National Trails Office, public discuss historic designation of Butterfield Overland Trail

FORT DAVIS — A years-long process to share the history of the Butterfield Overland Trail — a historic 1800s mail route that winds across Jeff Davis County — began last week with a public meeting at the county’s courthouse hosted by the National Trails Office, a division of the National Park Service (NPS).

The Butterfield Overland Trail — a 3,292-mile stretch beginning in Missouri and Arkansas that crosses seven states, ending in California — was established as a National Historic Trail in January 2023 by Congress. There are 21 National Historic Trails and 11 National Scenic Trails across the country. The honor is meant to commemorate the impact travel had on the formation of the nation.

The meeting in Jeff Davis County was one of 18 such events the National Trails Office is hosting across the route’s seven states from October 2023 to February 2024. The office’s role is to present historically accurate, consistent information across sites by partnering with local communities on trail marking, signage and preservation of archeological resources.

“We do not own or manage any of the land that the National Historic Trails traverse,” said National Trails Office Outreach Coordinator Angélica Sánchez-Clark. “So, it’s really through public and private partnerships that we fulfill the core purpose of National Historic Trails, which is historic preservation, public use and enjoyment.”

Staff from the National Trails Office, a division of the National Park Service headquartered in Santa Fe, visited Jeff Davis County last week to share developments regarding the historically-designated Butterfield Overland Trail, which ran through the area in the mid-1800s. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

The National Trails Office is in the public meeting stage of a three-year planning process that will culminate in a comprehensive plan to be released in 2026.

Carole Wendler, National Trails Office acting superintendent, addressed about 40 attendees at the start of last week’s meeting to explain that her team of outreach specialists, geographic information system (GIS) specialists and historians were eager to hear feedback from locals on their knowledge of the trail.

“There’s been a lot of scholars, a lot of research done on the Butterfield Overland Trail, which is the reason that it was declared nationally significant and made a National Historic Trail,” Wendler said. “But our process right now — in going through a comprehensive planning process — is to help refine that, help us learn as much as we can about the route in local communities.”

The Butterfield Overland Trail was active in the area from 1859 up to the start of the Civil War in 1861 and utilized an existing mail route referred to as “the lower road.” Businessman John Butterfield was awarded a contract from Congress in 1857 to establish a mail route from the eastern part of the country to California to expedite mail services.

Save for the Old Overland Trail Museum in Fort Davis, which is located along the route and provides a wide range of historical information on the county, there is little public recognition via plaques or signage that promotes the trail’s history.

Nick Myers, the lead historian on the project, said the trail is notable in that its creation was an unprecedented logistical undertaking involving the construction of new roads and infrastructure. It also served as a projection of federal power into new territories. “If you think about what government actually is, and what the state actually is, in these cases, in frontier situations, it was often the twin pillars of the Army and the mail,” Myers said.

A number of stagecoach stops — where drivers would access nearby creeks or springs and change out animals— were located in the Fort Davis area, according to an essay by Larry Francell, a local who has authored several books on Fort Davis’ history and who attended the meeting.

 

Francell writes that all but one of the stagecoach stops, which is located on the grounds of Fort Davis National Historic Site, are on private property. Wendler and other National Trails Office employees made it clear to meeting attendees the NPS will not force private landowners located along the historic trail to make it open to the public. “Our role has nothing to do with private land use,” Wendler said. “We really work with anybody who’s interested and willing to work with us.”

Wendler said tourists may visit publicly accessible sites of interest intermittently along the trail, but rarely do visitors try to follow the trail’s exact route. The office’s GIS team maps the route using satellite technology, allowing users to visualize the trail while warning them not to cross onto private land, according to GIS specialist Brian Deaton, who was present at the meeting.

National Historic Trails, like the Pony Express and Trail of Tears, also administered by Wendler’s office, differ from National Scenic Trails like the Pacific Crest Trail that are designed for long-distance hiking. National Trails Office employees took questions from the audience after their presentations, and lead planner Jill Jensen said the agency’s next steps will be to conduct tribal outreach along the route and return to the Fort Davis area in the fall for field work.

Mary Williams, chairman of the Jeff Davis County Historical Commission, who was present at the meeting, said she thought the event was well-attended and seemed to put property owners located along the trail at ease.

“I think people were optimistic about what’s going to happen,” Williams said. “I think the landowners were glad to know that there isn’t going to be any push to acquire land. There’s not going to be any push to identify landowners.”

Williams said the designation and forthcoming promotion of the Butterfield Overland Trail as a National Historic Trail will likely bring even more visitors to the historically rich area.

“A lot of people want to do all the national parks,” Williams said. “They’ll travel all over the United States to do the national parks. Well, there are people that want to do all the trails.”

The old path of the Butterfield Overland Trail, located on the right, and the Guadalupe Mountains near Dell City. Photo courtesy of Glen Ely.

Dave Larson, Fort Davis National Historic Site superintendent, said he and his team were excited to dig further into the history of the stagecoach stop located within the fort and plan to search through records to learn more about the volume of mail that came through the site.

Larson said the National Historic Site will be an opportunity for the public to access the history of the trail moving forward. Larsen said his team will assess how they can introduce the story of the Butterfield Overland Trail to 50,000 annual visitors and look into educational opportunities for local students.

For more information on the project, including maps, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=118557