The Pony Express
An American Pony Express, en route from the Missouri River to San Francisco, chased by Indians, from a drawing by G H Andrews, illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume XXXIX, October 12, 1861. Source: (gettyimages.com)
By the 1850s, with so many people migrating to the west, the need for reliable communication grew. Stagecoaches had been the only means of delivering mail or packages but it was very slow. Sometimes ships could deliver to the west coast, but they had to travel around South America. The beginning of the Civil War was the catalyst for a quicker system.
Pony Express Beginning
It is tough to nail down exactly who first thought of the Pony Express. There had been other times in history that used horse relays to send messages. Genghis Khan had been known to use this method. There were at least two bills introduced to Congress to begin a weekly mail service but both failed. Eventually, the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company was founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. They signed a contract with the U.S. government to provide the delivery service. The main office was located in Missouri.
How did they do it?
The Pony Express route was almost 2,000 miles! The riders would go about 100 miles, changing horses every ten miles at one of the stations. There were about 200 stations located in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska. It would take ten days to cover the entire route and was quite efficient, though expensive for the times.
The Pony Express had a guarantee of a ten-day delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California. To make that happen, the horses had to be ridden as fast as possible, requiring the riders to change horses often. Once a rider had ridden all day or night, that rider would hand off the ‘mochila’ to a fresh rider. A ‘mochila’ was a lightweight saddlebag the riders carried the mail in. The best horses were purchased and the best riders were hired. The horses were usually Mustangs. They fed them the best grains and these horses were fast! As for the riders, they found men who had been riding since they were children and they had to be skinny! The less weight on the horses, the faster they could go. The riders were paid $100 per month for this arduous work.
The Excitement of the Pony Express
The very first ride occurred in April of 1860. Every newspaper reported the story. That first ‘mochila’ included a letter from President Buchanan to Governor Downey of California. It took over forty riders to deliver this mail. Ten days after the mail was sent, it was delivered in Sacramento! There was great fanfare to welcome the final rider and those that doubted the Pony Express were proven wrong. Soon, the riders themselves became heroes. One well-known rider was William Cody, also known as "Buffalo Bill”! Tales of his rides became legendary. The riders had to take a pledge that included no drinking or fighting.
The End of the Pony Express
The telegraph ultimately ended the need for the Pony Express. The transcontinental telegraph line was finished in 1861. The Pony Express was not a money-making venture for the owners. They took huge losses when Indian tribes attacked the stations, stealing the horses and killing the station keepers. It was also expensive for the average citizen to afford to use the Pony Express, so it was mostly used by businesses and newspapers. The Pony Express was only in business for eighteen months. In that short time, riders covered over 600,000 miles and delivered nearly 35,000 letters. Even though it was a short run, it has become legendary!
While it is common to complain about "snail mail" today, it is leaps and bounds above the Pony Express!