Lost Skills of the Pony Express

The Pony Express is one of the most enduring stories of the Old West.
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The Pony Express is one of the most enduring stories of the Old West.
Credit: Erwin Sherman

Credit: Erwin Sherman


A Brief Chapter
By the mid-1800s, the population of California had exploded. Residents were eager to correspond with connections back east, but communication required incredible patience; mail delivery took a month by boat or overland stage. By the late 1850s, a trio of enterprising freighting firm owners supported the idea of an express overland mail route delivered by horseback relay: the Pony Express. On April 3, 1860, the first rider left St. Joseph, Mo. Ten days and 1,900 miles later, the mail reached its final destination, San Francisco. Eventually, the Pony Express required more than 150 stations, 120 riders, and 400 horses. Despite the dangers of the trail, there are only two accounts of lost mail. Just 19 months after its start, the Pony Express discontinued after the Overland Telegraph Company completed its construction of the telegraph line. 

Orphans Preferred
Allegedly, the ad placed for Pony Express riders read, “Wanted: Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

Hard-earned
Pony Express riders were hired at $50 per month, plus room and board. Over time, this rose to $100 to $125. A few whose rides were particularly dangerous or who braved unusual dangers received $150.

Horse-Powered
The Pony Express was set up to provide a fresh horse every 10–15 miles. Seventy-five horses were needed to make a one-way trip. Along the eastern end of the trail, Thoroughbreds and Morgans were typical mounts; toward the western end, mustangs were the preferred choice. 

The Mochila
The rapid exchange of mail from one rider to another would not have been possible without the mochila. The mochila—simply a leather covering thrown over the saddle, with pouches for the mail—allowed mail to go from one saddle to the other without needing to change the saddle. When a rider arrived at a relay station, a fresh horse, saddled and bridled, was waiting for him. The rider changed the mochila from one saddle to another and was off.

Taking the Oath
New employees were sworn in with this 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.”

Credit: Erwin Sherman

Credit: Erwin Sherman