One June 6th, the National Pony Express Association will conduct its annual Re-Ride over the 1,966 mile route of the Pony Express National Historic Trail from California to Missouri. The event commemorates the Pony Express of 1860-1861 and will mark the 150th Anniversary of the Pony Express. The real anniversary was April 3rd, the date the first package of mail left Missouri. It arrived in Sacramento just over 10 days later, at 1 a.m. on April 14th. Read about the anniversary events and more Pony Express history.
The Pony Express lives large in the history of the United States. It is the stuff of legends. Young men (mostly teenagers) carried the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California; 1840 miles in 10 days or less — at a time when it used to take a minimum 3 weeks for mail to cross the country. They braved rough terrain, inclement weather and danger from hostile Native American tribes. They averaged 200 miles per day, averaging 10 mph by galloping all out from station to station and changing horses.
And yet, the Pony Express operated for only 19 months from 1860-1861 and ended up $400,000 in debt.
In 1860, St. Joseph, Missouri, marked the end of “civilization”. It was where the railroad tracks and the telegraph lines stopped; it was where the Pony Express began. The Pony Express began as a “publicity stunt,” by owner William H. Russell who hoped to win a million dollar government mail contract for the Central Overland, Cal. and Pike’s Peak Express Company, a freight and stage organization
About 80 riders worked for the Pony Express at any given time. Riders were paid from $100 to $125 per month at a time when the average factory worker earned $20 per month and farm workers were paid $15.50 per month. Most of the riders were around 20, but there was one by the name of Bronco Charlie Miller who was only 11 and the oldest rider was in his mid-40s.
The riders used a relay system. Each rode a section of 75-100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles. Though the schedule allowed for ten days, most trips were usually made in eight or nine days, the quickest run occurring in seven days and 17 hours when riders were carrying President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. Despite the dangers only one rider died and only one sack of mail was lost.
The Pony Express owned about 400 horses. Morgans and thoroughbreds were often used on the eastern end of the trail; pintos which were often used in the middle section; and mustangs which were often used on the western end of the trail. They could cost up to $200 each which was a fairly high price at that time.
The Pony Express used special mail pouches (called mochilas) that could be moved to a fresh horse very quickly at a change (only two minutes was allowed at a station). The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse, allowing for a total of 165 pounds on the horse’s back.
Two of the most famous Pony Express rider were Buffalo Bill Cody who was hired at the age of 15 and Wild Bill Hickock.
Buffalo Bill later wrote of his experiences as a rider, describing an attack by Indians.
As I was leaving Horse Creek one day, a party of fifteen Indians ‘jumped me’ in a sand ravine about a mile west of the station. They fired at me repeatedly, but missed their mark. I was mounted on a roan California horse – the fleetest steed I had. Putting spurs and whip to him, and lying flat on his back, I kept straight on for Sweetwater Bridge – eleven miles distant – instead of trying to turn back to Horse Creek. The Indians came on in hot pursuit, but my horse soon got away from them, and ran into the station two miles ahead of them. The stock-tender had been killed there that morning, and all the stock had been driven off by the Indians, and as I was therefore unable to change horses, I continued on to Ploutz’s Station – twelve miles further – thus making twenty-four miles straight run with one horse. I told the people at Ploutz’s what had happened at Sweetwater Bridge, and with a fresh horse went on and finished the trip without any further adventure.
In addition to creating the first express delivery system, the Pony Express is credited with helping to keep California in the Union (it was on the brink of secession) by providing rapid communication between the two coasts.
Unfortunately, while the Pony Express succeeded in its mail delivery goals, the service failed to win the million dollar government mail contract. After the Pacific Telegraph Company completed its line to San Francisco in October, 1861, the company declared bankruptcy and closed down.
Pony Express Facts:
Route: St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Through the present day states of Kansas, Nebraska, northeast corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
Frequency: Once a week from April 3 to mid-June 1860. Twice a week from mid-June, to late October 1861. Departures were from both the east and the west.
Duration: 10 days in summer, 12 to 16 days in winter.
Amount of mail: riders carried approximately 35,000 pieces of mail over more than 650,000 miles.
Fastest Delivery: 7 days and 17 hours between telegraph lines.
Longest Ride: Pony Bob Haslam rode 370 miles (Friday’s Station to Smith Creek and back.)
Cost of Mail: $5.00 per 1/2 ounce at the beginning. By the end of the Pony Express, the price had dropped to $1.00 per 1/2 ounce.