The Fast and Fierce Life of the Pony Express

The commemorative US stamp for the 100th Anniversary of the Pony Express
The commemorative US stamp for the 100th Anniversary of the Pony Express

There are few images more American in United States history than of the famous Pony Express.  In just 9-10 days, young riders carried the mail by horseback over 1,966 miles from Missouri to California.  This relay system crossed eight states and territories, the fastest east-west communication possible across the Wild West frontier of 1860.  Just the name brings to mind images of courageous young men galloping at break-neck speed across long stretches of open country – facing the threat of death from heat, thieves or Native Americans.  Riders even rode at night when only the illumination of the moon lit the way.

But few may know the famous Pony Express was in operation for only 18 months, between April 1860 and October 1861.  And though a delivery success for the mail, it was a financial failure for it owners.  How could this be true, for such a famous piece of Americana?  There were several reasons.

Thousands moved west, starting in the 1840s, and increasing with the 1849 California Gold Rush.

The growing West needed fast mail communication with the established East. After gold was discovered, prospectors and homesteaders flocked to the West. At the time, the U.S. Post Office delivered mail via steamship from New York to Panama, where it was taken across the Isthmus by horseback, then put aboard ships bound for San Francisco. Under the most optimistic conditions, letters arrived in four weeks.  Some mail was hauled by stagecoach cross-country on a 2,795-mile southern route between Missouri and San Francisco. Although the advertised time there was 24-25 days, stagecoach mail service was often delayed for months.

As pre-Civil War tensions grew, the division between the northern and southern states widened, exacerbating the mail service to the West.  By 1860, almost 1/2 million people were living in the new western states. Those people demanded to have the delivery time of their mail improved. The Pony Express grew out of this desperate need for faster mail service between East and West just prior to the Civil War.  

The completion of a coast-to-coast steam railroad was still years away. At that time, the railroads extended only as far west as the Mississippi River. The completion of a telegraph wire linking both coasts was under construction, but not yet a reality. Three entrepreneurs saw a way out. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell created the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company to carry mail across the county, otherwise known as The Pony Express.

Senator William Gwin of California had persuaded Russell, a stagecoach company owner, to establish a speedy and reliable express service across a shorter 1,966 mile, central route stretching from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Russell’s partner, Alexander Majors, arranged for the purchase of over 400 ponies; the building of 200 way stations in desolate areas; the hiring of station masters; the stocking of provisions; and, of course, the hiring of the young riders. All in just two short months.

The young pony riders made $100 a month, pretty darn good money at the time. It was hard work though, riding in rough terrain, harsh weather and dangerous conditions.  To keep the weight down for the horses, the riders had to weigh 125 pounds or less.  So, a lot were young, skinny teenagers or twenty-somethings willing to face danger for the excitement and money.

About 80 brave young men rode for The Pony Express.

Alexander Majors gave each of them a Bible and required them to sign a loyalty oath that read: “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee 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.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay.  But it appears that in the Wild West, few Pony Express riders followed their oath to the letter of the law.

The Pony Express route from Missouri to California
The Pony Express route from Missouri to California

They set up their string of relay stations across what is now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Lone horsemen would ride between stations at breakneck pace, switching mounts every 10-15 miles, then handing their mail bag off to a new rider after 75-100 miles. A special leather saddlebag called a mochila held four, padlocked mail compartments. It fit snugly over the saddle and was quickly switched from one horse to another. The ponies also were small, averaging about 14 1/2 hands high and weighed less than 900 pounds. The postage cost was $1 for a ½ ounce letter. That was a lot of money back in 1860, so it was rarely used for common mail.  

The 184 relay stations were placed 10 miles apart along the 1,966 mile route.  

The St. Joseph to Sacramento route followed the famous Oregon Trail for part of the way, then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, before crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. The route stretched through the plains of Kansas, up into Nebraska, along the valley of the Platte River, across Wyoming, through the Rockies, into the Great Salt Lake valley, through the Nevada desert basin, then over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada and finally into Sacramento.

At its peak, the Pony Express had over 180 riders and 400 horses stretched across its long route. The most famous of the riders was a 14-year-old Buffalo Bill Cody, who later earned his fame as a buffalo hunter, then by putting on Wild West shows across America and Europe.

The outposts themselves were usually crude, dirt-floor bunkhouses and a corral for the horses, manned by stock keepers. The first riders left from St. Joseph and Sacramento on April 3, 1860. They each arrived at the opposite end around 10 days later. The arrival of the first rider into Sacramento was greeted with great excitement as the streets filled with people cheering the event and the rider.  The young riders became small town heroes to those anxiously waiting mail. 

Camaraderie and competitions arose amongst the boys to beat each other’s records between relay stations.

The company’s best time came in March 1861, when riders carried the Inaugural Address of President Abraham Lincoln to California in just seven days, 17 hours. Amazingly, only one rider and one mail shipment were ever lost during the running of The Pony Express.  But the future of the The Pony Express always had a dead-end staked out, or on this case, a tall pole in the ground.

1860 Pony Express advertisement
1860 Pony Express Advertisement

On June 16, 1860, only ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized a bill to subsidize a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. This resulted in the incorporation of the Overland Telegraph Company of California and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. 

Just over a year later, and 18 months since the Pony Express started, it was rendered obsolete when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City.  On October 26, 1861, New York City was now in direct contact with San Francisco via telegraph, with messages taking hours, not days, to deliver. The transcontinental telegraph dealt the Pony Express its deathblow.  In November 1861, the last Pony Express letters completed their journey. The Pony Express was officially terminated, the horses sold, and the riders disbanded.

Despite its enduring place in the Wild West, the Pony Express never turned a profit for its three owners. It hemorrhaged cash due to high operating costs and its failure to secure a lucrative government mail contract that the stagecoach companies managed to hold on to. Though hailed in the press for its adventurous spirit, and capturing Americans’ imagination, the Pony Express eventually folded, having lost over $200,000, quite a sum in those days.

Nevertheless, despite operating for only 18 months, its riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier. A 1989, ABC TV series The Young Riders dramatized the Pony Express with a young Josh Brolin starring as William Cody.  It ran for three seasons and can be streamed today on FreeVee.

In March of 1862 the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company was sold at Leavenworth, Kansas to Wells Fargo.  Many of the riders either joined the Northern or Southern Armies during the Civil War, which had started a year earlier, or became stagecoach drivers for Wells Fargo.

Sadly, most of the original trail has been lost to time and development. In the western states, the majority of the trail has been converted over the years to either dirt roads or paved highways.  Short original segments, can be seen only in Utah and California where some of the ruins of the way stations still exist.  A few refurbished relay stations exist in Kansas and Missouri as historical sites.  Still, when driving on any lonely east-west road in the American West, it’s hard to not imagine the spirit of a lone Pony Express rider galloping fiercely along side you, with his packet of precious mail.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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