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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Communications Coast to Coast

Persons who had moved to the Far West were of course eager for communication with family and friends back East. Initially, all that could be done was to find someone returning who would carry a message or letter, either by ocean voyage or overland. Eventually, the government let contracts for mail delivery over routes, which although still slow, nevertheless provided improved mail service.

Ocean Mail Contracts

As early as 1847 the United States Mail Steamship Company was awarded a contract. The Pacific section from Panama to San Francisco was chartered by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Both groups started operations in 1849, carrying passengers as well as mail. In 1851, Cornelius Vanderbilt offered more comfortable boats with his Accessory Transit Company, using the Nicaragua route.

The greatest improvement of the Panama route came with the opening of the Panama Railroad in 1855. Although mail and passengers often followed the route through Central America, freight was usually shipped around the Horn.

Overland Mail Routes

The beginning of overland mail service came in 1848 with a contract awarded for the trip between Independence and Salt Lake City. Service to Santa Fe began the next year. This central route was well marked, had few hostile Indians, and benefited from passing through Mormon settlements.

One southern route followed the 35th parallel from Santa Fe. After the Gadsden Purchase, a route passed farther south along the Gila River. The advantages for this route was few mountains and no winter snow; however, it was long, and it crossed much desert country.

The Butterfield route was the response to the postmaster general’s call in 1857 for bids on a fast and continuous service by road to the Pacific coast. It started from St. Louis and Memphis, converged at Little Rock, passed through Preston, El Paso, and Yuma, then on to San Francisco, a trip of over 2500 miles. This Butterfield Overland Stage Company greatly improved the speed of communication. Stages traveled in both directions, covering the route in 20 to 25 days. Some freight was carried over the Butterfield, but it usually was carried by slower freight wagons.

In 1862 Ben Holladay bought the interests of the Russell, Majors and Waddell partners of the Butterfield. By 1866 he had over 3000 miles of stage lines under his control as well as freighting. His steamships ran to Oregon, Panama, China, and Japan. His main overland route crossed the plains over three sections—from Atchison to Denver, from Denver to Salt Lake City, and from Salt Lake City to Placerville. Stagecoach travel gave way to the Railroad following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

The Pony Express Trail was a trail of communication, not migration. Proposed as a service to improve California mail delivery, it operated between St. Joseph and Sacramento for only a short period. The route opened on April 3, 1860 from St. Joseph, and the next day another rider departed from Sacramento. Although it successfully delivered the mail from Washington to California in a third of the time, it failed to make money, and collapsed once the first telegraph line crossed the plains in October 1861.

Cattle Trails

Mention should be made of the cattle trails even though they can hardly be called pioneer trails. Nonetheless, they definitely played a part in opening the West, and across Texas, they became the north/south roads. Among the most heavily-used cattle trails were the Chisholm, the Western, the Sedalia, and the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

Cattle raisers had begun to move out into the Great Plains in the 1860s, long before the Indians were conquered. In the 1880s and 1890s the cattle industry became big business—Texans provided the cattle and the railroads provided access to markets. News that quick money could be made in the open-range cattle business quickly reached the Eastern seaboard and spread to Europe as well. A cattle rush occurred, not unlike the gold rush that had populated California in 1849-50. Prices soared for land and steers as newcomers staked out their claims. People rushed to the cattle country, built dugouts or sod huts or simple ranch houses and pastured their herds on the open grasslands. Cattle ranchers ruled the Great Plains until the 1880s. Sheepherders and farmers arrived in the 1880s, spelling disaster for the cattle raisers. Sheep cropped the grass so close that little was left for the cattle; farmers broke up the open range with their farms and barbed-wire fences. By the late 1880s the open, unfenced range was becoming a thing of the past. During the 1890s, the western cattle industry centered in the high plains running through eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, the New Mexico Territory, and western Texas. These ranchers generally owned their grazing land, fencing it in with barbed wire. Ranches varied in size from 2,000 to 100,000 acres.

In Texas during the Civil War, there was an increase of unbranded cattle and horse herds to the west and south of San Antonio. Property owners began to collect them and move them toward Northern markets. In the spring, cowboys would assemble several thousand head into a trail herd, moving them slowly north to the railroad frontier towns for shipping to Midwestern and Eastern markets. This was mutually profitable to the cattlemen and the railroad tycoons. Railroad towns sprang up close to the tracks. By 1870 Kansas cattle towns like Abilene, Ellsworth, and Ellis on the Kansas Pacific Railroad and Dodge City and Wichita on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had become riotous, lawless communities. Rail lines shipped hundreds of thousands of cattle east to the stockyards of Omaha, Kansas City, St. Joseph, Sioux City, St. Paul-Mineapolis, and Chicago. There they were slaughtered and transported in refrigerator cars to Eastern cities and even from there sometimes to Europe.

The Railroads

Many of our ancestors migrated across the United States via the rails. Immigrants brought in by Emigration Societies or those with some means often boarded a train shortly after arrival to go out to the western lands. And a great many of the immigrants worked for the railroads.

In 1870, even upon the completion of the first transcontinental line, the United States had 53,000 miles of track. By 1900, there were over 190,000 miles. During these years, the railroads improved in speed, comfort, and safety. Double sets of tracks replaced single sets; this allowed streams of traffic to flow in two directions at once.

Envision a map showing the rail lines that existed in the West in 1890, all running east to west. Starting near the Canadian border and moving south were (1) the Great Northern, (2) Northern Pacific, (3) Central Pacific and Union Pacific, (4) Kansas Pacific, (5) Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, Atlantic and Pacific, Southern Pacific.

There were a multitude of different rail lines, and mergers did occur and with that came name changes. To determine whether ancestors traveled by rail, it helps to learn the railroad routes and maps which existed in a specific time period. Railroad histories can help. So can the contemporary newspapers. Since the railroads were privately owned, their records may not be available; moreover many were not retained. Family papers may hold clues.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

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