by the driver blowing a bugle. The way
station offers sparse comfort.
"The station buildings
were long, low huts, made of sun-dried, mud-colored bricks, laid up without
mortar (adobes the Spaniards call these bricks, and Americans shorten it to 'dobies.)The
roofs, which had no slant to them worth speaking of, were thatched and then
sodded or covered with a thick layer of earth, and from this sprang a pretty
rank growth of weeds and grass. It was the first time we had ever seen a man's
front yard on top of his house. The buildings consisted of barns, stable-room
for twelve or fifteen horses, and a hut for an eating room for passengers. This
latter had bunks in it for the station-keeper and a hostler or two. You could
rest your elbow on its eaves, and you had to bend in order to get in at the
door. In place of a window there was a square hole about large enough for a man
to crawl through, but this had no glass in it. There was no flooring, but the
ground was packed hard. There was no stove, but fire-place served all needful
purposes. There were no shelves, no cupboards, no closets. In a corner stood an
open sack of flour, and nestling against its base were a couple of black and
venerable tin coffee-pots, a tin teapot, a little bag of salt, and a side of
By the door of the
station keeper's den, outside, was a tin wash-basin, on the ground. Near it was
a pail of water and a piece of yellow soap, and from the eves hung a hoary blue
woolen shirt, significantly - but this latter was the station-keeper's private
towel, and only two persons in all the party might venture to use it - the
stage-driver and the conductor."
The Pony Express Rider
The passengers eagerly
await the spectacle of an encounter with a Pony Express rider racing his load of
mail to its next transfer point.
Express rider Frank E. Webner ca. 1861
the driver exclaims:
'HERE HE COMES!'
Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the
endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it
is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a
horse and rider rising and falling, rising and falling - sweeping toward us
nearer and nearer and still
nearer - growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined
- nearer and still nearer, and the flut
ter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear - another instant a whoop and a hurrah
from our upper deck, a wave of the rider'' hand, but no reply, and a man and
horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment
of a storm!
The Pony Express began in 1860
and ended in 1861. Mail was carried in 40-mile relays from St. Jo. to
Sacramento in 10 days.
Near Salt Lake City, the stage passes a wagon train filled with Mormons making
the trek westward.
"Just beyond the breakfast-station we overtook a Mormon emigrant train of
thirty-three wagons; and tramping wearily along and driving their herd of lose
cows, were dozens of coarse-clad and sad-looking men, women, and children, who
had walked as they were walking now, day after day for eight lingering weeks,
and in that time had compassed the distance our stage had come in eight days and
three hours - seven hundred and ninety-eight miles! They were dusty and
uncombed, hatless, bonnetless and ragged, and they did look so tired!"
Information for this story was gathered from the archives that are readily
available to the public should you be interested:
Mormon Emigrant Train heads towards Utah, ca. 1879
The Mormon Trek from the East to Utah began in 1845.
last stagecoach to leave Lind, Washington, 1925
(ed.), The American Frontier (1992); Twain, Mark, Roughing It (1872).
"Riding The Overland
Stage, 1861," EyeWitness to History,