The Butterfield Stage and the River Valley

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
Western Arkansas Educational Service Cooperative
Near Delaware, Ark., is the station marker for Stinnett’s Station. Moses and Patsy Stinnett established the stop in the 1850s along the Butterfield Stage Line.

The Butterfield Stage Line has always brought up connotations of the Wild West and romantic movies of my childhood. I remember the wild shootouts involving the stage line and various groups of outlaws or Native Americans. Little did I realize growing up that the stage traveled the route of the bus I rode each morning.

The Butterfield Stage Line was originally established to provide mail service and carry passengers to and from California. The two eastern terminus were St. Louis and Memphis with both lines meeting in Fort Smith and continuing west. Due to the Civil War, the service operated for only three years, 1858-61, but left a lasting impact on our history.

The line from Memphis traveled from Little Rock through Conway, Potts Station, Norristown (Russellville) and then crossed the river by ferry to Dardanelle. At that point, our local history kicks in. Near Delaware is the station marker for Stinnett’s Station. Moses and Patsy Stinnett had established the stop in the 1850s. Located along a creek, it would have been an ideal place to take a short break while watering and changing the horses. Traveling the military road, the next stop was thought to be a change station at Shoal Creek along Pee Dee Creek. Later, the stage would stop at Creole Station near Subiaco, Moffet’s Station at Paris, Charleston, Lavaca and then into Fort Smith, where it would meet up with the stage from St. Louis.

Travel was not as romantic in life as it appears in movies. Waterman Ormsby, a New York reporter, wrote of his trip on the Butterfield Stage Line: “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what hell is like. I just had 24 days of it.” Another traveler described traveling from Fort Smith to Dardanelle and slogging through mud and falling rain carrying his own baggage. He described his best meal on that leg of the journey as a well-cooked possum served at one of the stations. To make matters worse, the official history of the Butterfield Stage states that they were never robbed — not even once — by outlaws, and were attacked only once by Native Americans resulting in one driver getting shot in the leg. Not quite the John Wayne and Hopalong Cassidy stories from my youth.

My good friend, Bob Crossman, has been researching the exact location of the stations and has generally described the route and stops along the way. Assisting him, I have been able to locate several of the foundations and remains of the old stage stops. Many people in our region can point out where the buildings once stood and repeat stories told to them by their ancestors. One and all, they speak of history not recorded and now lost.

I look at the old military road in a completely different perspective than in my youth. As I top the hill and look down the wooded lane, in my mind’s eye I hear the horses snorting, the sound of the whip as it cracks through the air, and see the loaded stage on its way to the west. The history of the Arkansas River Valley is so much a part of the history of our county.