A mode of delivery that lasted a mere 18 months before the telegraph made it obsolete, the Pony Express captured America’s imagination for the bravery and audacity of the enterprise. 150 years later the achievement still resonates.
At 7:15 p.m. on April 3, 1860, a lone rider left on horseback from the Pikes Peak Stable, in St. Joseph, Mo.—now a historic landmark. Carrying saddlebags filled with our nation’s hopes and dreams, the rider galloped the first leg of the 2,000-mile journey to California, braving weather, injury, exhaustion, and, occasionally, hostile natives and highwaymen, to unite a country separated by distance and time.
“The Piutes waylaid me and they gave a running fight for three or four miles, but I got away. . .I rode 120 miles in eight hours and ten minutes on that trip and used thirteen mustangs to make the trip. The Indians hit me with flinthead arrows. Look at these five front teeth. They were knocked out clean. See this jagged scar on my chin?. . My jaw was fractured and I got another arrow through my left arm.”
—Robert Haslam, rider, regarding the dangers from the Paiute tribe in Utah Territory
With the aid of the telegraph, which reached as far west as St. Joseph, this first rider helped enable news to travel from one coast to the other in ten days—an unimagined achievement at the time. Mail left each terminus twice a week, and riders carried mail in both directions within their 75- to 100-mile route.
It would take approximately 80 riders to gallop the nearly 2,000 miles between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif., wending through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada along the way. A rider usually changed horses ten times during his ten-hour ride, and occasionally, a rider filled in for another rider and took two or three more segments, riding around the clock. The shear physical effort and determination showcased American ingenuity and became a dramatic piece of Western lore.
“I was a young fellow, craving excitement, and when I had a chance to ride Pony Express I leaped at it.”
—William Cates, rider
Founded 150 years ago this April, the Pony Express only lasted a total of 18 months before the transcontinental telegraph line was completed in the fall of 1861, making it obsolete. Yet people around the world have fallen under the spell of those lone riders, who endured severe hardships and dangers to race against time. During the 2010–2011 anniversary years, Americans will not be the only ones to remember and celebrate. Reenactments have already been held in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, among other countries.
It was a short episode in our country’s history, but the Pony Express remains an excellent example of American ingenuity, loyalty, and the determination to go the distance, to get the task accomplished. The real heroes—the riders (not to mention the horses themselves)—slipped into oblivion. Most were not aware of the role they played in our country’s history. Even at the time, their service was colored in romantic terms; 19th-century historian H. H. Bancroft sums up the feeling of many Americans: “After all, it was to the flying pony that all eyes and hearts were turned.”
Pony Express founders—William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell—were entrepreneurs who had made money from stage coaching and freighting to government outposts. With the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, they had a monopoly on public travel through the central part of the United States, a route many considered impassable during the winter. The success of the Pony Express, however, proved the year-round viability of the route and lay the groundwork for the first transcontinental railroad. It’s also credited with keeping open the lines of communication between the U.S. Government and gold-rich California at the beginning of the Civil War. Westerners learned of Lincoln’s inauguration via the Pony Express, read his inaugural speech, and read about the gunplay at Fort Sumter that triggered the Civil War.
“Lost in a blizzard for 20 hours—sat down and started to fall asleep in a snow bank when something jumped on to my legs and scared me. I looked up in time to see a jack rabbit hopping away through the snow. . . If that rabbit hadn’t brought me back to my senses, I should have frozen right there.”
—William Frederick Fisher, rider
By promoting the speed of the Pony Express, Russell, Majors, and Waddell also hoped to earn the lucrative government mail contracts divvied out by Congress. At the time, Butterfield’s Southern Route held the mail contracts, but the company used the much slower stagecoach routes from central Missouri, through Fort Smith, Ark., El Paso, and up the coast of California to San Francisco.
Once the Pony Express trail left St. Joseph, it followed a well-worn road made by tens of thousands of wagons since the mid-1840s that originally carried emigrants to homes in Oregon, California, and Salt Lake City—nearly half-a-million by 1860. At first, the relay stations were 25 miles apart, and stagecoaches used much of the same trail as the riders. Later, to improve safety, stations were built every ten miles apart. Riders ate as they rode, and would change horses in less than a minute.
Before April 3, 1860, mail delivery between the East and West Coasts took a minimum of four weeks—either by ship and packed across Panama, or by stagecoach across the southwestern United States. The Pony Express drastically reduced that time, but not without risks. The Paiute uprising from May 8 to July 7, 1860 disrupted mail delivery entirely. Stations were attacked and destroyed, stock was stolen, and several station keepers were killed. It cost $75,000 to repair the damage and get the Pony Express back to full operation.
“The Indians had played hob with most of those desert stations. . . It was no easy job, boy, I tell you, to keep the mail going in them days, but someone had to do it.”
—George Washington Perkins, rider
More than 180 men are known to have ridden for the Pony Express. Reports of pay vary, but most riders received $50 a month, plus room and board. The riders were around 19 or 20 years of age, and were not allowed to weigh more than 125 pounds. They carried an additional 20 pounds of mail in a leather mochila placed on the saddle. To minimize weight, they carried only what was needed—occasionally a knife or pistol, and a horn to alert station keepers of their approach. Most riders were single, and in a country that was still young, a number of riders were foreign-born.
Only one rider, Major Howard Egan in Utah Territory, was known to have been in his mid-40s. Egan also had two sons who rode for the Pony Express.
“Solitude, whether from choice or necessity, has never meant loneliness but continuous opportunity for study. A man who loves books and nature and has a dog never
can be lonely.”
—Charles Becker, rider
Broncho Charlie Miller, for instance, was only 11 when his father put him horseback to fill in for a sick rider in California. He went on to become a cast member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he portrayed his dashing rides for audiences. Miller’s performances helped seed the legend of the Pony Express around the world.
In his 1934 biography, titled Broncho Charlie: A Saga of the Saddle, Miller wrote: “We’d all get serious, and we’d think back to them long gone days, and I reckon our backs would straighten a bit, and our chins would come up, and we would remember the oath of the Pony Express.”
“The distance was about seventy-five miles and was a very hard ride for the horses, as well as for me, because much of the distance was through deep sand. Some things were not so bad, however, for I had no mountains to cross, the weather in winter was mild, and the Indians were a little more friendly here.”
—Elijah Nicholas Wilson, rider
The relay of horses and riders went on day and night, summer and winter, and in all types of weather. Yet in its short life, the Pony Express made only approximately 150 round trips, delivering nearly 35,000 pieces of mail, with the mail from California doubling that from the East
“I got about seven miles from the last station and found it impossible to find the road. I would git off the horse and look for the road. I would find it and mount the horse but in five yards I would lose it. I tried several times but gave it up. So I dismounted and led the horse back and forth until daylight. It seemed a long while, but at last daylight came. It was a terrible night. I got to the station about nine o’clock hungry as wolfe, 40 below.”
—Richard Cleve, rider
Traveling the trail today, one is struck by the beauty of the landscape. Courthouse Rock in Nebraska Territory was only one of the natural wonders witnessed by riders. They saw the mighty Missouri River, the tall sea of grass on the prairie, Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater River, South Pass across the Rocky Mountains, the Wasatch Mountains, the edge of the Great Salt Desert, the lonely, treacherous deserts of today’s Nevada, and the majestic, snow-capped Sierra Mountains.
The trail through Nevada was to have been especially desolate.
“We built a log cabin, the roof was dirt, the floor was dirt. A wagon cover made a carpet. The window was glazed with a flour sack. The door was a blanket. The table an endgate of a wagon. . . The first stage west of Salt Lake brought Mrs. Faust to this stately mansion where she lived nine months without once
seeing a woman.”
—Henry Faust, station-keeper
Historian Raymond Settle puts the route into perspective: “Today the Pony Express is a memory, but what a memory it is! Already the rider is enshrined in the nation’s Hall of Heroes along with Captain John Smith, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Jedediah S. Smith, Francis X. Aubrey, and other notables. Fortunate indeed is a people who possesses a story like this with which to enthrall and inspire its youth.”
Jacqueline Lewin is co-author of On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders (Platte Purchase Publishers, 2002).
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