The Story of the Pony Express

Article from Enroute*

By Nancy Pope

Volume 1, Issue 2
April–June 1992

The Pony Express is one of the most colorful episodes in American history, one which can be used to measure not only the growth of the nation, but the pioneering spirit of our predecessors. The name "Pony Express" evokes images of courageous young men crossing long stretches of country, frequently under harsh conditions, facing the constant threat of death. And, like so many legendary events of the "Old West," there have been wild exaggerations of the facts.

Despite the braggadocio, these young horsemen faced numerous dangers, such as thieves, deserts, or blizzards. Riders continued even at night when the only illumination came from the moon or flashes of lightning.

The Pony Express grew out of a need for swifter mail service between the East and West prior to the Civil War. After gold was discovered in 1848 in Sutter's Mill in California, prospectors joined with homesteaders flocking westward. That same year, the Post Office Department awarded a contract to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to carry mail to California. Under the terms of the contract, the mail was carried by ship from New York to Panama, where it was taken across the Isthmus of Panama by horseback or rail, and then put aboard ships bound for San Francisco. Under the best of conditions, a letter could be carried to the West Coast in three or four weeks. But, that schedule was optimistic.

As the tensions of the approaching Civil War grew, the division between northern and southern states widened, exacerbating the problems of mail service to the western states. Both the North and the South desired California's vast resources. By 1860, almost 1/2 million people were living in the western states. Those people were determined to have the delivery time of their mail improved.

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.

Some mail also was hauled by stagecoach across country, beginning on September 15, 1858, when the Post Office Department issued a contract to the Overland Mail Company, operated by John Butterfield. Butterfield's stages used the 2,795-mile "Southern Route" between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. Although the advertised traveling time was 24 days, as a practical matter cross-country stagecoach mail service was often delayed for months. Such delays were keenly felt by Californians. The citizens of Los Angeles, for example, learned that California had been admitted to the Union fully six weeks after the fact.

Senator William M. Gwin of California was among those who saw the need to improve the timeliness of mail service to the West. Traveling from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., he was aware of the truth behind one of the jokes of the period—that the terms of the western members of Congress might expire before they even reached the District of Columbia.

Expecting the Confederacy to cut off the only land-based source of communication between the Federal Government and California, Gwin persuaded Congress to consider the approval of an alternate route. This route would be about 800 miles shorter and was known as the "Central Route."

Gwin found the answer to his concerns in William Russell, a stage express company owner. Russell agreed to establish a speedy and reliable express service over the Central Route, stretching from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco. Russell hoped to prove that his company was an able competitor to John Butterfield's Overland Mail Company, and win away the exclusive government mail contract.

Russell, and his partners, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, were expected to operate the Pony Express for about a year. Once the race to connect the telegraph had ended, with both ends expected to meet at Salt Lake City, the Pony Express would no longer be needed.

Although both Russell and Gwin are referred to as the "Father of the Pony Express," the actual responsibility for making the venture work fell to Alexander Majors. Although he and Waddell had initially opposed the project, once his firm was pledged to the Pony Express, Majors committed his energies to the project's success.

With precision and expertise which would be envied by any military tactician, Alexander Majors arranged for the purchase of over 400 ponies; the building of 200 stations in desolate, uninhabited areas; the hiring of station masters to staff them; the stocking of provisions; and, of course, the hiring of the riders themselves. Majors' task, difficult under the best circumstances, had to be completed in two months.

Relay stations were placed 10 miles apart. Every third station was a home station, where extra ponies, firearms, men, and provisions were kept. Here, the mail would be handed over to a new rider.

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. The mail was carried between Sacramento and San Francisco by steamboat.

About 80 young men rode for the Pony Express. When he hired the riders, Alexander Majors gave each of them a Bible and required them to sign a pledge promising not to swear, drink alcohol, or fight with other employees. 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. Weight was an important factor. Riders, horses, letters, and gear were all chosen with this in mind. The horses averaged about 14 1/2 hands high and weighed less than 900 pounds.

The arrival of the first rider into San Francisco was greeted with tumultuous excitement as the streets filled with people cheering the event. Even Jessie Benton Fremont, the widow of the famous western explorer John C. Fremont, was on hand to witness the rider's arrival shortly before midnight on April 13, 1860.

*EnRoute was the National Postal Museum's newsletter.