THE PONY EXPRESS by Lee Raine
A little over one hundred fifty years ago, one of the most exciting and daring chapters of American history was written by a group of brave men and their faithful horses. This bold enterprise was the Pony Express.
During the late 1850s, after the admission of California to statehood, the question of the best route for the overland mail across the country was a topic of great interest in the Far West. In 1858, John Butterfield began his famous Overland Mail, which was run over a circuitous southern route.
The Butterfield Overland Mail route ran through the South, where the Union communications to California could be cut at any time. California was a free state, but due to the unrest caused by the impending Civil War, its loyalty was doubted because of the distance to the nearest other free state.
The person who originated the idea of forming the Pony Express is not definitely known. John Butterfield supposedly had the idea of a "Horse Express" but Major Russell who had the theory of using a shorter central route, persuaded his partners in the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell owners of a large overland freight business which had been hauling supplies to military posts in prairie schooners, to back the endeavor to establish a fast mail service to California.
Senator William M. Gwin of California was a chief promoter of the project.
Russell realized that the cost of such an undertaking would be tremendous, but he offered to furnish the government of the United States with a semiweekly ten-day pony express mail service between the cities of Saint Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California, for $500 a round trip. Although this was a fair offer, the southern senators blocked passage of the bill authorizing payment for carrying pony express mail.
Despite the fact that the government refused to back this endeavor, the company decided that it was their duty to establish a method of communication between the widely separated sections of the country.
The task of establishment seemed nearly impossible. To accommodate the horse and rider relays, the company built one hundred ninety stock stations, hired about two hundred station tenders and helpers, bought around five hundred of the finest horses, and picked eighty daring young riders.
Also, it was necessary to stock the stations with hay, grain, and other supplies. One hundred thousand dollars in gold coin was required to establish and equip the line.
The most important part of the effort was the type of horses used. Without these wonderful, strong animals, the entire project would have been a failure. Mark Twain, in his book, Roughing it, wrote a glowing description of the horses and of the famous quick transfer of riders.
"He rode a splendid horse that was born for a racer
and fed and lodged like a gentleman; kept him
at utmost speed for ten miles, and then, as he came
crashing up to the station where stood two men holding
fast a fresh, impatient steed, the transfer of rider
and mail-bag was made in the twinkling of an eye.
And away flew the eager pair and were out of sight
before the spectator could get hardly a ghost of a
The riders of the Pony Express were recruited rapidly but not carelessly. The following ad was placed in the newspapers: "Wanted: Young, skinny wiry fellows not over eighteen, Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week."
The company was very strict in its choice of riders. One hundred twenty-five pounds was the outside limit of weight, but in a few cases the rules were stretched to gain exceptionally good rider s who might weigh as much as one hundred forty pounds. Those who were hired had to be in top condition and expert riders, to withstand the terrific strain and hard work required.
When the riders were hired, they were required to take the following pledge:
I, _____, do hereby swear, before the great
and living God, that during my engagement, and while
in the employ of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will,
under no circumstances, use profane Language; that I
will drink no intoxicating Liquors; that I will not
quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm;
and that in every respect I will conduct myself
honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all
my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So
help me God.
As each rider was hired he was given a light-weight Colt revolver, a bright red flannel shirt, blue trousers, a horn, and a Bible. The riders earned from one hundred dollars to one hundred fifty dollars a month, which were high wages for the time.
The firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell had special equipment made for their company, in order to reduce weight, protect the mail and speed up the relays. A well-known saddle maker in Saint Joseph, Missouri designed the saddles
to be used. The saddles had only a light wooden tree with a horn, cantle, stirrups, and a bellyband. Everything not essential was stripped.
To carry the mail itself, special "mochilas" (from the Spanish word for pouch or backpack) were made. The mochila was an easily removable, rainproof leather cover that fitted over the saddle with openings to allow the horn and cantle to stick through. For carrying the mail, there were four cantinas, or pouches, one at each corner of the mochila.
The pouches were all locked securely; the only persons possessing keys to the three pouches of "through" mail were the station keepers at the terminal ends of the Pony Express trail, one in Sacramento, and one in Saint Joseph. The fourth pouch held mail for the stations along the route, and the tenders of the home stations kept the keys to this pouch.
The load the pony had to carry could not be over one hundred sixty-five pounds. The riders usually weighed one hundred twenty pounds or less; the equipment weighed no more than twenty-five pounds; and the mail load was limited to a weight of twenty pounds.
There were two types of Pony Express stations. The first type was the "home" station, which was built to accommodate the riders at the ends of their runs. The riders could sleep and eat at these stations. The keepers of the home stations held keys to the local mail pouches; they opened the pouches upon the rider's arrival counted and sorted the letters, and recorded the time of arrival and departure of the mail.
There were nineteen such home stations in what is now the state of Nevada. The remains of several old Pony Express stations are still visible today.
The other type of station was the change station, which was built of logs, stone, or adobe. These stations were spaced about twenty miles apart, to facilitate the transfer of the riders to fresh mounts. The change stations were supplied with hay, grain, and other materials by freight wagons from the nearest settlements.
The route of the Pony Express followed the Central route, which the settlers had used during the California gold rush, and which is now U. S. Highway 50.
The route, starting at St. Joseph, Missouri, in general followed the well-known Oregon-California Trail by way of Fort Kearny, old Julesburg, Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, South Bass, Fort Bridger, and Salt Lake City. Beyond Salt Lake City, the route cut south then due west across the vast desert "bad lands" of Utah and Nevada by way of Cold Springs to Carson City, and Genoa then through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Sacramento. The route was originally 1966 miles long, and ran through what are now eight states. In what is now Nevada, there were thirty-four stations.
In the beginning, the line was nearly two thousand miles long, but later the distances narrowed as the Western Union Telegraph Company extended its lines westward.
Two-thirds of the Pony Express route ran through hostile Indian country. From Fort Kearny on; the riders had to be especially careful. What is now Nevada was the most dangerous stretch on the route. Indians were causing trouble during this time. Pony Express stations were easy prey for the angry Indians. All the Nevada outposts were threatened, and many of them were ravaged.
The Pony Express stations were placed ten to fifteen miles apart. A rider covered not less than seventy five miles before he was relieved. As a rider approached a change station, the keeper brought out a fresh horse, which was saddled and ready to travel. The rider jumped from his tired horse, grabbed the mail bags, and was on his way again in two minutes. Many times the riders prided themselves in making the transfer in even less time.
It took a rider twelve hours to complete his run. At its completion, he rested twelve hours, then returned over the same route, carrying the mail the other way to the end of his assigned distance.
To defend themselves against attacks of Indians or bandits, the riders usually only carried a revolver and a knife, keeping weight at a minimum.
On March 31, 1860 the first Pony Express mail was dispatched by messenger from Washington and New York to St. Joseph, Missouri. In Hannibal, Missouri, the carrier missed a train connection. This meant the new mail would be two hours late in arriving at St. Joseph. However, the railroad men met the emergency with one of the most famous mail train runs in history. Engineer Addison Clark highballed the mail from Hannibal to St. Joseph. making a record that was to stand for fifty years. The train covered two hundred six miles in four hours, fifty one minutes. averaging forty miles per hour.
The first run of the Pony Express started simultaneously from both ends of the line, on April 3, 1860. The first rider from Saint Joseph. Missouri, started at exactly five o'clock in the afternoon of that date.
The westbound rider was a young man named Johnny Frey. The first rider from the western end of the route was James Randall. The following is a news item which appeared in the San Francisco Alta Telegraph on April 4, 1860.
"The first "Pony Express" started yesterday afternoon, from the Alta Telegraph Company on Montgomery Street. The saddle-bags were duly lettered "Overland Pony Express" and the horse (a wiry little animal) was dressed with miniature flags. He proceeded, just before four o'clock, to the Sacramento boat, and was loudly cheered by the crowd as he started. We had forgotten to say that the rider's name was James Randall .... an old hand at the business-and evidently quite at home as a rider though he did get up on the wrong side in his excitement. The express matter amounted to eighty-five letters, which at five dollars per letter gave a total receipt of $425."
Actually, James Randall and his showy horse were just figures in the celebration, going only to Sacramento on the steamer. William Hamilton, the first relay rider, met Randall at Sacramento and rode to Sportsmans' Hall station where Warren Upson, the son of the Editor of the Sacramento Union, was waiting to carry the mail over the Sierras, the toughest part of the whole trail. Although it was a hard battle, Upson made the trip over the mountains; the hardest part was over, and the Pony Express was almost sure to succeed.
The run began on April third; the westbound rider reached Salt Lake City in six days, and entered Sacramento on April 13, just ten days after leaving St. Joseph.
This time cut about twelve days from the shortest time taken by the Butterfield Overland Mail.
There were celebrations in both terminal cities when the riders returned on their routes , bringing the first fast mail from the other side of the continent. There were bonfires that night in Sacramento, and when the rider reached San Francisco by boat a large parade was held.
This proved that the Pony Express was an actuality. And, until faster means were found, the daring riders would continue to carry the mail in spite of what had seemed to be impossible odds.
The initial express mail rate was five dollars for each half ounce. This price was later reduced to one dollar per half ounce. Despite any kind of weather, Indian attack, or any of the number of other misfortunes that might befall the riders, the mail had to go through. In the entire 650,000 miles ridden by the Pony Express, only one mochila containing the mail was lost.
Mark Twain gave this tribute to the perseverance of the Pony Express riders:
"No matter what time of the day or night his watch came on. and no matter whether it was winter or summer, raining, snowing, hailing, or sleeting, or whether his 'beat' was a level straight road or a crazy trail over mountain crags and precipices. or whether it led through peaceful regions or regions that swarmed with hostile Indians, he must be always be ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind."
In the eighteen months during which the "Pony" was in operation, there were more than two hundred riders employed by the company. Two of the most well-known of these were "Buffalo Bill" Cody and "Wild Bill" Hickock. The last living rider was John Jackson, who died on a ranch in Nevada at the age of 106.
The most famous ride was made by "Pony Bob", Robert Haslam, on his route from Smith's Creek to Fort Churchill in Nevada. He rode one hundred twenty miles in eight hours, ten minutes. During his ride Haslam was attacked by Indians and was badly wounded. This famous run was part of the fastest trip made by the Pony Express.
In May of 1860, the Pony Express suffered a temporary disruption of service, due to a war with the Pah-Ute Indians. The Pah-Utes (now commonly spelled Paiutes) were a strong, warlike branch of the Shoshone tribe led by Chief Winnemucca.
There had been an unusually Severe winter. The Indians blamed this on the evil influence of the white men. The settlers had also taken their land and sources of food which caused further resentment among the Indians. The young bloods of the tribe counseled war. Even though the older men did not agree, the young braves made attacks on white settlers which made war inevitable. When this happened, the old men ceased their resistance to the talk of war and the tribe stood solidly united against the whites.
The Indians attacked the express stations, killed the station keepers, burned stations, stole horses, and killed one rider. In spite of this situation, the mail was carried for a while but finally, the service was temporarily discontinued for about a month.
After the Pah-Ute disruption, stations were rebuilt and extra men were hired as guards. Adobe "forts" were built at the sink of the Carson River and at Sand Springs, twenty miles east of the sink. After the service was resumed, for two months the Indians harassed the riders in every possible way.
The cost of the Paiute war was a great financial blow to the Pony Express line. The replacement of stations and livestock cost over $75,000. The quick resumption of service aroused the admiration of the public; but many good men's lives had been sacrificed and the venture had almost been stopped permanently.
The West, by now accustomed to fairly prompt news, felt its lack deeply. Those who favored the South in the Civil War conflict won many of the doubtful residents over to their side due to the lack of news. It was the middle of June When the Pony Express was reestablished, and in the first news received was the announcement of the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.
The first run of the Pony Express had taken ten days to cover 1966 miles. Later trips made the distance in eight or nine days. The record time for the run was made when the mail was carried from Fort Kearney, Nebraska, to Fort Churchill, Nevada, in six days. The riders of the record run carried the news of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in November of 1860.
On short stretches, the riders occasionally made a speed of twenty-five miles per hour. The average speed was nearly two hundred fifty miles a day, and the run usually took an average of ten days to complete.
When the Western Union Telegraph Company finished its first transcontinental telegraph line on October 24, 1861, the Pony Express ended its fabulous career in financial failure. The telegraph line was being built from each end of the route, and it was finished near Salt Lake City, Utah.
Nearly a month after the telegraph line had been completed, on November twentieth, the last run of the Pony Express was made. In the mail pouches on this trip were seventy-eight letters for San Francisco.
The Pony Express had been in actual operation for seventy nine weeks deducting the four weeks suspension due to the Pah-Ute war.
A total of three hundred eight one-way trips were made constituting 616,000 miles, or over twenty four times the distance around the world. In all, 34,753 pieces of mail were delivered.
The losses incurred by the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell were extensive. The total receipts were about $90,000, not including newspaper charges. It cost about sixteen dollars to serve each patron. Estimating a high average return of three dollars per letter, there was a deficit of about thirteen dollars per letter. Expenses amounted to nearly $25,000 a month which leaves a probable total loss of around $475,000.
After the close of the Pony Express, the line was sold at a public sale in Leavenworth, Kansas, on March 7, 1862, to satisfy a mortgage held against the company by Benjamin Holladay, who bid in the property himself. In November of 1866, Holladay sold the equipment from the line to the Wells Fargo Express Company.
There were two main reasons for the importance of the short-lived Pony Express. First; the enterprise demonstrated that the shorter Central route across the country was feasible for travel in all kinds of weather, blazing the way for telegraph lines, railroads, roads, and emigration. Second, the Pony Express played a key role in keeping the rich western states in the Union during the crucial early days of the Civil War, by providing better communication.
At the time of the Civil War the two hundred fifty miles per day speed of the Pony Express did not satisfy the hunger of the western newspaper editors and readers for news. The government realized that the Union could not hold the western states unless ties of more rapid communication with those isolated populations were rapidly forged. The telegraph lines came to the country's rescue subsequently dooming the Pony Express.
Although a financial failure, the Pony Express has remained in our hearts as one of the most courageous, glamorous and spine tingling epics in the history of our country. A group of men whose courage and initiative pushed aside the boundary of distance linked the West with the rest of the nation and paved the way for further progress.