History Of The Pony Express

A look at the very brief history of the Pony Express. Although it lasted only 18 months the legend of the Pony Express continues.

From the beginning, the Pony Express had a precarious existence during the whole of its brief 18 month history. The problems were not only due to the rigors of the trail or Indian raids but financial as well. Although the Pony Express delivered the mail across the country within the 10 day time limit, financially it was a disaster.

The driving force behind the Pony Express was William H. Russell who along with his business partners, Willam B. Waddell and Alexander Majors, created this service. They were already partners in one of the largest freighting companies in the West and, under Russell's urging, attempted to bring about speedy mail delivery via Pony Express relay riders stationed between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.

The planning for such a service began in late 1859 and it soon became apparent that the logistics of such an undertaking were daunting. It would require 190 Pony Express stations situated from 10 to 15 miles apart in five divisions along its 1966 mile route, more than 400 station hands, over 200 riders, and nearly 500 horses. The cost of such an enterprise was enormous. Even the high rate of $15 per ounce for Pony Express delivery did not cover the costs of running this business.

The Pony Express service began on April 3, 1860 with riders leaving St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California on that same day. Even though the mail was delivered in the 10 day time period, troubles for the Pony Express began to arise.

The first of these troubles began with raids by the Paiute Indians who lived in the areas covered by present day Nevada and Utah. The Paiutes resented the white settlers who were killing many of the antelope on their lands so they decided to attack the Pony Express stations. Beginning in May, the Paiutes raided Pony Express stations, killing a total of 16 people including one Pony Express rider. The situation got so out of hand that the Pony Express had to suspend operations for three weeks.

Even though this Paiute War cost the Pony Express $75,000 to get the horses running again, Russell doubled the service to two Pony Express deliveries per week. Russell try to recoup some of the high costs by attempting to obtain a government contract to deliver the U.S. Mail. Unfortunately, the federal government continued to have the mail delivered by the Butterfield stagecoaches further south along the Ox-Bow Route.

Despite its financial troubles, the Pony Express soon achieved a legendary status. Among it's Pony Express riders were many colorful characters such as a 15 year-old William "Buffalo Bill" Cody who would later go on to form his Wild West Show. These riders were required to be under 125 pounds which accounted for the extreme youth of many of them. It also required that they be very tough. Although they were only supposed to ride 75 miles, they often rode much more in a single trip. Due to a lack of available riders, "Pony Bob" Haslam once had to ride a record 380 miles in 36 hours. The pay for a Pony Express rider was between $100 and $150 per month---quite a large sum for that time.

The mail was carried in a specially designed leather saddlebag called a mochila. The mochila had a hole in the front to fit over the saddle horn and a slit for the cantle behind. At the corners of the mochila were four locked leather boxes called cantinas where the mail was kept. The quickest Pony Express delivery occurred in March 1861 when a copy of President Lincoln's address to Congress was delivered to Sacramento just 7 days and 7 hours after leaving St. Joseph.

One secret of the speed of the Pony Express was in the conditioning of its horses. The Pony Express horses had great endurance in part because they were grain fed rather than grass fed. However, this too cost the Pony Express much in financial terms. The grain had to be shipped in from Iowa Farms to the Pony Express stations along the long route---an expensive enterprise.

By December of 1860, the financial situation of the Pony Express became desperate. William Russell, unable to win a government mail contract, borrowed thousands of dollars from the Indian Trust Fund under very questionable circumstances. As a result, Russell was arrested and thrown in jail on December 24. Although he was subsequently released and never went to trial, this episode only highlighted for the public, the dire financial position of the Pony Express.

What finally brought about the inevitable demise of the Pony Express was technology in the form of the telegraph. A transcontinental telegraph line connected the East and West on October 24, 1861 making communications between these two regions almost instant. Just two days later the Pony Express ceased operations.

Yet despite it brief history and troubled finances, the Pony Express has achieved a legendary status. Only one mail delivery was lost and 34,753 pieces of mail were sent across the continent by its colorful dispatch riders. At a time when the North and South of the nation were pulling apart, the Pony Express helped the East and West connect together.

Etched into our collective memories will always be that solitary figure of the Pony Express rider dashing across the wide plains on horseback. His time may have been brief but his legend continues on.

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