The Overland Trail was an important nineteenth-century corridor for explorers and traders that ran from Atchison, Kansas, to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. It followed preexisting Native American trails throughout most of its length. The Overland Trail followed the Oregon Trail across Nebraska but veered southwest into Colorado at Julesburg, passing through Sterling, Fort Morgan, Denver, and Fort Collins before rejoining the main trail south of Laramie, Wyoming. The Overland Trail was later an important mail delivery route operated by the Overland Mail & Express Company, the Pony Express, and Wells, Fargo & Co.
The precursor to the Overland Trail was the Cherokee Trail, which was established in 1849 as a shortcut to the gold fields of California (the Cherokee Trail was 150 miles shorter than the Oregon Trail). In 1856, after Lt. Francis T. Bryan announced that he had discovered a “good Indian trail along the south side of the South Platte,” the US Army began using the route. In 1858 the army undertook many improvements, making it more attractive as a stagecoach route and path to the Rocky Mountains for gold seekers, and the Overland Trail in Colorado was established. Two stagecoach companies had operated along the Overland Trail prior to 1862, but quickly went bankrupt. From 1860 to 1861, the route was also used by the Pony Express.
In addition to spreading disease, the massive amount of travelers on the trail reduced grazing lands and diminished important sources of game and shelter for American Indians. By 1862 hostilities between whites and Native Americans along the Oregon Trail were increasing to such an extent that much of its traffic, including the US mail, was moved south to the Overland Trail. That same year, Ben Holladay, a famed transportation entrepreneur known as the “Stagecoach King,” saw a potential money-making opportunity and bought the second of the failing stagecoach companies. Holladay supplied his newly formed Overland Mail & Express Company with sturdy Concord coaches and numerous new stage stations; a telegraph line was installed along the trail in 1863.
By early 1864, the Civil War required Union troops guarding the Overland Trail to turn their attention elsewhere, leaving travelers susceptible to attacks by Native Americans. In the early fall of 1864, conflict with Native Americans had increased so much that the government closed the Overland Trail, resulting in serious repercussions for the residents of Colorado: mail delivery was slowed to a crawl, and food was in short supply.
Because of the increased frequency of Native American attacks following the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864, on December 2 Colonel John M. Chivington ordered that traffic along the Overland Trail move to the “Cut-off Route.” This route turned northwest at Fort Morgan and passed through Fort Collins, bypassing Denver and forcing the Holladay Overland Mail & Express Company to either move or abandon its entire infrastructure. Benjamin Holladay later testified to a congressional committee that the process of “removing barns, houses, stations, corrals, stock, provisions and other property” put him to “great cost and expense,” for which he felt he ought to be compensated by the government, despite previously receiving millions of dollars in subsidies for carrying the mail.
The year 1865 was a very violent one along the Overland Trail in Colorado. Nearly all the ranches along the route were burned, and Julesburg was essentially destroyed. Despite the continuing hostilities, in 1866 Wells Fargo bought the Overland Mail & Express Company from Ben Holladay for $1.8 million.
The advancing railroads overwhelmed the stagecoach travel industry within a few years. The Union Pacific Railroad arrived in a rebuilt Julesburg in 1867, and in 1869 the Battle of Summit Springs marked the last of the major Native American hostilities on Colorado's Great Plains. Despite improved safety for travelers along the Overland Trail, the US government entered into a mail delivery contract with the railroad, effectively eliminating the majority of operating capital for the stagecoach companies. In 1870 the last stagecoach on the Overland Trail reached Denver, along with the first train.
Archaeology of the Overland Trail
Relatively little remains of the original trail, although archaeologists continue to pursue identification of trail remnants using remote-sensing techniques, such as aerial images, and archival research. For example, original survey maps that depict the trail, drawn as early as 1866, have been curated and digitized by the Bureau of Land Management. Agriculture, modern roads (many of which were built atop the historic trails) and construction have erased almost all evidence of this historic corridor. However, field verification occasionally results in the identification of intact segments, and despite the near total destruction of buildings along the trail, several stage station sites have been recorded, and the Virginia Dale Stage Station still stands.
Life on the Trail
The interested reader can find many stories and detailed descriptions of the rough living that characterized travel along the trail. The most famous author who wrote about the Overland Trail was Mark Twain, in his book Roughing It. The above-mentioned Benjamin Holladay’s congressional testimony contains fascinating details that provide a sense of the trail culture during the 1860s. Much of this information is online (see below), and the interested reader is strongly encouraged to explore these materials as a starting point for further exploration into the history of the Overland Trail in Colorado.