The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861


By Glen Sample Ely

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press (March 2016)
Hardcover: 440 pages, including 6 maps, 236 color and 56 black & white illustrations

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This is the story of Texas’s antebellum frontier, from the Red River to El Paso, a raw and primitive country punctuated by chaos, lawlessness, and violence. During this time, the federal government and the State of Texas often worked at cross-purposes, their confused and contradictory policies leaving settlers on their own to deal with vigilantes, lynchings, raiding American Indians, and Anglo-American outlaws. Before the Civil War, the Texas frontier was a sectional transition zone where southern ideology clashed with western perspectives and where diverse cultures with differing worldviews collided.

This is also the tale of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which carried passengers and mail west from Saint Louis to San Francisco through Texas. While it operated, the transcontinental mail line intersected and influenced much of Texas’s frontier history. Through meticulous research, including visits to all the sites he describes, Glen Sample Ely uncovers the fascinating story of the Butterfield Overland Mail in Texas.

Until the U.S. Army and Butterfield built West Texas’s infrastructure, the region’s primitive transportation network hampered its development. As Ely shows, the Overland Mail Company and the army jump-started growth, serving together as both the economic engine and the advance agent for European American settlement. Used by soldiers, emigrants, freighters, and stagecoaches, the Overland Mail Road was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the modern interstate highway system, stimulating passenger traffic, commercial freighting, and business.

Although most of the action takes place within the Lone Star State, this is in many respects an American tale. The same concerns that challenged frontier residents confronted citizens across the country. Written in an engaging style that transports readers to the rowdy frontier and the bustle of the overland road, The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail offers a rare view of Texas’s antebellum past.

Book Reviews

“This is a monumental work crafted with great care and a lively narrative. Anyone with an interest in Western trails, Texas history, or the [pre-Civil War] West will find it a pleasure. The book itself is lavishly produced with detailed maps and numerous illustrations, most of which are not available elsewhere. The result of 25 years of research both in libraries and on the ground, it will certainly prove the definitive work on this subject. Happily, the writing matches the elegance of the book itself.”—Alfred L. Bush, Curator of Western Americana Collection, Princeton University, retired.

The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858–1861 may well be the most fascinating and intelligently written book I have read in decades. Glen Sample Ely offers us an exhaustively researched, compelling story, sumptuously illustrated throughout. This is frontier history at its best.”—Jerry D. Thompson, author of Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas and Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West

“There is no book in the modern era that undertakes the scope of the work Ely has done.  His volume will supplant that of Roscoe and Margaret Conkling’s 1947 work on the Butterfield Overland Mail, and frankly other writers will have to scramble to update what Ely has written on many other topics. This book will be frequently cited, and it will become the starting point for many other studies.  It is highly unlikely that anyone will EVER again undertake the level of research Ely has put into this work.  His use of primary sources is wonderful, and his perspectives are engrossing.” —Richard B. McCaslin, author of Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862 and Fighting Stock: John S. “Rip” Ford of Texas

“More than a history of the short-lived operations of the Butterfield Overland Mail in Texas, this is, as Glen Sample Ely explains, ‘an American tale’ of the dreams, achievements, failures, and violence of the nineteenth-century American West. The impressive product of a twenty-five year labor of love, it is built upon the author’s personal observations and field research as well as his extraordinary command of private, local, state, and federal records.”—Robert Wooster, author of The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783–1900 and The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903

“Glen Sample Ely has written an extraordinarily readable, realistic, and accurate history of the Butterfield Overland Mail route through Texas. His superb narration is enhanced by maps and photographs and bolstered by his exhaustive research in government, state, and museum archives.”—Howard R. Lamar, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University

About the Author

Glen Sample Ely is a Texas historian and documentary producer. Ely earned his Ph.D. from Texas Christian University and is the author of the award-winning Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity (Texas Tech University Press, 2011), and author-signed copies are available here:

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Weight 1.50 lbs

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