Volume 6, Number 9, Fall 1978
Twenty years ago the big event of September, 1958, was not the opening of schools across the land, though that was important. It was the Centennial celebration of the Butterfield Overland Stages first run from Tipton, Missouri, to San Francisco. On the official date -- September 18th -- the highlight was the re-enactment of that first Stage run.
Two years, and hundreds of thousands of words, figured in the massive preparations for the Centennial celebration. Then the plans started falling into a well-organized pattern and finally the day arrived. The Overland Mail caravan headed by a Concord coach driven by Mr. John D. Frizzell, an Oklahoma City oilman, headed out of Tipton "right on the dot." The caravan kept to paved roads and highways, yet followed the Old Trail in every place possible. Traveling with Mr. Frizzell, who gathered material for a book, were his wife and their teen-age son and daughter. Crowds all along the route turned out to welcome the caravan.
It is fun now and then to get out my scrapbook of clippings and pictures I put together of that stage run in 1958. I think most everybody is familiar with the history of the Overland Mail route covered by the Butterfield stage, for that was the real purpose of the venture: to carry the mail. But, in order to break even on expenses, travelers sometimes filled the stage to the point of being crowded. Few people outside of Stone County, Missouri, are aware of the fact that the first woman to travel to San Francisco, via the stage, got on that stage in Northern Stone County. In fact, she was a native Stone Countian.
This woman was Mrs. Nellie Steele Johnson, wife of a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Thomas Johnson. Her brother was William Steele whose home on the Steele farm in northern Stone County was just off the Butterfield Trail a short distance. As late as 1928 the big log house was a landmark near the Steele Cemetery. Now about all that is left of the house is the heap of stones where three huge fireplaces warmed the big rooms, letting warmth seep up through the loft where the boys climbed a crude ladder fastened to the wall, to their feather beds and sound sleep. The fireplace rocks, and a Japonica bush -- for always at old house places one finds a Japonica bush -- were there in 1958.
The Butterfield Stage line cut across the northeast forty the house was located on, and as it traveled toward the Steele house, it forked, one angle going right by the house, then it rejoined the main Trail yon side of the house and the big spring nearby.
In 1958, our local historian, Fred Steele, who was a grandson of the Rev. William Steele owner of the place, said a well established road was there for travel at least 16 years before the Butterfield Trail was marked for the carrying of the mail and taking passengers Out West "in style." Along about 1819 or possibly earlier surveyors established a route from St. Louis to Paris, Texas, a part of which was this old road across the corner of the Steele farm. Later one of the Springfield Fulbrights went over the whole route on horseback.
According to Fred Steele, now deceased, the Rev. Johnson left his family in Missouri and traveled to California with a wagon train. At the time there was little hope that his wife and four children would be joining him in a couple of years. But preachers then, as now, were led by the Spirit, and thats how come him to go.
It is easy to imagine Nellie Steele Johnsons excitement at the prospect of going by stagecoach all the way to California, and in about twenty-five days! But it is doubtful if she realized the importance of her place in the history of the great venture, for she was the first white woman to make the trip from Missouri to California via the Butterfield Stage. And the place where she got on the Stage was at the point where the Trail crossed the northeast corner of the Steele "house forty."
Fred said his great-aunt Nellie made the trip in October, and certainly not later than November, in 1858. As was the custom, she visited her relatives round and about, telling them goodbye. And came to her brother Williams last, for there she knew she could board the stagecoach not far from the house.
The women folks in the family cooked and fixed up a great basket of food, "grub" is was called then, to take along on the trip. That would
be a great saving for travelling with four children even today is not much of a lark, and was even less so then, with stations so few and far between. So, the basket was waiting next day.
Some accounts tell of the arrival of the stagecoach, saying it was announced by bugle notes. Fred said he had been told there was ringing of bells or some such noises which could be heard for quite a distance. Anyway, on the day Nellie Johnson and her four children -- Margaret who was 16, and three boys, Finis, John and William -- climbed on the Butterfield stagecoach, they had been in such a rush getting on their wraps and gathering up their budgets that they went off and forgot the big basket full of homemade goodies. But the Steele children had a feast!
At one point on the way the stagecoach was stopped by a band of Indians. They wanted to see the white children riding on the coach and when their wish was granted, the coach was allowed to continue on its way. Margaret remembered that incident and told of it numbers of times. It was a rugged trip.
But the twenty-five days passed and the wife and children were greeted by the Rev. Johnson. California became their home state. A fourth son, Jimmy, was born in California.
In 1958, when the Centennial caravan reached San Anselmo, California, Nellie Steele Johnsons granddaughter, Myrtle Johnson Elliott, joined the caravan along with Buck Brown of Yucca Valley. He is a second cousin of Kit Carson. They traveled in an ox-drawn covered wagon!
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home