The Pony Express Rides Into History
This article was written and published by the United States Postal Service in 1970.
A little more than a hundred years ago, a courageous band of young men enlisted in an incredible enterprise to carry mail by pony relays through 2,000 miles of savage wilderness in frontier America between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.
They took an oath on the Bible of honesty and devotion to duty and went on, despite the daily threat of death, to carry the mail 616,000 miles–equal to 24 times around the earth–during the 18 months the enterprise oper-ated. In doing so, they wrote the unforgettable chapter of “The Pony Express” into American History.
The Pony Express was a horse relay mail carrying system operating in both directions between Missouri and California. The service carried the mail in 10 days from St. Joseph to Sacramento, and cut in half the time required to send mail by coach. It continued for 18 months, from April 1860 until October 1861, when the cross-country telegraph was completed.
In all, 308 runs were made each way, delivering 34,753 pieces of mail. Postage was $5 per half ounce at first, but was later reduced to $1 a half ounce. Each run carried up to 20 pounds of mail. Most accounts indicate about 90 Pony Express riders, 119 relay stations and 500 horses were used at one time or another during the 18 months.
On an average day, the Pony Expressman rode 75 to 100 miles. They changed horses at relay stations, placed about 10-15 miles apart, transferring his “mochila” (a saddle cover with four pockets or “Cantinas” for mail) to the new mount at the same time. This leap from the old mount–mochila in hand–to the fresh horse took about two minutes. The rider ended his duty at major “home” stations.
The Pony Express ran through parts of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. It is not surprising that it captured the essence of much of our whole national pioneer history, nor that it fired the nation’s imagination. Since the dawn of history, mail couriers have had great popular appeal.
The ancient Greek historian, Herodutus, produced the unofficial motto of the modern mail service when he wrote about another rapid horse relay postal system operating in ancient Persia, hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. Herodutus’ familiar words of about 2,500 years ago are: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The Pony Express mail service was extremely important to the development of the American West, despite its short life.
At that time, St. Joseph, Mo., as the westernmost point which the railroad and telegraph had reached, was a strategic starting point over the heart of the “great American desert” by way of the direct “Central” route to the West. Except for a few forts and settlements, however, the route beyond St. Joseph was a vast silent wilderness inhabited primarily by Indians. Transportation across this area on a year-round basis was believed impossible because of weather. It took two months to send a letter home and get a reply. This isolation was felt keenly, especially in California, and Americans insisted on faster mail service.
Also, in early 1860, California was on the edge of secession, and rapid communication with the East and the government in Washington was imperative.
Three American transportation pioneers, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, organized this famous mail service. Historians disagree on who had the first idea for a western Pony Express. But Russell, in conferences in Washington, D.C., in early 1860 with California’s U.S. Senator William Gwin, then chairman of the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee, was responsible for putting the Pony Express into operation. On Jan. 27, 1860, Russell dramatically wired his Fort Leavenworth, Kan., office that he had resolved to start the Pony Express “time 10 days.”
That preparations for the mammoth undertaking were completed before April 3, 1860, was a masterpiece of organization. New stagecoach stations were built and existing ones readied for use. A company–the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express–was formed for Pony Express operations.
The following newspaper advertisement was published: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wirey fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week.” Riders were recruited hastily, but carefully. They were presented with a Bible and took an oath not to swear, fight or abuse their animals, and to conduct themselves honestly.
The country was combed for horseflesh, for the first Pony Express horses, including the famous “mustangs,” were to challenge deserts, mountains and lonely plains, and the riders to face thirst in summer, freezing in winter, and always sudden death.
Meanwhile, in early 1860, newspapers had announced a letter delivery service to and from the West: 13 days from New York City to San Francisco, including train time to St. Joseph.
On March 31, 1860, the first Pony Express mail was dispatched from Washington and New York by a messenger on board trains to St. Joseph. The messenger missed a train connection, unfortunately, which meant he would be two hours late out of Hannibal, Miss. Men of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad met the emergency, however, with one of the most famous mail train rides in history.
The main track was cleared and all switches closed. Engineer Addison Clark highballed along for a famous “fast mail” run that was to stand as a record for 50 years, covering the 206 miles from Hannibal to St. Joseph in four hours and 51 minutes, an average of 40 miles per hour.
As the crowd assembled in St. Joseph watched and a brass band played, the mail was stowed in the cantinas. There were 49 letters, five telegrams and some special edition newspapers, written or printed on tissue paper and wrapped in oilskin.
Who the first rider was out of St. Joseph is still a moot question. Records split about evenly between two men, Johnny Fry (also spelled Frey and Frye) and Billy Richardson. About 7 p.m. on April 3, as a cannon boomed in salute, the Pony Express rider was off and one of the most colorful chapters in American history began.
The first rider out of Sacramento was Sam Hamilton. His eastbound ride began on a dark, disagreeable night, a few hours after midnight on April 3. It had been raining for two days, and the streets were a sea of mud. The steamer carrying mail from San Francisco to Sacramento for the first Pony Express run was hours overdue.
As the steamer came in, the mochila was tossed to Sam. On his first three mustangs, he rode 20 miles through rain, mud and darkness in 59 minutes to Folsom, Calif. From Folsom the run was even more difficult. It was pitch dark and the rain came down in sheets. The trail to Placerville, Calif., was a series of ups and downs, and the success of the night ride depended largely on instinct of the ponies. Three times the ponies went down in the darkness, but the rider continued to Placerville.
From Placerville, a steep trail wound up Hangtown Gulch with a rise in elevation of 2,000 feet during the 13 miles to Sportsman’s Hall, Calif., the end of Sam’s run. As daylight came, the weather became worse and the rain changed to sleet.
Not very far from a Pony Express station midway between Placerville and Sportman’s Hall, Sam’s horse went down again. Sam fell heavily, ripping his cheek against a boulder. After blowing four blasts on his horn to alert the relay man, he snatched the mochila from his saddle and ran toward the waiting fresh pony. Within three minutes, Sam was mounted again and racing up the icy trail toward Sportman’s Hall.
At 6:48 a.m., on April 4, 1860, Sam reached Sportman’s Hall, the end of his run. In four hours and three minutes of rain and sleet swept darkness, he had ridden 60 miles over incredibly muddy and treacherous trails, had changed ponies eight times, and had climbed 4,000 feet into the Sierra Nevadas. He had picked up enough time to give the next rider, Warren Upson, son of the editor of the Sacramento Union, at least a chance of getting over the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains despite a raging snowstorm that had stopped all traffic.
There was not much said between the two. According to one account, Warren asked; “Rough trip, Sam?” Sam replied: “Twan’t half bad.”
Upson’s ride across the icebound Sierra Nevadas from Sportman’s Hall to Friday’s Station, near the California-Nevada state line, was one of the most difficult in the history of mail carrying. The great blizzard had turned the trail into a bleak, frozen no-man’s land. Upson groped most of the way, at times dismounted, and always was nearly blinded by driving sleet, knowing he might fall to his death at any moment. But he arrived safely at the station with the mail.
Another famous rider was “Pony Bob” Haslam, who made one of the greatest mail rides in American history in March 1861.
Because of the importance of making fast delivery on President Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address, elaborate preparations had been made to speed the address from St. Joseph to Sacramento. A fresh pony was stationed every 10 miles along the 1,966 mile route. “Pony Bob,” whose regular run was from Friday’s Station to Fort Churchill, Nev., was selected to make the ride over the trails from Smith’s Creek to Fort Churchill, an especially hazardous section, as the warring Paiutes had been attacking travelers all through that area.
One story tells how Pony Bob received the mochila with President Lincoln’s address at Smith’s Creek, Nev., and sped west, making the fastest run ever to Cold Springs, Nev., one of the major stops along the trail to Fort Churchill. He had seen no Indians along the way, and this seemed too good to be true. At Cold Springs, he asked for “Old Buck,” not the fastest horse, but one noted for fighting against the Indians.
Mounted on Old Buck and on his way to Fort Churchill, Pony Bob found himself charging through a series of ambushes. Finally, Old Buck pointed his ears forward and snorted a warning as Haslam cocked his two guns and rode on. Indians came at him from all directions.
Dropped flat on his horse, Bob raced on as Indians boiled out of the brush, firing bullets and arrows from every direction. Soon he was surrounded by mounted warriors, several on stolen Pony Express ponies.
Old Buck could outrun the Indian ponies, but not the swift Pony Express ponies. Bob had no choice but to shoot the ponies as they approached him. One by one, Haslam got the Indian ponies, until there were only three left. As these dropped back, an arrow struck Bob’s left arm, hit the bone and remained there quivering. Haslam managed to get the arrow out, and rode on through a narrow ravine that forced the Indians following him to fall into single file. He was able to shoot down two more Indian ponies, but the third escaped.
Tossing away one empty revolver, he took out the other one and turned to fire at the oncoming Indian. An arrow tore into his cheek, knocking out five teeth and fracturing his jaw. He did not lose consciousness, but turned and emptied his gun at the remaining Indian. Old Buck carried him to Middle Gate Relay Station. There, Bob spent a few minutes caring for his wounds, but he insisted on finishing his run to Fort Churchill. In this remarkable episode, the famous Pony Express rider, badly wounded, had gone 120 miles in eight hours and 10 minutes under circumstances that make today’s Wild West stories seem tame.
Pony Bob’s epic ride was a part of the fastest trip made by the Pony Express. The mail was carried from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., in seven days and 17 hours.
Johnny Fry, listed by some as the first rider, was little more than a boy when he entered the Express service. He was from Missouri and weighed under 125 pounds. An early account states, “Though small in stature, he was every inch a man. His run was from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kan., about 80 miles, which he covered in an average of 121/2 miles per hour, including all stops.” He later entered the Union Army, and was killed in 1863 in a hand-to-hand fight in which he was credited with killing five assailants before he was killed himself.
In addition to contributing men to Civil War forces, the Pony Express had other prominent associations with the great conflict. By mid-1861, for example, the Pony Express was carrying 32 pounds of government mail per month, some of it to President Lincoln and much of it related to military mat-ters.
One famous illustration of how the Pony Express allegedly helped save California for the Union is the Pony Express letter that foiled a plot to turn military stores over to the South in California.
James McClatchy, founder of the Sacramento Bee, discovered that General Albert Sidney Johnston, then in charge of the Union’s Army Department of the Pacific, was planning to turn the army stores over to the Confederates. McClatchy sent word of this to Washington by Pony Express. The letter was relayed to President Lincoln, who or-dered U.S. General Edwin Summer to California immediately, relieving Johnston of his post and blocking the plot.
Another well-known rider of the Pony Express was “Buffalo Bill.” William F. Cody was said to have been in his early teens when he entered the famous mail service. Cody is credited with many notable feats, including a ride aggregating 384 miles without any real rest period, referred to by some authorities as probably the longest continuous performance of its kind.
The role of women in the Pony Express is largely a mystery. Very little is known about the wives and sweethearts associated with the Pony Express. As with many great, true chapters in our history, many legends–even myths–have grown up about the Pony Express. One of the most interesting of these is that sweethearts of some of the riders met them along the route with cookies and sweets. One legend even credits the invention of the doughnut to one of these girls. She is supposed to have put a hole in the middle of one of her small cakes so that her boyfriend could catch it on the barrel of his gun as he rode by.
In October 1861, when the telegraph had spanned the nation, the Pony Express was disbanded. But it had served a great purpose. It had blazed the way to the West, demonstrating dramatically that the short “Central” route across the nation was feasible for travel in all kinds of weather. It had aided in the preservation of the Union by helping keep the West, with its gold, in the Union in the early crucial days of the Civil War.
And finally, it had compressed into a few immortal pages of history the fines characteristics of our free way of life–enterprise, courage, fidelity to duty, and the conviction that any worthwhile goal can be achieved through diligence and hard work.