Pony Express, 1860-1861

Pony Express statue St JosephPony Express, 1860-1861

On April 3, 1860, horse riders for the newly formed Pony Express mail delivery service simultaneously left Saint Joseph, Missouri, going west, and San Francisco, California, going east.

Ten days later, the last relay rider with the mail pouch from Missouri reached California, two days before the eastbound rider reached Missouri.

Pony Express Trail

Pony Express National Historic Trail mapThe Pony Express Trail covered 1900 miles and eight states: California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.

The mail service was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, owners of a freight business, Russell, Majors, and Waddell. The official name of the parent company was the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express.

Pony Express First Westbound Post MarkThey held government contracts for delivering army supplies to posts on the western frontier.  They hoped to get a government contract for fast mail delivery, especially with the Civil War approaching, but the contract was awarded to the Butterfield Express stagecoach line.

157 relay stations were positioned along the trail, 5 to 20 miles apart.  Swing stations provided fresh horses.  Home stations also provided room and board for riders.

Over 140 riders, earning $100 per month, carried up to 20 pounds of mail and small packages. Riders changed every 75-100 miles, and could not weigh more than 125 pounds.  Advertisements read:

Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Four hundred horses were used by the company.  Riders changed horses every 10-15 miles.  The horses averaged 900 pounds, 4 feet 10 inches in height (14 1/2 hands), thus the name pony.  Morgan and thoroughbred horses were mostly used on the eastern trail.  Mustangs were mostly used on the more rugged western trail.

Horses were normally ridden at a gallop of 10-15 miles per hour, and sometimes a full gallop of 25 miles per hour.

The initial cost for mail delivery was $5 per half an ounce.  Prices later declined, but it was still expensive and the service was used for important documents for government, newspapers, banks and businesses.

To pay for the portion of the delivery service through the U.S. mails, the sender used a Post Office Department 10-cent prepaid envelope.

Other delivery methods for mail were the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, crossing Panama by horse or rail, taking a month from New York to California, or 3 weeks to several months by stagecoach on the Butterfield Express of the Overland Mail Company route.

Pony Express mochila mail pouchMochila Mail Pouch

Mail, telegraph messages, documents, and newspapers were carried in a mail pouch called a mochila (Spanish for leather pouch).  The mochila, previously used for decades in Mexico, was thrown over the special lightweight saddle and the rider sat on it.  Each corner had a cantina, or pocket, holding mail, and was padlocked.  Letters were wrapped in oil silk to repel water.  Typically, several dozen letters were carried.

Three pockets could only be opened at military posts (at Forts Kearney, Laramie, Bridger, Churchill, and at Salt Lake City). The fourth pocket could be opened by a station master at any other station and held a time-card to record arrival and departure times.

Pony Express Bible and Oath

Pony Express BibleAlexander Majors was a religious man.  Riders received a special edition King James Version 1858 Bible, published by the American Bible Society, and took and signed the Pony Express Oath:

“I, , do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am 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.”

Only 12 known copies of the Bibles have survived.  One is at the Denver Public Library.

Paiute War

Paiute Indians in Nevada Territory forced the suspension of mail delivery during May and June 1860 when they attacked eight stations, killed 16 employees, and stole or drove off 150 horses.  The Paiute War (Pyramid Lake War) ended by intervention of US government troops.

Transcontinental  Telegraph and Railroad

In 1860, the eastern telegraph line ended at Fort Kearney, Nebraska Territory.  The western telegraph line ended at Fort Churchill, Nevada Territory.  The Pony Express ceased operations in October 1861, when the transcontinental telegraph line reached Salt Lake City.

The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed after the Civil War, on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

Wells Fargo Stagecoach

From 1866 until 1889, the logo was used by stagecoach and freight company Wells Fargo, which provided secure mail service.

Pony Express National Historic Trail

The route has been designated the Pony Express National Historic Trail.

An annual re-ride celebration on the Pony Express Trail takes place June 15-25, with riders taking 10 days to complete the journey.  See the National Pony Express Association website for details.

Julesburg, Colorado

Buffalo Bill CodyJulesburg, in northeast Colorado, near the Nebraska border, was on the Pony Express Trail and has a Pony Express statue of a horse and rider at the Colorado Welcome Center, a station marker, and the Fort Sedgwick and Depot Museums.  The home station was used by the overland stage and burned with all of Julesburg in a Cheyenne Indian raid in 1865.

Julesburg is named for French-Canadian trader and frontiersman Jules Beni, who operated a trading post and a station for the Pony Express.

One famous rider who claimed he rode at the Julesburg station was William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill.  He later toured his Wild West Show in the U.S. and Europe for 30 years, 1883-1913, featuring the Pony Express story, transforming it into a legend.

Pony Express in the Movies and on TV

The Pony Express is depicted in several Hollywood movies, including a 1953 version titled Pony Express, starring Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill.  It was also featured in a 2-part episode, Ride the Wind, in season 7 of the TV series, Bonanza.  The TV series, Pony Express, created for the 100th anniversary, aired 35 episodes in 1959-1960.  Episode 1 is The Story of Julesburg.

Genghis Khan Pony Express

In 1224, Emperor Genghis Khan created a mail delivery system using horse riders to deliver mail to expand the Mongolian Empire.  Relay riders could cross 4,225 miles in two weeks and were accompanied by local escorts in each 100-mile segment.  Mongol horses average 4.6 feet in height but are able to run long distances, on rugged terrain, avoiding marmot holes.

Photo Credits

  1.  Pony Express Statue in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
  2.   Pony Express Trail Map, by National Park Service
  3.   Pony Express postmark, by Pony Express [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  4.  Mochila mail pouch, by Smithsonian National Postal Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  5.  Pony Express Bible, by Doug Coldwell (Flickr: Pony Express Bible SCP2) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  6.   Buffalo Bill photo, 1875, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Pony Express, 1860-1861
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