Historic Carbines

Trips Into History had the opportunity to visit historic sites of the old west that today display some amazing collections of old carbines and other firearms that saw action during the frontier days.

Below is a collection of old carbines popular with the cavalry that are on display at Fort Garland in southern Colorado. Like many of the old frontier forts, Fort Garland was established to protect settlers and foster the growth of towns and commerce.

frontier carbines

The four rifles displayed here are the Merrill Carbine 1861, the Sharps and Hankins Model 1862, the Burnside Carbine 4th Model 1864 and the Model 1858 Starr Carbine. Some of these carbines may be more familiar to you than others.

The Merrill Carbine Type 1

The top carbine shown in the photo, the Merrill Carbine, manufactured in Baltimore Maryland, was said to be not too popular with the troops. The carbines were originally designed for sport use and didn’t adapt well to the rigors of cavalry use. Sights and hammers were also said to break off during rugged use.

The Merrill 1st Type .54 caliber was first issued to the army in 1861 and it’s estimated that just under 15,000 were produced. These carbines saw action during the war in both the east and the west. Additional Merrill models were introduced during the Civil War. The carbine had a breech system with a long lever released by a spring latch. It was percussion primed using a paper cartridge. Features with this firearm included a brass buttplate, brass patch box, brass trigger guard, single brass band, and a saddle riding ring.

The Sharps and Hankins Model 1862

The second carbine from the top is the Sharps and Hankins Model 1862. This single shot breech loading percussion carbine was manufactured by a partnership between Christian Sharps of popular buffalo rifle fame and a man named William Hankins.  The Model 1862 rifle has a 24 inch barrel and a hexagon bore. It’s estimated that about 6,000 of these were manufactured during the Civil War. Christian Sharps also produced several popular sporting rifles after the Civil war, the Sharps 1873 Sporting Rifle being one of them.

The Burnside Carbine Model 1864

The third rifle from the top down is the Burnside Carbine 4th Model 1864, often said to be one of the finest carbines used during the Civil War This firearm was produced by the Burnside Rifle Company in Providence Rhode Island.The rifle was designed by Ambrose Burnside, an ex-Army officer who left the military to devote all his time to designing the carbine.

Returning to service with the Civil War, Burnside’s command didn’t fare as well as the rifles with his name did. He and his troops lost the Battle of Fredericksburg and retreated. The story is that afterward many of his men complained directly to the White House about Burnside’s ineptness in battle.

About 7,000 of these carbines were manufactured. They used an unusual cone shaped metal cartridge for use in a percussion system. Features with this rifle included an  iron buttplate, a single iron barrel band, saddle riding bar and ring on left side, strap hook on bottom of the butt, a double hinged iron loading lever and a hinged sight. This rifle system used a rotating block, released by a loading lever that was activated by a hinged, clamping catch.

The Starr Model 1858 Carbine

Here was a breech loading, percussion, paper cartridge single shot rifle that was purchased by the U.S. Army during the latter years of the Civil War. The rifles were manufactured by the Starr Arms Company of Yonkers New York. The company also built revolvers and it’s been said by some that the revolvers were a bit more popular than the carbines. The reviews of the carbine depended on who you asked. Some cavalry officers seemed to like the Sharps better while many of the non combatants in the war department favored the Starr. One story that circulated was that the the troops were often issued Sharps ammunition which didn’t work well at all with the Starr rifles.

As a side note, the Starr Arms Company manufactured three revolver models that were used during the Civil War. These included the .36 caliber Model 1858 Double Action Navy, the .44 caliber Model 1858 Double Action Army, and the .44 caliber Model 1863 Single Action Army.

These carbines based on Starr’s 1858 patent were produced in fairly large quantities during the Civil war. It’s estimated that over 20,000 of these carbines were built from 1862 to 1865. Standard features found on the 1858 Starr Carbine included a brass buttplate with squared tang, iron loading lever that doubles as a trigger guard, a single brass band, a single leaf hinged sight and a saddle ring on the left side.

Below are links to additional Trips Into History photo articles you may find interesting…

Fort Union’s Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts

The Military Cannon

Western Frontier Doctors

fort sumner new mexico museum

Firearms on display at Fort Sumner New Mexico Museum

Some Excellent Sites to View Historic Carbines

During our travels we’ve come across several historic sites which in themselves have marvelous displays of frontier firearms. These include, but certainly are limited to, the sites listed below.

Fort Garland Colorado– Fort Garland was established in 1858 to protect settlers in the San Luis Valley.  This old frontier fort has a large display of carbines and revolvers dating to the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Garland is located about 78 miles north of Taos New Mexico and about 90 miles southwest of Pueblo Colorado.

fort garland colorado barracks

Cavalry Barracks at Fort Garland

Fort Stockton Texas– This is a finely preserved western fort in southwest Texas in the town of Fort Stockton. Easy to reach via Interstate 10, Fort Stockton has a large collection of rifles and carbines used during the mid to late 1800’s. Sharps rifles and many other firearms are on display including artifacts retrieved from the fort and a lot of history regarding the buffalo soldiers who at various times were stationed there.

Fort Union New Mexico– Located just north of Las Vegas New Mexico and a few miles west of Interstate 25 and along the old Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union was an important fort protecting commerce traveling the Santa Fe Trail. Lots of artifacts and frontier rifles are on display along with the ruins of fort buildings. Fort Union also has original wagon ruts dating back to the Santa Fe Trail days. It’s a must stop if you’re traveling between Denver and Santa Fe.

santa fe trail wagon ruts

Fort Sumner Museum New Mexico– Fort Sumner’s fame includes being the site where Billy the Kid is buried. The museum has a very large collection of frontier firearms as well as artifacts dating back to when the fort was operational during the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Sumner is located about 44 miles south of Santa Rosa New Mexico and Interstate 40. Fort Sumner is also about 150 miles east southeast of Albuquerque. If you’re traveling Interstate 40 between Amarillo Texas and Albuquerque it’s a great stop.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)

The Successes and Trials of Samuel Colt


Samuel Colt is known to many as the father of the repeating firearm. His successes and setbacks were many. The story of how he overcame adversity and tragedy is one of the most remarkable you’ll find.

samuel colt

Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt’s ultimate success in patenting and producing repeating firearms came only after many false starts and failures. It was a rocky road. The story is not as simple as that however because along the way Samuel Colt experienced personal trials and tribulations that many may not be aware of. Aside from the fact that his life was short, having died from gout at the age of forty-seven in 1862, Sam Colt found himself embroiled in family tragedy some people don’t experience even if they lived to be one hundred. Following are a few of the least known things about Samuel Colt on his way to being king of the repeating pistol.

The Nitrous Oxide Entertainer

Samuel Colt was merely in his late teens when he traveled the east and south entertaining crowds with nitrous oxide demonstrations. Colt did this to earn money to send to his gunsmiths who were working on building prototypes for his repeating weapons. Being an entertainer was a way to make a slim living and keep his larger dream alive.

Nitrous oxide was also known as “Laughing Gas“. Sam Colt would typically run an ad in the local paper, charge perhaps twenty-five cents per ticket, and after calling himself Dr. Colt (he often used the ancestry spelling of Coult) would demonstrate with volunteers from the audience the crazy and funny things people would do after inhaling the gas. Entertainment choices were not nearly what they are today and the nitrous oxide show was a huge hit.

1843 colt pistol

1843 Colt reproduction pistol

It was estimated that Colt may have demonstrated the gas on over 20,000 people and on himself perhaps a thousand times. There are no records as to how much Colt earned as a nitrous oxide entertainer but it appeared to be enough to keep his gunsmiths working.

Perfecting the Underwater Explosive Mine

Sam Colt had experimented with chemistry since he was a boy. While he tried to both patent and sell his repeating pistol during the early years the going was slow. While not being able to convince the army of it’s effectiveness or need, Colt began working on underwater mines using electric current to help protect the nation’s harbors, especially from possible invasion from England.

Sam Colt actually made this weapon work on a small scale when he demonstrated the underwater bomb as a youth during a Fourth of July town event. While his firearms business was stagnating, he took up this effort again in a serious way and even did procure experimental funds from Congress. In all, Colt put on a series of demonstrations for the army and other government officials, mostly in the waters of New York Harbor, and did succeed in impressing his audience. Each demonstration showed how his underwater mine, connected by insulated wire, could demolish some of the biggest vessels the government supplied him to use as targets.

colt lightning pistol

Authentic .38 Colt Lightning

While Colt’s experiments succeeded the government lost interest in the project, mostly because the threat from England had diminished, and the underwater devices were never ordered up by Washington. Never however, during his work on the underwater weapons, did Sam Colt give up on promoting and refining his repeating pistols.

Sam Colt’s Older brother and a Sensational New York Murder

Samuel Colt had three brothers. Christopher, John, James and Samuel were the sons of Christopher Colt Sr.

Older brother John C. Colt was involved in killing a New York printer by the name of Samuel Adams in 1838. John Colt had a degree of success in writing and lecturing on the subject of “double entry bookkeeping“. Not exactly the most exciting subject matter but in the early 1800’s it was something merchants and companies in America’s rapidly growing economy were in need of and could put to practical use.

The murder of Samuel Adams on September 17, 1841 who had been involved in printing a set of Colt’s books was bad enough, but Colt had tried to crudely hide and ship away the corpse in a small box and was ultimately caught and arrested. The crime was horrible and became a big sensation with the New York press. Stories of the crime even spread to papers all across the country.

Samuel Colt, struggling with his firearm manufacturing company (selling firearms on a retail basis without big government contracts) and in the midst of developing the underwater explosive mine, stood by his brother and helped financially and otherwise with his defense. In fact, Sam appeared as a witness for the defense with a pistol demonstration shooting balls with cap detonators without gunpowder. This has gone down as one of the more unusual courtroom demonstrations in history.

1851 colt navy revolver

1851 Colt Navy Revolver

John C. Colt was ultimately convicted and sentenced to hang on November 18, 1842. All subsequent appeals had failed. On the day of the scheduled execution at the Tombs jail in New York City, John took his own life in his cell by stabbing himself just an hour or so before the hanging was to commence. The means by which he obtained the knife was never solved.

There is much more to this story. There are revelations concerning Samuel Colt and a prior marriage producing a son that is all connected to an unusual wedding in John Colt’s jail cell on the day of his scheduled execution in 1842. I would recommend the fascinating book Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend by author Harold Schechter. While the book goes into great detail about the murder and trial it also gives a sweeping background about the Colt family and Samuel Colt’s efforts to make a success of his repeating pistol and rifle. You’ll find it a great read.

colt armory hartford

Colt Armory

Links to two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy include;

Western Frontier Generals / Crook and Miles

Pullman Railroad Cars

The Firearms of Annie Oakley

When Samuel Colt passed away in 1862 during the midst of the Civil War he was one of the wealthiest men in America. His Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company was an industry leader. He was at the forefront of America’s early industrial revolution. As a side note, the wife of Samuel Colt, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, experienced not only the death of her husband in 1862 but also the tragedy of having two sons and a daughter dying in infancy just a short time earlier. Another son born in 1858 did live until 1894.

Upon Samuel Colt’s death, Elizabeth took over the management of the company and the years from the Civil War through the end of the 1800’s were some of the company’s best.

armsmear hartford


Sites to Add to Your Travel Planner

Armsmear, the mansion built by Samuel Colt in Hartford Connecticut is an excellent example of Italianate architecture. The home is now a National Historic Landmark. The home is located at 80 Wethersfield Avenue and is used today as a “51 unit apartment complex for retired single women.” Also on the same street is the James Colt Home which is also another example of Italianate architecture.

The Museum of Connecticut History is located at 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. The museum includes the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company Factory Collection which was given to the museum in 1957.

Along the Connecticut River is the old Colt Armory where Samuel Colt manufactured his firearms. The site is a National Historic Landmark. The building today includes the original forge shop and foundry. Another excellent book on this subject is The Colt Armory: A History of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc. by author Ellsworth S. Grant.

(Photos of Colt firearms are from the author’s own collection. Remaining photos and images are from the public domain)



Annie Oakley and Frank Butler / The Sharpshooting Duo

In the late 1800’s and at the turn of the century there may not have been a more famous couple than Annie Oakley and the skilled sharpshooter Frank Butler. They were partners in marriage as well as partners in show business. They traveled together, performed together and had a marriage that lasted some fifty years. Today, a fifty year marriage between such famous performers is a rarity for sure.

Annie and Frank in Cincinnati

young annie oakleyFrank Butler was born in Ireland and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. During his early years in the U.S. Butler developed excellent skills in sharpshooting and put together an act. Who would have believed that his future partner for life would have also been a very skilled sharpshooter? As fate would have it, Frank Butler met a 15 year old Annie Oakley at a shooting competition held in Cincinnati Ohio.

In a way it was love at first shot. Actually, Butler met Annie when he placed a $100 bet with a Cincinnati hotel owner that he could beat any sharpshooter he could produce. The person he produced was Annie Oakley. After missing on his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet. After that he began courting Annie, and they married on June 20, 1882.

The Origins of the Annie Oakley Name

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati at first and the story of her stage name, Oakley, which she only adopted when she and Butler began performing together has a few different versions. One is that she is believed to have taken it from the city’s neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided. Some other people believe she took on the name because that was the name of the man who had paid her train fare when she was a child. Regardless of the fact that her birth name was Phoebe Ann Moses, the name the American public came to know her as was Annie Oakley

A Touring Duo

Annie and Frank began touring together as an act and joined the Sells Circus which had it’s winter home in Ohio. In 1885 they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West where Annie picked up the nickname of “Little Sure Shot”, given to her by Chief Sitting Bull while he was with the Wild West for about four months. When Annie first joined the Wild West there was a big rivalry with another skilled sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, and eventually this rivalry and ill feelings caused both Annie and Frank to quit the Wild West. They resigned from the show at the end of their first trip to England during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Smith left the Wild West a few years later and Annie patched up her relationship with Cody and she and Frank rejoined the troupe.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History article on Samuel Colt, His Repeating Firearms and a Murder Trial

The Trials and Successes of Samuel Colt

annie oakley 1899Frank Butler and Annie Oakley remained very close. Frank was part of the act at various times. Annie had the limelight and that was okay with Frank. he understood that they were a team and her success was good for both of them.

Often Frank would stand in as a target so to speak for Annie when she was performing.

One well known episode of this occurred in 1899 when the Wild West was touring Germany. Annie had a particular shooting act where she would shoot the ash off the tip of a volunteers cigar. Annie Oakley would ask for volunteers from the audience and typically there wasn’t anyone volunteering to hold the cigar in their mouth while Annie shot the ash off. Frank Butler would then stand up and act as the prop.

In 1899, while performing in Berlin, Annie asked for a volunteer and none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II stood up  and volunteered. Obviously this caused some anxiety among his entourage. Annie, who was known sometimes to take one shot of whiskey before her act, probably wished someone other than the Kaiser himself had stood up. She took aim and fired her trusty Colt 45 and shot the ash clean off the Kaiser’s cigar. You couldn’t invent this kind of story.

During her and Frank’s time performing with the Wild West they traveled all throughout Europe from Spain to the Netherlands  and just about everywhere in between.  Oakley and Butler left the Wild West for good in 1902. Annie then did some acting in a play written specially for her named “The Western Girl“.

The Hearst Trouble

Oakley and Butler met their next challenge as a result of William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper chain. Hearst had a reputation for sensationalism. In fact, many people had claimed that Hearst’s sensationalizing of the battle ship Maine explosion in the Havana Cuba harbor actually started the Spanish American War. Such was the influence of print media at the turn of the century.

The most popular new stories in the year 1904 seemed to be about cocaine prohibition. Hearst’s newspaper published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. A devastating accusation made on such a popular American as Oakley. As it turned out, the woman who was actually arrested was a Chicago burlesque performer who decided to tell the police her name was “Annie Oakley”. The real Annie Oakley spent about six years suing Hearst and other newspapers. Oakley filed some 55 lawsuits and won 54 of them. The story of the time was that although she won and cleared her name, the amount of money she collected from the suits was less than her legal costs.

Other papers that had printed the story written by Hearst quickly reprinted a retraction story when the truth was discovered. Not Hearst. When Annie was finally awarded $20,000 from Hearst (today that would equal about $300,000) he tried everything he could not to pay. Hearst went as far as sending his own private detectives to Oakley’s home town in Ohio to try to dig up gossip and dirt. Hearst tried to unearth anything he could smear her with. The detectives  were unable to find anything for Hearst.

The Latter Years

annie oakley 1922The photo at right is of Annie Oakley in 1922. Annie and Frank spent their later years working for charitable causes and in general helping women.

Womens suffrage would not occur to after World War One. During the war they helped raise a lot of money for the Red Cross. Butler really became the family supporter after Oakley left Buffalo Bill.

While Oakley spent her time suing William Randolph Hearst, Butler became a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. After Oakley’s absolute final Wild West show in 1913, they settled into a comfortable retirement. They spent the winter in North Carolina, taking automobile trips, and hunting.

This couple, Frank and Annie, who remained married for close to fifty years and traveled the world together, meeting heads of state and royalty, both passed away at close to the same time. Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 in Greenville Ohio of pernicious anemia. She was 66 years old. Frank Butler, her husband, died eighteen days later. The story was that Frank was so upset over Annie’s death that he simply stopped eating.

Garst Museum

Those wanting to learn more about the amazing life on Annie Oakley and Frank Butler need only visit the Garst Museum. The museum is located at 205 North Broadway in Greenville Ohio. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is operated by the Darke County Historical Society. The Garst Museum is home to the Annie Oakley Center and would make an interesting side trip when you’re traveling through the area.

(Photos and images are in public domain)


How the Sharps Rifle Helped Get the Mail Through from San Antonio to El Paso

The end of the Mexican American War in 1848 meant a lot of things to a lot of people. To be sure, there were Americans residing in places such as El Paso Texas and Santa Fe New Mexico during the war. When the war ended and the territory we now know of as the state of New Mexico changed hands, the government and civilians in and around that region had their work cut out for them.

This was a time before stagecoaches. It was before the telegraph and it certainly was a time before the railroads ventured to the southwest. If this new southwest territory won as a result of the Mexican American War was to grow it needed a way to communicate. It needed a mail system. Easier said than done because in 1848 there was no distinct trail through the barren Texas southwest particularly from San Antonio (previously called Bexar) to El Paso. The two trails from east to west across the western frontier were the central overland trail which consisted of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the California Trail. The other was the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe. A trail from the southern U.S. to New Mexico wasn’t established before the end of the Mexican American War.

El Paso was a very important town because it was there where a road could travel all the way from south Texas to New Mexico and beyond to the Pacific Ocean ports. This was recognized early on and a few survey parties headed west out of both San Antonia and Austin Texas to try to map a suitable route. The route was needed for both military purposes as well as commercial. The route from Santa Fe south to El Paso had been used extensively by both the Spaniards and Mexicans for centuries. This was the route from Santa Fe in Nuevo Mexico down to Mexico City in New Spain. What hadn’t been mapped and used was a route west out of San Antonio across the desert to El Paso. At the end of the Mexican American War, San Antonio was the largest settlement in Texas.

Two routes were eventually found. One was out of Austin heading generally in a western direction and another out of San Antonio that went west/northwest and hugged the east bank of the Rio Grande as it approached El Paso. The two major obstacles of course were the desolation of the region (meaning little water) and the Indians. This was the land of the Comanches and was called Comancheria. To the far west were the Apaches and their Apacheria. Both tribes were nomadic and warlike. Both tribes regularly raided over the border into Mexico for decades and were long an obstacle to both the Spaniards and Mexicans. The route that was eventually chosen for the main way to El Paso was neither of the first two. The route chosen headed directly west out of San Antonio and then took a northwest direction after nearing the Rio Grande.

Henry Skillman Accepts the Challenge

As you no doubt have read in history books, transportation methods and routes were initially subsidized by the federal government. The subsidization came in the form of mail contracts. Throughout history, steamboats, stagecoaches, railroads and in some cases airlines all got their start with a U.S. mail contract. The first wagons to El Paso also relied on Uncle Sam to at least cover their overhead. It’s an interesting question as to why the federal government relied on outside contractors to find a way to deliver the mail. Possibly the government thought it was cheaper. The routes were surveyed with government aid during late 1848 and during 1849 but the independent contractor was the one who really forged the trail. The government did make provisions for outposts along the Rio Grande area which would afford some measure of protection. The reality however was that the outposts established were too sparse to provide any real protection. That would be left to civilian armed guards. The only real alternative to to a stage line to send messages along the route was by single horseback rider who was fast enough to outrun the Comanches. This was tried and there were some losses due to Indian attack.

The first official contract for mail delivery out of San Antonio was awarded to Henry Skillman. Born in Kentucky and having arrived in Texas in 1846, Skillman spent time as an army scout during the Mexican American War. He was a noted rugged frontiersman usually dressed with revolvers and Bowie knives. If there was anyone who could figure out a way to carry the mail 600 miles west through Comancheria it probably was Henry Skillman. The story told is that Skillman had the ability to read Indian intentions before the fact. In other words, he knew the right time to fight and the right time not to. His judgment on the Texas frontier was legendary.

The Post Office department gave Skillman a contract that paid $12,500 per year. The route would run from Santa Fe to El Paso and then east to San Antonio. The contract was to begin on November 1, 1851 and expire on June 30, 1854. The news was received with a lot of fanfare. The newspapers were quite positive on the development but pointed out the great risks involved. The first trip for Skillman was a success even though there was a skirmish with a party of Comanches. Skillman reportedly purchased some wagons while in Santa Fe but the history on this is a bit sketchy.

There was a stage line operating since 1847 between Houston and San Antonio and he may have bought some wagons from them. It’s also unclear if some of the purchases were for passenger service or only for freight. Nevertheless, Henry Skillman got his line up and running with the help of other rugged frontiersmen he was acquainted with. The Indian problem however was always front and center. In fact, with the opening of his service between Santa Fe and El Paso, the Apaches in that area of New Mexico Territory started giving him trouble. To be sure, there were losses incurred such as mules being shot and stolen. A good mule in those days was said to cost about $150. Not a small sum for a new shoestring outfit. Carrying the mail on the San Antonio to El Paso route was a challenge.

Henry Skillman Discovers the Sharps Rifle

On one of Skillman’s trips back to Washington to try to get additional funds (because of the losses from Indian attacks) he met a representative of the Sharps Rifle manufacturing Company. Henry was somewhat familiar with the rifle having seen it with some of the surveying teams sent out west in 1848 and 1849. He was impressed with the weapon because of it’s high accuracy and rapid firing. The Sharps Rifles also were considered excellent long range rifles. Skillman made the decision to purchase ten of these rifles which were from an early lot of new .52 caliber percussion breechloader models designed for the army. In the midst of battle, breechloaders worked much better than old muzzleloaders.

The models Skillman purchased were called “1851 Carbines” and about 1,800 of them were manufactured. This was a solid “boxlock” carbine with a walnut stock. The Sharps Rifle combined high accuracy with a potent .52 caliber punch. One of the best long range rifles developed. On a technical note, all of the Sharps .52 caliber breechloaders made over the ten years prior to the Civil War were referred to as “slant breeched” meaning that the breechblock was slightly at an angle to the barrel. The Civil War version of the Sharps was a “straight breech” and perpendicular to the barrel. The war model was easily converted to shoot metallic cartridges that were developed not long after the Civil War. The purchase of the ten rifles made a lot of sense to Skillman. He believed that these weapons just might give his drivers and guards and himself the advantage they needed over the Indians. He was right and proved it shortly after he returned to Texas.

The story written is that he knocked a warrior off his horse at some 300 yards. The story actually started at a distance of about 200 yards and kept getting longer with each telling. Regardless, the new Sharps breechloader got the attention of the hostiles. Prior to that episode the Indians had a pretty good idea of a pistol and rifle’s range and when they started to get picked off at unheard of distances they chose their attacks much more carefully. In fact, often they retreated. When fighting against Indian attacks in wide open expanses, distance meant everything. Most of Skillman’s guards accompanying the wagons were former Texas Rangers and virtually all of them were known to carry the Sharps carbines.

As an indication of how high in regard Henry Skillman placed his Sharps carbine rifle, he wrote a letter to the Sharps Company praising the effectiveness of the weapon. He told them that it was superior to any other rifle he was acquainted with and that he put the ten weapons he purchased from them to use as soon as he arrived back in Texas. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was so delighted to hear this from Skillman that they published his letter in their sales catalog. This could have been one of the earliest commercial weapon endorsement by any frontiersman. It’s believed that Henry wrote this letter at a friends home in southern New Mexico shortly after what could have been a nearby Apache attack on his wagons.

This was in an area a good distance south of Albuquerque around Dona Ana where the topography placed mountains on both sides of the trail and made it an ideal place for Apache attacks. To fire off a letter from his friends settlement upon arrival tells quite a lot about what Skillman thought of his new rifles. From all that I have read and researched on the subject it is apparent that the Sharps rifle contained the Indian threat and the regular service of mail between San Antonio and Santa Fe was accomplished.

A few historical notes about the Sharps rifles. It’s alleged that many of the Sharps Rifle breechloaders were shipped to anti-slavery factions in Kansas during the 1850’s. After the Civil War there was a large surplus of military style Sharps which made their way to the buffalo hunters although special sport models were also being developed. It was in great part to the accuracy and distance of the Sharps breechloaders, and to the dismay of the Native Americans, that the buffalo herds were decimated in a relatively very short period of time.

Henry Skillman, the Butterfield Overland Mail and the Civil War

Skillman ran his stage, mail and freight lines successfully through the early 1850’s although there was some competition from easterners who managed to get in through their Washington connections. The competition didn’t last long and eventually he was partnered up with a man named George Giddings and they overcame the weak competition from the easterners. Some accounts I’ve read refer to Giddings and Skillman as being partners and others contend that Skillman yielded his mail contract to Giddings in 1854 and drove for him. It appears that Skillman did indeed have difficulty finding the resources to establish passenger facilities along the route which was being pushed hard by the federal government. This could have caused him to transfer the contract to Giddings since Giddings had the funds. Many times you find conflicting details when researching stories this old.

Later in the decade Henry Skillman is remembered as the driver of the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage, which arrived in El Paso on September 30, 1858. The Butterfield line also started with a mail contract between St. Louis and San Francisco via El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. While the mail contract was always the bread and butter of any new operation, the line also carried passengers. The Butterfield line was short lived since during the Civil War the Confederates controlled much of the southern routes and the Union had to then send their California bound mail over the central route which pretty much followed the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.

Texas aligned itself with the Confederacy during the war and Skillman worked espionage for the Confederates between old El Paso del Norte and San Antonio. Unfortunately for Henry Skillman, his actions during the Civil War cost him his life. He was tracked down in April 1864, at Spencer’s Ranch, near Presidio by a detachment from the First California Cavalry and shot down.

As I mentioned, Henry Skillman’s activities during the 1850’s have been historically under reported but nevertheless are very interesting. Between Skillman’s frontier knowledge and bravery and the accuracy of the new Sharps Rifles, the mail made it through the south Texas Indian country. The Sharps Rifle is today a very popular collectors gun.

You can research this subject in much greater detail by reading “Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules..The San Antonio-El Paso Mail 1851-1881” by author Wayne R. Austerman. This is a very good read and explains in depth both the Indian and political obstacles of running the southern mail and stage route.

One of the best historic sites that tell the story of early southwest Texas and the dangers of getting the mail and passengers through that part of the country is the Fort Stockton Museum in Fort Stockton Texas. The displays and artifacts in this museum are fascinating. Among the exhibits is a Sharps 1874 Sporting Rifle which was a constant companion of those trying to guard the stage and freight route. The link above will give you much more information about the museum and how to plan your trip there along with some very interesting photos of rare frontier exhibits. Another must stop in Fort Stockton is the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum which is located only a few blocks west of the fort. Some interesting photos on this site as well.