Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Fashionable Mr. Butterfield

Recently, I have been perusing the marvelous The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869, a three-volume work by Roscoe P. Conkling and Margaret B. Conkling. Published in 1947, the books were the culmination of years of research and fieldwork by the authors. The amazing couple retraced many of the Butterfield trail routes in their seven passenger 1930 Buick—what an adventure that must have been!

John Butterfield, a veteran stagecoach line operator (and one of the founders of the American Express company), conceived of the idea of creating a stagecoach line from St. Louis to California. The line began operating in 1857 but was disrupted by the Civil War.

A passage from volume one of The Butterfield Overland Mail describes Mr. Butterfield’s dress and gives some insight into the southern mindset in the late 1850s.

“He was scrupulous in his dress and appearance, his clothes being of the finest quality, and his high hats the best procurable. He adhered to the fashion of many of his time in always wearing high leather boots with his pantaloons drawn down over the tops; patent leather for formal wear, and plain black for business. His appearance in a long yellow linen ‘duster,’ and flat-crowned ‘wide-awake’ hat on his head of heavy graying hair, the attire he adopted on his western journeys, resulted in gaining more publicity than he realized, for he set a fashion for the young men in many of the large communities in Missouri and Arkansas, where the windows of every general merchandise store from Warsaw to Fort Smith, displayed the latest in Butterfield coats, hats and boots, and even Butterfield shirts and cravats” (p. 35). 

The passage is so well written that I could easily visualize Mr. Butterfield’s appearance, however, it struck me as intriguing that this trendsetter was not only a New Yorker but also a member of the Republican Party. In fact, he had been elected in 1856 as the mayor of Utica, New York. Mr. Butterfield was heartily welcomed by trans-Mississippi southerners in the late 1850s, and, yet, by the summer of 1860 many northerners were viewed with suspicion. The environment became so hostile that some northerners moved out of the trans-Mississippi South. An interesting study of the southern mindset on the eve of secession is Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and The Secession Of The Lower South by Donald E. Reynolds.


  1. Jane,
    Kirby Smith has done a ton of work for the NPS tracing the Butterfield mail routes. Volume 1 The Butterfield Overland Mail Ox Bow Route Through Missouri 1858-1861 was just published. I haven't seen this print version but was impressed when I got a hold of some digital samples of his work a few years ago.

  2. Drew,
    Thanks for informing me of the book--I had not heard of it before. I'm interested in retracing a part of the Butterfield route so I'll see about purchasing a copy.