Life and Death of the Pony Express in the West

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Pony Express 80th Anniversary, Issue of 1940

The Pony Express had a short life. During its existence it provided the nation communication during a period of civil strife, war and westward expansion.

The story of the short lived Pony Express mail service is full of danger, fast horses and young men that battled weather and terrain to get the mail across the west. The civil war and westward settlement were the order of the day. During the 1860s the need for a way to communicate between the coasts became a necessity as pioneers and gold miners wished for news of their loved wars fighting battles and defending homesteads back east. The Pony Express provided a valuable service and became a major part in the history of the American West.

Founders of the Pony Express

Alexander Majors, William Russell, and William Waddel are the three men behind the Pony Express. They were the owners of the freight company called the Central Overland and Pikes Peak Express. The men saw an opportunity to expand their freight company to include a mail service that would follow along the rough hewn tracks of their established routes. They were granted the government contract to carry the mail. It was time to advertise for young men or “wiry skinny fellows” who were lightweight enough to allow the horses to ride an optimum speed.

Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express

The most famous names among the young orphan boys that rode the Pony Express trail was Buffalo Bill Cody. The records to back up this information are few and far between but the legend has persisted. Two riders correctly famed for riding the mail trail are Johnny Fry and Sam Hamilton. They completed the first Pony Express journey from Missouri to California completing the journey in just ten days.

States and Postage of the Pony Express

The Pony Express covers eights states: California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. At $5.00 per half ounce of mail, this method of communication was not cheap. Mail was carried inside a mail pouch called a mochila. It is the mochila that we see handed from one rider to another to avoid slowing or stopping in the western movies that depicted the era. But that era was short lived beginning in April 1860 and finishing in November of 1861. It was long enough to establish a route and set up stations.

Relay and Home Stations

The Pony Express stations, many of which remain standing today, came in two types: The home and the relay station. A home station marked the route every 75 to 100 miles whereas the relay stations were more frequent; anywhere from 5 to 20 miles apart along the entire length of the trail. Relay stations were small stations where fresh horses and risers took over the mail delivery. Home stations were more like overnight hotels with a fire in the hearth and a bed for a tired rider.

The End of the Pony Express: The Telegraph and the Train

Only one bag of mail was ever reported missing during the entire life of the Pony Express. This early mail delivery system was rough and wild but it got the job done. Beginning in April 1860 and ending in November 1861, the Pony Express was a short lived but historic enterprise. The transcontinental railway and the proliferation of the telegraph soon made the Pony Express redundant. It took only 19 months for this example of American ingenuity to work its way into the history books and become a national symbol for determination, adventure and the settling of the west.

Sources:

  1. Pony Express Museum
  2. Pony Express School House
  3. National Trails System. National Historic Trails: Auto Interpretive Guide. 2007.
  4. The United States Postal Service. The Saga of the Pony Express 1860-1861. 1983.
  5. Jason Vlcan, Education Coordinator, National Historic Trails Center, Casper, WY
  6. Les Bennington, National President, National Pony Express Association, Glenrock, WY