Ficklin Mail Service, 1866–1872

“After the war closed, he was again on the west Texas mail service and did good service, remaining in it until 1873, when western Texas had become so well organized and settled that there was no need for further armed service in that direction”

— “Custodian of the Alamo,” San Antonio Light, February 23, 1887.

Concord Mail Coach. Made in Concord, New Hampshire by the Abbot-Downing Company, they were considered to be the best available passenger vehicle for severe service. They weighed 3,000 pounds and had a carrying capacity of two tons and costs about $1,500 each. Nine passengers could ride inside the coach on three seats and several more could be accommodated on top with the driver. There was ample room for baggage. Concords were constructed of New England’s best oak, ash, elm and basswood and featured heavy, wide-tired wheels set far apart for lateral stability. Photo from Abbot Downing Company catalog, Concord, N.H..

Civil government struggled to function after the Civil War.

After the surrender of the last Confederate army on May 26, 1865,1 up to 2,000 Confederate officers and soldiers, including Texas Governor Pendleton Murrah, fled to Mexico.2 Law and order in Texas started to break down without these leaders.3

During the summer and fall of 1865, the postal service became very unreliable.4 Some private express operations were carrying mail, but there was no scheduled mail service between San Antonio and the upper Rio Grande Valley. Indian attacks along the frontier continued unabated;5 there were no troops in place to protect travelers on the West Texas roads.6

Mail service resumed in 1866.

Bethel Coopwood was the first contractor to reopen the mail service between San Antonio and El Paso after the Civil War.7 Bethel Coopwood began his enterprise as a freight hauler between San Antonio and El Paso and Chihuahua. The San Antonio Ledger, in July 1866, called the mail company the “Southern Overland Stage and Express Company.” 8 The first mail train left San Antonio on April 24, accompanied by forty mounted men. Chief Espejo and José Cigarito and a large war party of Native American warriors attacked the party near the deserted Fort Lancaster after it crossed the Pecos River. Many of the stage escorts were armed with repeating rifles. The Indians were not familiar with these weapons and were driven off. This delivery was the first mail to arrive in El Paso from San Antonio in nearly four years.9

In November 1866, Coopwood transferred the stagecoach property to Frederick A. Sawyer.10 James Holliday supervised the transition and became an agent of the new company.11 Sawyer’s contract called for three mail trains per week between San Antonio and El Paso.12

In December 1866, Federal troops occupied Fort Clark and Fort Mason.13 The Confederacy occupied Fort Clark during the war, but not Fort Mason. It was not until July 1867 that Federal troops arrived at Fork Stockton.14 Before that, Coopwood’s men never managed to get more than two mail trains a week past Mescalero Indian Chief Espejo and his band.15 The newspapers in San Antonio complained that, from November 1866 through May 1867, a period of twenty-eight weeks, only twelve mail trains had completed the trip.

The post Civil War Indian raids began in July 1866 when 125 Apache warriors attacked the eastbound stage at Varela Spring and also the west-bound stage at Lancaster Hill. According to one observer, Comanche Indians “roamed over an immense region, eating the raw flesh of the buffalo, drinking its warm blood, and plundering Mexicans, Indians and white with judicial impartiality.” 16 Attacks were expected and, while disruptive, did not stop the mail contractor. By November and December 1866, contractors were repairing stage stands and purchasing livestock before beginning mail runs between San Antonio and El Paso.17 Traffic along the San Antonio-El Paso Upper and Lower roads increased despite continuing Native American depredations.18 By 1867, the Lower Road was used so heavily by freighters that it was said to be “seldom that a person could cross the road without seeing” wagons.19

The US Army returned to Fort Davis in 1867.

In June 1867, Negro troops of the Ninth Cavalry and Forty-first Infantry Regiments occupied Fort Davis. They began to build a new post adjacent to the ruins of the old one. Fort Stockton was reoccupied on July 12, 1867, by four companies of the Ninth Cavalry composed of Black troops recruited from the area around New Orleans.20

Sawyer’s new mail contract started on July 1, 1867, but the first mail, which was accompanied by the line’s new manager, Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, left San Antonio on the Lower Road three months later. The mail stations on the new route (the Upper Road) were not yet ready. The mail train found that Indians had filled Howard’s Well and Eagle Springs with earth, but the train reached El Paso safely.21 The second west-bound mail train was lost a few miles north of Howard’s Well when Kickapoo Indians captured the pack mules and killed two troopers from the Ninth Cavalry.22

Fort Quitman, on the Rio Grande, was reoccupied on January 1, 1868, by one company of the Ninth Cavalry23 and “fought a dozen skirmishes with Mescalero Indians in only a few weeks.” 24 Starting in March, tri-weekly mail service began to go through Fredericksburg and Fort Mason along the Upper San Antonio-El Paso Road. After crossing the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing, the mail train continued to Fort Stockton and then followed the Lower Road to Forts Davis and Quitman and on to El Paso.25 The new route passed through more settled areas than did the Lower Road and was, therefore, more able to be protected and maintained. However, there were still long stretches of road without settlements. West of Fort Concho, there were no settlements until Fort Stockton, a distance of 150 miles through Indian country.26 The stage traveled, “all day upon the silent desert, stopping only to change mules at lonely little stations.” 27

On June 3, 1868, T. G. Williams, the agent in San Antonio, announced express mail service through to El Paso in 6½ days. The stage left San Antonio on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8 am. There were connections at Fort Stockton to Presidio del Norte. Another coach left San Antonio on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at seven o’clock in the morning for Eagle Pass and Fort Clark via Castroville, New Fountain, D’Hanis, and Uvalde.28

The stage company expanded its operations in West Texas in 1869.

In January 1869, Ben Ficklin purchased 640 acres on the south bank of the Middle Concho River and expanded his existing headquarters there. He built wagon shops and sheds for harness makers, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths as well as a warehouse and corrals for stock. In January 1870, Ficklin’s weekly stage schedule was increased to semiweekly service, and coaches replaced the buckboard wagons that had been used between Fort Concho and Fort Stockton.29

In the early 1870’s, U.S. Major Zenas R. Bliss returned to duty in West Texas. As was his custom throughout his military career, he kept a diary of his trip. He said of the coach drivers, “Each driver drove about a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five miles, day and night, stopping at stations only long enough to swallow a hasty meal. While the driver and escort were eating, the station keeper and his helper hitched up a fresh team of mules, and held them till all were aboard, and then turned them loose, and they would go upon the run for a mile or more, and then they would settle down to a trot and go along peaceably. The mules were trained not to stand still in the road.” “If a passenger needed to get out of the coach between stations it was not necessary to stop the coach, the passenger would jump out, and the coach would go on again on a run, and the driver would run the mules in a circle, and after a while bring them back” to where the passenger was standing. The passenger would jump in, and off they went again.30

Thomas Rife worked for the stage line until 1872.

There is evidence that Thomas Rife continued to work for the mail line during this period. George Baylor, who was for many years a Ranger captain in the upper Rio Grande Valley, implied that at some time before 1873, Thomas Rife was in charge of a mail station on the Rio Grande between Fort Quitman and Ysleta31 near where Camp Rice and later Fort Hancock were located.32

Stagecoaches in west Texas did a brisk business in both express packages and passengers until the railroads were built and placed in service. The stagecoach line prospered as the country filled up with settlers. In January 1882, the Texas and Pacific Railroad reached El Paso from the east.33 After the railroad was built and given the contract to carry the mail, stagecoach conductors and guards were put out of business.34

  1. William L. Richter, The Army in Texas During Reconstruction: 1865-1870, (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1987), 13 ↩︎

  2. Mark Swanson, Atlas of the Civil War Month by Month: Major Battles and Troop Movements, (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2004), 112 ↩︎

  3. W. C. Nunn, Texas Under The Carpetbaggers, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 3; Richter, The Army in Texas During Reconstruction, 13 ↩︎

  4. Wayne R. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules: The San Antonio-El Paso Mail, 1851-1881, (College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1985), 196 ↩︎

  5. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 239; Richter, The Army in Texas During Reconstruction, 71 ↩︎

  6. Thomas Yoseloff, editor, Confederate Military History Vol. 11, (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1962), 141; Richter, The Army in Texas During Reconstruction, 27, 150 ↩︎

  7. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 200: Robert H. Thonhoff, San Antonio Stage Lines 1847-1881, (El Paso: Texas Western Press, University of Texas at El Paso, 1971), fig. 25 ↩︎

  8. The Galveston News, July 26, 1866 ↩︎

  9. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 202 ↩︎

  10. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 204 ↩︎

  11. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 210 ↩︎

  12. Carlysle Graham Raht, Romance of Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country, A History, (El Paso: The Rahtbooks Company, 1919), 157 ↩︎

  13. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 68 ↩︎

  14. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 83 ↩︎

  15. Raht, Romance of Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country, A History, 157 ↩︎

  16. Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean, 1857-1867, (American Publishing Company, Hartford, Conn 1867,) 228 ↩︎

  17. Clayton W. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895, (College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1982), 68; San Antonio Express, October 15, 1867 ↩︎

  18. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 86 ↩︎

  19. T. S. Dennis and Mrs. T. S. Dennis, Life Of F. M. Buckelew, The Indian Captive As Related by Himself, (Bandera, TX: Hunter’s Printing House, 1925), 78 ↩︎

  20. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 82 ↩︎

  21. San Antonio Express, October 15, 1867 ↩︎

  22. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 211; San Antonio Express, (San Antonio, Tex.), October 21, 1867) ↩︎

  23. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 90 ↩︎

  24. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 212 ↩︎

  25. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 104, 126 ↩︎

  26. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 213 ↩︎

  27. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, 228 ↩︎

  28. Thonhoff, “San Antonio Stage Lines 1847-1881,”” fig. 30 ↩︎

  29. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier, 122; San Antonio Express, January 7, 1871 ↩︎

  30. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 273; Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, 235 ↩︎

  31. George Wythe Baylor, Into the Far, Wild Country: True Tales of the Old Southwest, (El Paso: Texas Western Press, The University of Texas at El Paso, 1996), 305 ↩︎

  32. Austerman, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, 14 ↩︎

  33. Evelyn M. Carrington, ed., Women in Early Texas, (Austin: Jenkins Publishing Company, 1975), 68-9; James L. Rock and W. I. Smith, Southern & Western Texas Guide for 1878, (St. Louis: A. H. Granger Publishers, 1878), 341-3 ↩︎

  34. Vinton Lee James, Frontier and Pioneer Recollections: Recollections of the Early Days in San Antonio and West Texas, (San Antonio: Artes Graficas, 1938), 81 ↩︎