The Pony Express

An American legend, the story of the Pony Express

 After gold was discovered in 1848 in Sutter's Mill in California and prior to the Civil War there was a need for swifter mail service between the East and West. The Pony Express grew out of that need. The completion of a coast-to-coast railroad was years away. At that time, the railroads extended only as far west as the Mississippi River. The completion of a telegraph linking both coasts was close to becoming a reality, but it would still be more than a year before it could be completed. They knew from the beginning that once this was completed the Pony Express would no long be needed.

The Pony Express is credited with helping to keep California in the Union. News of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the United States presidency in 1860 and of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 reached California via the Pony Express.

The route form St. Joseph to San Francisco stretched over 1,966 miles, through the plains of Kansas and into Nebraska, along the valley of the Platte River, across the Great Plateau, through the Rockies, into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, through the alkali deserts of Nevada, then over the snow-covered Sierra Mountains and finally into the Sacramento Valley.  Eventually, the Pony Express had more than 100 stations, 80 riders, and between 400 and 500 horses. The express route was extremely hazardous, but only one mail delivery was ever lost.  It lasted only 18 months but during that time riders covered 650,000 miles and carried 34,753 pieces of mail. 

About 80 young men rode for the Pony Express. When they were hired each rider was given a Bible and required to sign a pledge promising not to swear, drink alcohol, or fight with other employees. 

A Mochila

The Pony Express was developed by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors. The riders carried the mail in the four pockets of a mochila which fit snugly over the saddle and was quickly switched from one horse to another. Letters were wrapped in oil silk to protect them from moisture. The price of a letter was $5 at first, and reduced to $1 per half-ounce by July 1, 1861. The first letter was received in San Francisco shortly before midnight on April 13, 1860

The Telegraph

The new "Talking wires," could carry information quickly across the country. They made it possible to communicate over vast distances and they linked far-flung settlements with population centers back east. This helped foster a stronger sense of national identity. 

Buffalo Bill Cody, who later became famous for his Wild West Show, was a rider for the Pony Express and wrote of his experiences. We join Bill's story as he is hired - at the age of 15 - to ride a section of the trail that lies in modern-day Wyoming: 

"One day when I galloped into Three Crossings, my home station, I found that the rider who was expected to take the trip out on my arrival had got into a drunken row the night before and had been killed; and that there was no one to fill his place. I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of eighty-five miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time. I then turned back and rode to Red Buttes, my starting place, accomplishing on the round trip a distance of 322 miles 

This is an excerpt and first hand account from Mark Twain's Roughing It

In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and watching for the "pony-rider"--the fleet messenger who sped across the continent from St. Joe to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh and blood to do! The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance. 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 cragsand precipices, or whether it led through peaceful regions or regions that swarmed with hostile Indians, he must be always ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind! There was no idling-time for a pony-rider on duty. He rode fifty miles without stopping, by daylight, moonlight, starlight, or through the blackness of darkness--just as it happened. He rode a splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like a gentleman; kept him at his 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 the ghost of a look. Both rider and horse went "flying light." 

The First Ride by Charles Hargens, hangs in the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, MO

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    my name is Sam. I am working on a National History Day project and I was wondering if I could use some of your photos of the pony express for my documentary for educational purposes only. My email is