The Butterfield Trail Through The Concho Valley and West Texas by Tom Ashmore - HTML preview

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Over a ten plus year period it was my pleasure to work with Tom Ashmore on numerous Concho Valley Archeology Society projects. One of the major projects was a CVAS project at Fort

Chadbourne, which lasted for 5 or 6 years. Other projects included rock shelters on the Nature Conservancy property along Independence Creek over a 4 or 5 years. Others include Horsehead Crossing and the immigrant Trail at the Green Mounds. Last but not least are the two lost Butterfield stage stations, Johnson station and Grape Creek station.

Johnson station and Grape Creek station as we know them were no longer visible to a person casually passing close by. Even the ranch owners were unaware of the location of either

Butterfield site. Now that these sites are uncovered after years of being lost to posterity we can confidently pass along to those that follow us our knowledge of where these long lost sites are located. It was my pleasure to work with Tom on this project over about a 10 year time period.

After gaining permission from the property owners we were allowed to access the general area and begin our search for the exact site. If it were not for Tom’s skill in reading satellite maps and his skill in following the scar left on the land by the mules and the stage coaches we would have never found the sites. I can honestly say that I was a skeptic at first in reading the satellite facts but after Tom educated me on how to use the tools I came to be a believer in the latest modern day technology, which helped us solve a mystery. I really became a believer in the use of the new technology when Tom and I went to the ranches to match up the satellite picture with the ranch land. With satellite map in hand we found where the stage line crossed the main ranch road near the Grape Creek Station. We walked the stage trail in multiple places near the Grape Creek Stage Station and our satellite guidance maps opened these doors for us. Again I’ll say that without Tom’s skill in reading satellite maps and his application of this modern technology we would have never found the Johnson Station or the Grape Creek Station. I am a firm believer in the use of this technology and I attach my name to Tom’s report concurring with his findings.

On the Grape Creek site Tom and I worked the site on the weekends and used our metal detectors to pin point the metal objects remaining. During the week it was my job to search the archives at Fort Concho reading the Scouting reports looking for any mention of the Grape Creek Station by the cavalry. We also looked into historical articles for mention of the Grape Creek Station. We came upon an article in Marvin Hunter’s magazine from 1911 by Emma Elkins, which shed light on what happened when the Indians attacked. Of course we referred to the Conkling books repeatedly to be certain that we stayed accurate with our work in the field.

Surely those that follow us will find our efforts to be beneficial and will expand their knowledge of an important time in the Concho Valley. I am proud to have been a part of this team effort and greatly appreciate Tom sharing with me his skills acquired in satellite map reading acquired during his 20 years in military intelligence.

C.A. Maedgen, III

Region 10 Director for TAS


SMU BS Geology 1966,

SMU MFA Communications 1968



One of the most significant periods in West Texas’ Concho Valley was the period of pre and post-Civil War. This period saw exploding expansion in our country as emigrants made their way through this area to points further west, mostly New Mexico and California. This brought about the Butterfield Stage line from 1857 to 1861, as well as settlers, cattle drives and trade caravans on this same trail. It also brought with it the Indian wars as the Apache and Comanche viewed this expansion as encroachment on their land so necessary to the survival of their tribes.

As the attacks on settlers and emigrants increased it brought more military camps and forts to the region. As such, studying the various locations related to these times is significant to clarifying the people and events of those times.

The West Texas section of the Butterfield Trail was one of the most difficult for stagecoach travelers. When they left Fort Chadbourne heading west they knew they were in for a rough ride. Because the trail ran through a dry and unpopulated country - and the fact that it continued to be used long after the Butterfield Overland Mail was discontinued in 1861 - the impression can still be seen by a trained eye through satellite imagery in places that no trail can be found on the ground.

Section of Butterfield Trail studied

Many efforts were made over the years to detail the Butterfield Overland Mail route through West Texas. The team of Roscoe and Margaret Conkling conducted the most famous, documented in their 1947 two-volume book, ‘Butterfield Overland Mail’ (Conkling). This route study is still considered today to be the most accurate and a sort of bible of the trail’s route.  However, during their research of West Texas they were unable to actually travel many sections of the trail and had to rely on local residents’ memory of just where the trail ran. Often the memory of residents turned out to be close, but not absolutely accurate. This series of reports researched over a 12 year period attempts to clear up some of these gaps while taking a journey from Fort Chadbourne to the Pecos River on the Butterfield Trail.

Table of Contents

1. Butterfield Overland Mail Overview

2. Satellite Imagery Interpretation of Historic Trails

3. The Butterfield Trail From Fort Chadbourne

4. Archeological Investigations of Grape Creek Station (41CK305) Coke County

5. The North Conch River Butterfield Trail Crossing

6. Archeological Investigations of Johnson’s Station (41IR123) Irion County

7. Middle Concho River Trail Split And Continuing West

8. The Pecos River Horsehead Crossing


1. Butterfield Overland Mail Overview

The official government contract for the Butterfield Overland Mail began in September, 1858, running semiweekly from Tipton, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee, to San Francisco, California and the same in the opposite direction. However, the contract was acquired one year prior with a stipulation the mail would begin to run for the government within one year. That year was spent building roads, stations, bridges and everything else needed to complete the project (Butterfield Overland Mail –TSHA). Stages probably began running during that year, but it is unlikely they were carrying paying passengers. They may well have been running as part of the preparation and supplies for the formal opening in September 1858.

The Butterfield Overland Mail schedule called for stagecoaches to pass in each direction twice per week. The coach was fitted with three seats, and these were occupied by nine passengers. As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags (Butterfield Overland Mail - Smithsonian).

For the West Texas portion of the trip the wagons were more rugged than the eastern Concord coaches. They were built especially for Butterfield and were called Celerity Wagons or Mud Wagons due to their rugged construction.

Celerity Wagon used by Butterfield Overland Mail Company

(Photo Courtesy of the Booth Western Art Museum)

Another unique aspect of the West Texas portion of the route were the mules used to pull the wagons. They used semi-wild Spanish Mules. Spanish Mules were originally brought from Spain to Mexico. They were smaller than their larger cousins and the mules we are familiar with today. They were hardier in this rough and dry country.


Print of a 19th Century Spanish Cowboy riding his mule (


1858 Butterfield Overland Mail Weekly Schedule (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

The coaches would arrive Tuesdays and Fridays heading west and Wednesdays and Saturdays heading east. The entire trip took 24 days in one direction.

2. Satellite Imagery Interpretation of Historic Trails

Satellite imagery is the new tool in the archeology tool set. This is now well known in the professional archeological community, but it is also available to amateur historians and archeologists. We need to keep pace with the technology as it continues to emerge and use it to its fullest in helping us reveal the past. I think that we will continue to find that with this new tool we will find some of the accepted theories will either be modified or more fully fleshed out, filling in what the military refers to as intelligence gaps. In this case we can call them historical gaps.

The advent of publicly accessible satellite imagery via Google Earth played a crucial role in finding and interpreting this particular site. First, it helped find it by being able to follow the Butterfield Trail, something previously unavailable through other means. Even after 156 years the trail trace is visible to the trained eye.

The reason an historic trail can be traced through satellite imagery is that satellite images can show slight differences in the vegetation caused by the years of constant use of the trail and then allowing the vegetation to grow back after the abandoning of the trail. The vegetation will generally grow back slightly different than the surround area due to the trail having become a depression which later attracts more soil and water runoff from rains. Bushes and grass tend to grow slightly healthier in the depressions. In most areas it can be so slight that casual observation on the ground or even from an aircraft cannot detect it. However, using satellite imagery, especially with multiple images of the same location using Google Earth’s ‘Historical Imagery’ tool, a trained eye can find the trace of these vegetation changes in long wagon trail lines across the terrain. A good example of this is a spot just off Arden Road, outside of San Angelo. Standing on the spot where the trail is and looking directly down the trail, if you did not know it was an old trail you would take the difference in the terrain and vegetation as natural.  However, you can see just a slightly better growth in the grass from the long ago depression.


Standing on Butterfield Trail looking north. Note the slight depression and tall grass.

Using satellite imagery from an extreme oblique angle, which is what Google Earth allows, can reveal the slight difference in a much more striking contrast and you can see the trail as it snakes across the countryside. However, another extremely important feature in Google Earth that is needed to follow the more difficult stretches of trail is the historical imagery capability. When looking at a location with the historical imagery capability set to on, you can move through the many years of images, looking at the exact same piece of earth from the exact same angle and find the one that will show the trace best for that piece of earth. I try to angle it out and go pretty far out so I get a long distance look. That is usually where I can see the faint trails best. The old trails tend to not follow existing boundaries or roads. When you see a faint trail crossing multiple properties, but in no logical relationship to modern boundaries it is a good bet is it an old trail. They always followed the easiest terrain possible - no steep cuts or hills. If they had to go down a cut they would always find the easiest way possible. You have to look at the trails from all different angles to pick them out piece by piece. Sometimes I go backward as if I'm looking out the back of an airplane and sometime I go forward as if I'm looking out the front.

I've even followed the trail sideways. It all depends and it’s a lot of trial and error. I connect the pieces together using the Google Earth line drawing tool to put a line down on top of it and then I begin with the next piece from the end of the line. Most of the time the trail is darker rather than lighter. Sometimes it looks like a bunch of bushes in a row and sometimes it is just some dark splotching that ends up looking like a faint line. The final trick is to be able to move the image forward and backward or side-to-side. For some reason, this allows your eyes to pick up the hard-to-find trace line where they could not in a still picture. I've found that the best elevation to be at is around 3,000 feet.

The following picture shows the trail as it heads to the North Concho River crossing point.  Notice the slightly darker vegetation in a line highlighted by arrows.


Satellite image of Butterfield Trail as it heads north to Middle Concho River crossing (Google Earth)

3. The Butterfield Trail From Fort Chadbourne

In order to be sure you are on the Butterfield Trail you need to begin from a known point. In this case we know that Fort Chadbourne was a main stage stop for the Butterfield Overland Mail and we know exactly where the stage building is. With this we can start our journey, heading west.

According to Conkling, the stage headed from the stage stop “west for about a quarter mile to the crossing on Oak Creek where the stream may still be forded at normal flow.” Conkling continued, “It then followed a winding course through the hills bordering the river.” Finally, they state the trail crossed the Colorado River at the location of Buffalo Creek. The problem quickly encountered was that the most prominent trail out of the fort heads not west, but south to a very deep cut in the stream, crossed a small bridge, in which only the abutments remain, and continued due south in a generally straight line and crossed the river at a location other than Buffalo Creek. This road was confirmed by multiple map sources later produced by the military.

After crossing the Colorado River it also heads to the Grape Creek Mail Station, also documented in military maps.


Satellite image of Fort Chadbourne and trail trace leaving station and heading south (Google Earth)

The road described by Conkling was much harder to trace, but I finally was able to find it and follow it exactly as described. Although undocumented, this means there were actually two different roads to the Colorado River used during different periods of time. The one described by Conkling was the road laid out by the military to move from their earlier location of Camp Johnston on the North Concho River. It follows a path through the existing cemetery and across the highway, turning to cross the creek, as he states. From that point it begins to fade as the trace heads south. Returning to Conkling’s account about the Colorado River crossing, he states,

“From this point it followed along the west side of Buffalo Creek for a distance of about four miles where it diverged from the old Military road which followed on southwest by way of Pecan Spring, while the Butterfield road from this junction to the Middle Concho River, was a newly opened company-built section of road.”


Military Road Colorado River crossing point and deviation of original Butterfield road (Google Earth)

Note that he states that it was following a military road before diverging. This is significant.  In old military maps this road was listed as the Joseph Johnston road. Later, a better and more direct road was built by the Butterfield Company down to the Colorado River. This one required a direct south exit from the fort and to do this they needed to build a bridge across Oak Creek, which is very deep at that point. Those bridge abutments are still there and you can trace the trail going up to them and leaving on the south side to head toward the west side of what is now the town of Bronte. After taking the more direct and easier route down to and across the Colorado River the newer road headed west to merge with the older road and continue on to the Grape Creek Station.

Below you can see where I have traced both trails heading south, where they cross the Colorado River and where they merge to continue heading south. The trail on the right is the older trail and on the left is the newer trail. There is one discrepancy in the Conkling account and that is that the trail only follows along the west side of Buffalo Creek for a short distance and then crosses to the east side. It had to cross at this point to continue south to the Grape Creek Station.


Two Colorado River points (looking south) and merge point (Google Earth)

The Butterfield Company needed to take a different route in order to set up a stage stop at the proper distance with accessible water they had determined for changes of mule teams and apparently there were no good locations on the original military route. That stage stop was to be the Grape Creek Station. So the Butterfield route diverged from the military route just after crossing the river. The military route headed SSW and the Butterfield route headed SSE. After abandoning the military trail the new trail passed to the west side of what is today the town of Bronte and crossed approximately 3.5 miles east of the original crossing.  This trail merged with the originally constructed offshoot from the downstream military crossing about 6 miles south to continue on to Grape Creek Station.


Butterfield Trail as it passed by current town of Bronte (Google Earth)


Butterfield Trail at Colorado River crossing south of Bronte (Google Earth)


4. Archeological Investigations of Grape Creek Station (41CK305) Coke County


Butterfield Trail through West Texas

The Butterfield Overland Mail’s Grape Creek Station was a smaller, mule-changing station in the Concho Valley prior to any habitation in the area. It was abandoned in 1861 due to the onset of the Civil War, but the former location was still known until the early 1900s. After that the memory of its location was lost as those with the knowledge passed on. The general location was known, but first-hand knowledge was lost. An attempt was made by Roscoe and Margaret Conkling in the late 1940s as they wrote their now famous 3-book set on the Butterfield Trail, but they were never able to actually locate the station site and had to rely on the landowner’s description of the location. Over the years several groups of avocational archeologists and historians attempted to verify the described location as they hunted the local area, but to no avail.

This study used new satellite technology to find the actual location and straighten out the history of this small, but important site in the area.  With the permission of the landowners the on-ground efforts began with metal detecting surveys of a narrowed down location. Very quickly the site was identified through the metal detecting and verification of the trail running to it and a more thorough survey project began in order to tie the archeological artifacts pulled from the ground to compare against the research and confirm the identification as the Grape Creek Station.


East Fork Grape Creek looking south

With the permission of the landowners the on-ground efforts began with metal detecting surveys of a narrowed down location. Very quickly the site was identified through the metal detecting and verification of the trail running to it and a more thorough survey project began in order to tie the archeological artifacts pulled from the ground to compare against the research and confirm the identification as the Grape Creek Station.

Grape Creek Station was the first relay station for the Butterfield Stage line heading west after leaving Fort Chadbourne, Texas. It was one in a series of stations for the stages crossing West Texas on the way to or from the Pecos River and New Mexico between 1857 and 1861. It was located on the east side of the east branch of Grape Creek, a spring fed creek running north to south. Travelers came to the station after a southerly crossing of 30 miles through the dry West Texas land and over a small set of hills given the name Stone Mountain at the time. Coming from the west it was the next station after the Johnson’s Station on the Middle Concho River, a distance of 32 miles. Although neither Fort Concho nor San Angelo existed at the time, the location sits just over 18 miles north of these current locations and 10 miles northeast of the current town of Grape Creek.


San Angelo and town of Grape Creek (Google maps)

This stage station site was bordered to its west by the east branch of Grape Creek, sitting in a valley running north and south one mile wide by four miles in length. It is in an active floodplain along the creek area with low hills to the east and west. Over the decades the site has seen may savage floods and fires, which is why the site had little to see on the surface of the station’s occupation. The main area of interest is in an open field that was cleared of cedar and mesquite by the landowners who also never knew of the site at this location.

In the 1800s this area would have been open prairie. Elevation is 2,190 feet. Grape Creek lies approximately 200 feet west of the estimated location of the original main building. The site takes up just under a quarter acre.

We know a few things about the Grape Creek Station construction from first and second hand accounts of the period. The first account came from Mr. Waterman Ormsby, the first and only passenger of the inaugural run of the Butterfield Overland Mail (Wright). Ormsby was a special correspondent for the Tucson Arizona Herald and rode the entire route in September, 1858. 


Waterman Ormsby (Wikipedia)

His account of the station follows:

“We soon reached it and found it to be a corral, or yard, for the mules, and

tents erected inside for the men, under charge of Mr. Henry Roylan. They had

seen us coming and were herding the mules as we drove up. Their corral was

built of upright rough timber, planted in the ground. They had pitched their

tents inside, for fear of the Indians, and took turns standing guard, two hours

on and two hours off. The station was near Grape Creek, a fine stream, and

also near some fine timber -- two desirable things not to be found everywhere in


Later, a cabin was built outside the corral and the two were enclosed by a wooden picket stockade wall. We know this from an account by Mrs. Emma Elkins she gave in a 1911 article of Hunters Magazine (Elkins). Mrs. Elkins lived on Fort Chadbourne at the time of an Indian attack and her account came from the Grape Creek station occupants themselves while Mr. Pennington, the station manager, was recovering in the Fort Chadbourne hospital.

“One fusillade after another was fired at the house without serious results, the

house being built of split logs and therefore bul

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