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The Romance and the Reality of the Pony Express

Before the USPS, mail was transported on horseback.

1960 commemorative stamp of the Pony Express featuring a horse-mounted rider
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  • Pony Express 100th anniversary commemorative stamp.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Today, when we can exchange emails and text messages in seconds or hop on social media and get news from around the globe instantly, it’s difficult to imagine a time when contacting someone just a few states away could take days, weeks, or even longer. Such was the case in 1860, when three men founded what became known as the Pony Express.

A precursor of today’s modern postal service, the goal of the Pony Express was to link the East and West Coasts of the country with a means of rapid communication. “Rapid,” in this case, was a matter of context, for getting a message from one end of the country to the other could still take around 10 days.

Though it only remained in operation for 18 months and ended in bankruptcy, the Pony Express obtained a perhaps outsized position in the myth of the American West, thanks in part to its portrayal in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Though modern historians are skeptical as to his involvement in the Pony Express, Cody began claiming that he was a rider for the postal system as early as his 1879 autobiography, and made the Pony Express a major feature of his popular Wild West Show, which toured the United States and Europe near the end of the 19th century, helping to secure its legacy in the annals of Western history.

What was the Pony Express?

Beginning in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Pony Express traversed a 1,900-mile route to Sacramento, California. The purpose was simple enough. California had become a state in 1850, and by 1860 its population had swelled to more than 380,000. Despite this, California was separated from the eastern states by miles and miles of largely unorganized territory—technically belonging to the United States, but not yet organized into states themselves.

Crossing this frontier was difficult and perilous, and getting messages from the eastern states to the newly formed state of California was a challenge that the Pony Express was created to solve. To do so, roughly 190 Pony Express stations were created along that 1,900-mile route, placed between 5 and 25 miles apart. At these stations, riders would stop to change horses and grab a bite to eat before continuing on their way. Smaller “swing stations” allowed for little more than that, while larger “home stations” gave riders a place to sleep between runs.

Riders carried mail pouches known as “mochilas” (a Spanish loan word), which had compartments that could be padlocked. These held whatever mail was being carried, and riders were encouraged to regard the safety of the mochila as more important than either their lives or those of their mounts.

How fast was the Pony Express?

The two main selling points of the Pony Express were its speed and its reliability. In order to deliver the mail as quickly as possible, Pony Express riders rode continuously, day and night, in shifts that could stretch as long as 20 hours. Most rode around 75 to 100 miles before a break, changing horses at every station, so that their horses were always fresh and able to ride as fast as possible.

The weight that the horses carried was also important, and through its months of operation, the Pony Express refined the amount of weight on the horses down to the bare minimum. Riders were not allowed to weigh more than 125 pounds, and they carried little more than the mochila, a revolver, and some water.

Weather and other threats might slow the mail but, in general, correspondence was able to travel from the eastern states to California in about 10 days. Among the most prestigious of the Pony Express’s accomplishments was delivering the news of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential victory in 1860. In the prior election, just four years earlier, it had taken months for the results to reach the most distant states. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Pony Express, however, California’s newspapers received word of Lincoln’s victory just seven days and 17 hours after they were announced on the east coast.

a pony express rider on horseback
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  • Frank E. Webner, a Pony Express rider c. 1861.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Who rode for the Pony Express?

Only around 100 men rode for the Pony Express during its brief existence, though you would not know that from the number of stories that later circulated, or the number of men who claimed to have been former Express riders. No record remains of exactly who all these riders were, and even the name of the first Pony Express rider is uncertain, making it difficult to sort fact from fiction.

By contrast, more than 400 horses had been acquired for the enterprise before the Pony Express was even founded, and riders changed horses many times in the course of one run. Some of the known riders attained fame for their exploits as part of the Pony Express, including figures such as Johnny Fry, Billy Richardson, Jack Keetley, and Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, who made what is considered the longest round-trip ride, totaling some 380 miles, including a massive 120 mile trip made in just eight hours and 20 minutes, while wounded.

Many others have laid claim to the status of Pony Express riders, but the veracity of all these claims is unknown.

Why did the Pony Express come to an end?

Today, the Pony Express enjoys an outsized role in our national mythos, despite its relatively brief 18 months of operation. This is thanks in part to subsequent romanticizing of the Express in various books, movies, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, though it was short lived, the Pony Express played a vital role in American history.

Even at the time of its inauguration, the Pony Express was described as a precursor to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. What it really was, however, was a stopgap solution to connect the eastern and western telegraph lines. In 1860, the western telegraph line extended only as far as Fort Churchill in what was then the Nevada Territory, while the eastern telegraph line reached as far as Fort Kearny in what was then the Nebraska Territory. Between those two points, messages had to be carried by hand.

By October 24, 1861, those two lines had been connected and the first telegraph message was transmitted all the way from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Two days later, the Pony Express came to an end. However, that wasn’t the end of mail being carried along the same path. Though the advent of the American Civil War caused massive disruptions, by the time the war was over, Wells Fargo had taken over the route that had formerly belonged to the Pony Express, and had accomplished something that the founders of the Express had never managed—winning a government contract to carry mail along the route.