Knight of the Sierra

Though he was born a slave, George Monroe became one of the West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
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Though he was born a slave, George Monroe became one of the West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
George-Monroe

George “Alfred” Monroe’s father worked as a barber in the California mining camps, eventually earning enough money to purchase his son’s freedom. In 1855, when he was 11, Monroe began breaking and training horses, and, by 22, he’d earned a job with the West’s premier stagecoach operator: A.H. Washburn and Company.

Besides robberies and hold-ups, stagecoach drivers faced a multitude of dangers on the trail. Along the Wawona Road through the Yosemite Valley, for instance, drivers had to brave thousand-foot gorges, loose rocks, and chuckholes that all threatened to overturn stagecoaches and their passengers and cargo.

Once, when driving a stagecoach with 14 passengers, Monroe’s brakes failed going down a steep grade. Miraculously, he managed to halt the runaway coach by turning his team into some chaparral; two hours later, they trotted into town—still ahead of schedule. Two of the women who were on that fateful stagecoach sent Monroe Christmas presents every year for the rest of his life.

Presidents James A. Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant all traversed the Wawona Road in Monroe’s trusted care. President Grant was known for being an expert horseman himself and was so impressed by Monroe’s skillful driving that he elected to ride next to Monroe on the box in order to observe his methods. Monroe rarely touched his six-horse team with the whip, using his powerful voice instead. Travelers were also impressed by Monroe’s impeccable appearance. He liked to keep his boots polished, his hat clean, and his white gloves shining, even on the dustiest trails. Monroe’s superior horsemanship and rare professionalism made him one of the most requested stagecoach drivers navigating the Yosemite Valley.

In 20 years of driving, Monroe never wrecked a single stage. Henry Washburn said of him: “I have never known another such as an all-round reins man as George Monroe. He was a wonder in every way. He drove over my lines for nearly twenty years and never injured a person. I always put him on the box when there was a distinguished party to be driven, and fast and showy was expected or necessary, and he never disappointed me or exceeded the limit schedule or fell behind.”

Monroe retired from driving due to illness in 1886. Ironically, he was returning to his family home to convalesce when the stagecoach transporting him crashed. Although he leapt to his feet after the accident and helped the driver regain control, Monroe sustained internal injuries and passed away at his parents’ home at age 42 in 1886.

photo by California History Room, courtesy of California State Library, Sacramento