I came across this Alexander Gardner image recently while looking for something else. (That seems to happen a lot.) It’s a remarkable image in a number of ways. I don’t recall ever seeing a photograph of a gen-yew-wine Western stagecoach going back to the 1860s, for a start. In movies and teevee, sure, but not many photos from a time when the vehicle was a common form of transportation. It’s from the Library of Congress, and carries the original caption, “United States Express overland stage, starting for Denver from Hays City, Kansas, 580 miles west of St. Louis, Mo.” The listed date is c. 1867. This is the right-hand image of what was sold at the time as a stereo pair, but is actually a single image.
This website has an almost identical image, obviously taken at the same time, identified as being at Fort Harker.
The stereoview is part of a series, “Across the Continent on the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division.” Neither Fort Harker nor Fort Hays/Hays City were on the main line of the UP, which ran much farther to the north, westward from Omaha. The Eastern Division of the UP, originally known as the Kansas Pacific Railroad, reached Fort Harker in July 1867, and connected to Fort Hays in October of that year. The Butterfield Overland Despatch (not to be confused with the earlier, larger, and more famous Butterfield Overland Mail) operated both a stage line and wagon trains stopping at both forts, maintaining connections between the Missouri River and Denver.
This detail from an 1868 Union Pacific Railroad map, from Kansas State University, shows the main line of the Union Pacific running west from Omaha along the Platte River (top, highlighted in blue), and the Eastern Division of the UP running a parallel course through Kansas (in red). The road route beyond Fort Wallace, to Denver, is shown in green. At the time of the map’s creation, the main line of the UP had just crossed the western boundary of Nebraska into the Dakota Territory — present-day Wyoming.
So much for the context. A closer look at elements in the image:
There are three men standing outside the coach — likely local worthies posing for Gardner — as well as four, possibly five, men inside. The bright white trousers and patterned vest of the man standing at right don’t suggest much of the frontier; perhaps he’s the stagecoach station agent, or a local merchant.
The Buffalo Soldiers serving as guards — five privates and a corporal, it looks like — appear to be dressed in frock coats with shoulder scales, and the “shotgun” looks to be wearing gloves besides — accoutrements better suited to a posed photo than a long, dusty ride across the prairie. Both Forts Harker and Hays had contingents of the Ben Grierson’s U.S. 10th Cavalry stationed there during this period, but Harker also a detachment from the 38th U.S. Infantry (later combined with the 41st Infantry to become the 24th Infantry). Wiki notes that “troops stationed at Fort Harker in 1867 performed more escorts of wagon trains in one year than troops stationed at any other frontier fort in the post-Civil War era,” and this image may reflect similar efforts on behalf of the stagecoach operating from there.
Then finally, there’s this modern painting, whose composition seems to be inspired by the old stereoview. There’s something different about the soldiers, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. . . . 😉