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.