The Overland Stage to California

The Overland Stage to California

by Frank A. Root 1901

Atchison County Biographies


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GEN. BELA M. HUGHES, for a third of a century an eminent lawyer in Denver, was, most of the time during the '60's, one of the prominent men associated with the great stage line. When residing in St. Joseph he became president and general counsel for the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company, in March, 1861, having succeeded Mr. William H. Russell, its former president. When the line was sold under a mortgage foreclosure to Ben. Holladay, early in 1862, at Atchison, a reorganization was at once effected and General Hughes became its general counsel. The name of the enterprise, however, was changed by Holladay to the "Overland Stage Line." General Hughes was continued as the general counsel for the newly organized company, and served in this capacity until the line had been purchased, in the later '60's, by Wells, Fargo & Co. This noted express company retained him, and continued to operate the line until a railroad was built across the plains. Thus General Hughes held this important position until the pioneer transcontinental railway took the place of the old Concord stage, which ran so many years between the Missouri river and Denver, Salt Lake, and California, when he resumed the general practice of law at Denver. He was elected the first president and general counsel of the Denver & Pacific railway (the first railway to enter Denver), in July, 1870. Later he was general counsel for the Denver & South Park railroad and a member of the last territorial legislature.

General Hughes was born in Kentucky, educated at Augusta College, and removed with his parents at an early date to Liberty, Mo. He was a member of the Missouri legislature, prosecuting attorney, and receiver of the United States land-office at Plattsburg, Mo., locating thereafter at St. Joseph, Mo., and, while living there, was engaged in the practice of law with Governor Woodson. In his early youth he was a soldier in the Black Hawk war, serving with the Missouri volunteers.

In the early '60's he was a resident of Atchison, so long the headquarters and eastern starting-point of the overland stage line. He took up his residence in Denver in the later '60's, going there when the city had less than 5000 inhabitants. Since he cast his lot in Denver and became a citizen of Colorado he has been thoroughly identified with the unparalleled growth of his adopted state and of the great city at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, which he has seen rise from a few shanties to one of the most metropolitan places of its size in the country. In the summer of 1899 General Hughes and his second wife celebrated, in Denver, the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage. The general is now (1901) eighty-four years old, and, for one of his advanced age, in pretty good health. It is the wish of his hosts of friends scattered all over the country that he may live to celebrate his century birthday.


Agent at Denver, Colo.
Photo. 1865.

ROBERT L. PEASE, One of the pioneers of Atchison, was a faithful and trusted employee on the overland line. Before Ben. Holladay secured control, and while the line was operated as the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company, in 1861, and had become largely indebted to Holladay for money advanced them, in the fall of that year the company conveyed to Theo. F. Warner, of Weston, Mo., and R. L. Pease, of Atchison, as trustees, all their real and personal property on their several lines, to secure the indebtedness to Holladay. The company failing to make its payments to Holladay, he called on the trustees to take possession of the property and operate it for his benefit, and advertise a day on which it would be sold by them. Mr. Warner declined to act with Mr. Pease in operating the line, and the latter took possession as trustee on December 6, 1861, and published a notice fixing a date on which he would sell the property. The old company obtained an injunction in the United States court, restraining Mr. Pease from selling it on the date advertised; hence the date of sale was postponed from time to time, until finally the injunction was dissolved, when, on March 21, 1862, in front of the old Massasoit House, at Atchison, the whole property was sold at public auction by the trustees and bought by Ben. Holladay, the sum paid being $150,000.

On the day of sale Holladay became the sole owner of the property, and there was an immediate reorganization. He afterwards operated the enterprise as the "Overland Stage Line." Mr. Pease was kept busy during the spring and summer of 1862 in settling up his business and paying the numerous bills as trustee for the time he was operating the line. In the fall of 1862 he was sent to Denver, upon the earnest request and appointment by Holladay, as agent in charge of the business at that place and of the branch lines beyond there, remaining in the service of the "Overland" until 1864. Mr. Pease died at Atchison, Kan., in the spring of 1901.





W. W. LETSON, one of the early messengers, was born in South Carolina, April 2, 1836, where he lived until he reached his majority, when he went to Montgomery, Ala., and lived for some time. He then came North and, at the close of the Missouri-Kansas border strife, drifted into Kansas in 1859. During the latter part of December, 1859, he was employed by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company as messenger, and ran for some months between the Missouri river and Denver, some of the time from St. Joseph and later from Atchison, continuing for a short time after the stage line passed into the control of Ben. Holladay, in the early '60's.

Resigning his position as messenger in the fall of 1861, he was married at Granada, a station that had become prominent on the old pony express route, on Christmas, 1861, afterwards settling on the South Platte, at old Julesburg, where he bought out the mercantile firm of Thompson & Chrisman, remaining there only a few months, however, when he disposed of his stock of goods and returned to the States. He located in Nemaha county, Kan., at Granada, where, for more than five years the overland stages daily passed his place, and where he embarked in merchandising, later branching out into farming and stock-raising.

While in the service of the stage and express company, Mr. Letson, like most of the other messenger boys on the line, had a number of exciting experiences with buffaloes and Indians. He was also lost on the plains in blizzards, and one dark night, while coming down the Platte, the stage, with driver and every passenger on board, was lost for several hours. The driver, fatigued from overwork, had fallen asleep and the team had wandered from the road, and the vehicle had got turned around and was actually going in the opposite direction, towards Denver. The driver at first would not be convinced that the team was headed in the wrong direction until his attention was called to the fact that the Platte river, instead of being on the left of the stage-coach, as it had been for several hundred miles, was now plainly to be seen on the right side. When this was shown him there was no longer on his part a chance for prolonging the argument.

During the early part of the civil war, while he was coming from Denver on one of his trips in charge of a valuable treasure, he was cautioned by the agent of the stage company at Fort Kearney to be on the alert--that it was feared that a squad of rebels, under the leadership of Col. M. Jeff. Thompson, of St, Joseph, would intercept them and likely plunder the express and passengers at some lonely spot on the Kickapoo Indian reservation not far west of Atchison. When the east-bound stage reached the Big Blue river and the stream was crossed, at Marysville, it was a day of intense anxiety for him, as well as by all the passengers on the coach, for in their possession were several thousand dollars in gold. Luckily for all on the old Concord coach, there was no raid made, and the messenger as well as all the passengers breathed considerably easier when they got in sight of their destination on the Missouri river, and shortly afterward the vehicle drew up in front of the stage company's headquarters.

Mr. Letson, in the overland days, was known as "Bill" Letson, for short. He spent over ten years of his pioneer life in Kansas at Granada, where he built up a lucrative business among the ranchmen and plainsmen, for a number of years enjoying quite an extensive trade from the Kickapoo and Pottawatomie Indians. When the Rock Island road crossed the Missouri river and invaded Kansas, in the later '80's, he located on the new road at the now brisk town of Horton, where he has from the first been recognized as one of its leading citizens. In 1897 he was honored by his fellow townsmen by being chosen mayor of the city of Horton, a position he filled with honor to himself and satisfaction to his constituents. He is a well-preserved man and substantially fixed financially, being one of the largest real-estate owners in his town. A corner of one of his farms, a short distance west of Kennekuk, and in plain sight of his home, is crossed by the old stage road over which, forty years ago, the coaches started out from Atchison, and arrived there daily from California. He is a pleasant conversationalist, and greatly enjoys talking with old friends concerning the pioneer staging days. The writer, who was acquainted with him nearly forty years ago on the "Overland," recently met him for the first time in nearly thirty years, and for two or three hours the two greatly enjoyed themselves talking over old friendship and scenes and events in the almost-forgotten days before railroads were built west of the Missouri river.

In addition to being a leading farmer, Mr. Letson is also interested in the banking business in Oklahoma. He is vice-president of the Bank of Enid, Okla., his son-in-law, Mr. 0. J. Fleming, being its president. His son, Frank H. Letson, is cashier. He has three sons, one daughter, and two grandchildren. He has lost one child, and his wife, an affectionate companion and a most estimable lady, died at Horton, Kan., November 6, 1899.