The Galloping Express Mail
Fg1. Picture of a Pony Express rider wanted ad (History)
During the nineteenth century, the world was experiencing many changes in their economy and population. In 1848, Gold had been discovered in Sutter’s Mill in California by James Marshall, pioneers were moving northwest towards the Oregon Trail, and Mormons were migrating to Utah (National Park Service). All of these events created an increasing demand for a quick mail delivery system that ran between the East and the West. This was when three men: Russel, Waddell, and Majors designed and executed the Pony Express (Britannica). The Pony Express was an astounding golden period of American history because the East and the West were merging due to the fast speed of mail delivery. Throughout this essay, you will learn about the measures and preparations taken to form the Pony Express. Some developments of the Pony Express included recruiting riders, creating the trail, and gathering well quality horses. You will also learn about the downfall of the system due to technological completion and bankruptcy as well as the difficulties the riders faced throughout their rides. The challenges the riders faced evoked images of gallantry young men crossing extensive amounts of land.
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The Pony Express was a mail delivery service that ran between St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, which delivered mail, messages, and newspapers. The Pony Express operated on horses and could deliver mail in California as few as ten days rather than weeks when it was sent by a horse carriage (Ducksters). The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months from April 1860 to October 1861 and was nearly 2, 000 miles long. The Pony Express was not the first organization that used horses to cover vast distances of land. For instance, in the Asian empire riders of the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, rode horses between stations in their empire to deliver messages. Six centuries later near 1825 and 1830, American newspapers utilized horses to gather news between New York and Boston. Many people are credited for coming up with the idea of the Pony Express but regardless of who originated the idea, William H. Russel was able to put it into action after making a contract with the government in January 1860, stating he would make a mail service system set up by April. Russel quickly agreed and committed to the deal before even consulting with his partners: Alexander Majors and William Waddell. Although Russel’s partners opposed the plan at first, they decided not to back out of the agreement (Britannica). All three men knew they had a big task ahead of them.
Fg 2. A picture of the three founders of the Pony Express. To the far left is William Hepburn Russell, beside him in the middle is Alexander Majors, and to the far right is William B. Waddell (michaellamarr)
The Pony Express was established due to many events such as the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush of 1848, and the exodus of the Mormons (National Park service). All these factors created an increase demand for a fast mail delivery service than ran through the East and the West. For instance on January 24, 1848, Gold was discovered at California in Sutter’s Mill by James Marshall. This event caused thousands of people to rush towards California in hopes of starting a business or a career (Britannica). Another reason for the formation of the Pony Express was the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was a 2,000 mile route that ran from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. This trail was the main trail hundreds of American pioneers used to migrate to the West in the mid-1800s (History). Lastly the exodus of the Mormons helped cause the formation of the Pony Express. In 1847, Brigham Young, who was the president of the Mormons church at that time led a 1,110 mile migration to Utah. The Mormons were migrating because they wanted to establish a commonwealth where they didn’t have to fear prosecution for practicing their religion (Britannica). All of these events led to the West filling up, which created an increase demand for a faster way to communicate with the East, which is why the Pony Express was formed.
The Pony Express worked by using a planned out route that had multiple stations along the way (Ducksters). There was approximately 190 stations and most of them were located in Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. At each of the stations the rider would take a mochila, which was a designed saddlebag that had mail pouches. The mochila weighed around twenty pounds and the rider would carry it from station to station. Along these stations the riders would also change their horses for fresh new ones. Horses were changed about every ten to fifteen miles. Also after a rider rode about seventy to one hundred miles they were replaced by a new rider (Britannica). By exchanging horses and riders the mail was constantly moving at a decent speed.
The route utilized by the Pony Express went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. The route was nearly 2, 000 miles long, which equals to 3,200 kilometers and took around ten days to complete. The first half of the route followed the Oregon Trail. It went from Missouri passing Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming to Utah. From there the second half of the route, which was west of Salt Lake City took more of a southerly course through Nevada and finally to Sacramento California (Britannica). The trail went over the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and finally to California (Ducksters).
Fg 3. An image of the Pony Express route, starting from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California (Britannica).
Before the Pony Express was established, there were many preparations made to ensure its adequacy. For instance, the first preparation the founders: Russel, Majors, and Waddell did was set up a corporation called, the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company. This company was set up for liability purposes, but it also helped the three men acquire equipment and facilities. All three men had a specific role in the company. For example, Russell went to Washington D.C to represent Waddell, Majors, and him in the world of national politics. Waddell was like an overseer, he oversaw all the payroll, purchasing, hiring, and bookkeeping from their home office. Lastly, Majors handled the horses, oxen’s, and heavy wagons since he had lived in the prairie and knew how to handle them. The first primary task the three men did was build stations and prepare the trail for the Pony Express. They established the first half of the route to follow the Oregon Trail, while the second half was created to go through Nevada and end in California. The trail for the Pony Express was surveyed and examined to make sure it was the safest and fastest route. The company then settled around 190 stations along the course as well as some home stations. In the home stations, there was food and sleeping quarters available for the riders. In addition to building the stations and the trail the company also had to gather up horses. The horses used by the Pony Express were mostly half breed California Mustangs, and they were fed the best grain available to help enhance their speed. The Pony Express used about four hundred to five hundred horses. Another preparation the company did was hire experienced riders who could get the best use of their top quality horses. Majors, Russel, and Waddell, allocated their superintendents the errand of employing seventy to eighty riders each (Britannica). Although most of the riders used were young and short, they were very courageous (Smithsonian). Lastly, the final task the company had to do was set up several points for mail collection in a variety of major cities such as Washington, Chicago, New York, etc. (Britannica). Once the trail was finished, staff was employed, stations had been assembled, and mail collection locations were set up, the Pony Express was ready to take action.
It was April 3, 1860, and joy and excitement filled the air with the first ride of the Pony Express (Carson Valley). The first mochila of mail included a letter from President James Buchannan, who wrote to Governor John Downey, of California to congratulate him on the Pony Express (Britannica). In this marvelous ride, forty riders participated including Johnny Fry, who was the first rider of the Pony Express. Johnny Fry was a skilled horseman from a young age. In 1860, in Missouri, Johnny won a horse race, which attracted Majors attention in hiring him. In the first ride of the Pony Express, Johnny was assigned the first part of the route, which ran from St. Joseph, Missouri to Seneca, Kansas. He alone would run a total of about eighty miles (Legends of America). The first ride of the Pony Express ended in downtown Sacramento on April 13 at 5:45 PM. This day was celebrated by everyone including the newspapers who reported the grand event. People were standing in their balconies waving flags, singing, shouting, bands were playing, etc. The Pony Express fulfilled its promise of getting the mail to California in ten days, which would make history because never before had letters been delivered so quickly (Britannica).
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The riders of the Pony Express were heroes on horses during the nineteenth century who continued doing their job despite all the requisites and dangers they faced. For instance, one requisite Pony Express riders had to meet was they had to be less than 125 pounds to help keep the weight down the horses had to carry (Ducksters). Most riders were short, skinny, young, and tough (Britannica). Another requirement Pony Express riders had to meet was that they had to sign a pledge. Once the riders were hired Alexander Major would give each of them a bible and would make them sign a pledge. The pledge promised not to drink alcohol, swear, nor fight with any other employees. If one violated the oath, they wouldn’t get their monthly pay and were fired (Smithsonian). Riders were also required to know how to ride a saddle and memorize their assigned part of their route. They had to be able to acknowledge their path if they were going to be traveling at fast speeds during the night and in severe weather conditions. Also, riders had to be able to react quickly and correspondingly because they faced many dangers such as robberies, lousy weather, and wars throughout their journeys. The Pony Express employed around eighty messengers and were paid around one hundred dollars a month, which was a good wage at that time. One of the most famous riders of the Pony Express was William (“Buffalo Bill”), Cody. Bill was well known for his loyalty to the Pony Express and his wild adventures. For instance, in one of his rides, he completed a continuous twenty-two-hour ride from Red Butte Station to Pacific Springs and back. Bill was also known for his heroic escapes from highway man and Indians (Britannica). Buffalo Bill along with all the riders of the Pony Express were true symbols of heroism and bravery during the nineteenth century.
Fg 4. On the left is an image of Pony Express riders and on the right is an image of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (History)
During the journey of delivering mail, 1869 the riders of the Pony express faced many dangerous situations such as harsh weather, thieves, and wars. For example throughout the trail riders were faced with all sorts of weather especially during the winter. They rode through rain, snow, hail, and sleet. Another difficulty the riders faced was thieves. Riders would encounter robbers who wanted to take the jewels or mail they had in their mochilas (Freemont Tribune). One of the biggest dangers the riders faced was during the spring and summer of 1860 when the Pony Express found itself amidst in the Pyramid Lake Wars. The Pyramid Lake wars was an armed conflict between the Paiute people in Nevada and the United States. The unfriendly Paiute Indians threatened the lives of the riders and the station keepers (Britannica). Some other difficulties the riders of the Pony Express faced were insects, insufficient water on the trail, discomfort from the rough terrain, and buffalo stampedes (Fremont Tribune). Although riders confronted many difficult situations and requirements, they continued to their job till the end.
After running for only eighteen months, the Pony Express was coming to an end due to various factors such as technical competition, war, and bankruptcy. During the spring and summer of 1860, the Pyramid Lake Wars was going on. This caused many damages to the company. The Paiute Indians along with Shoshone, Gosiute, Bannock, and other people burned down many stations of the Pony Express to the ground. The Indians also killed station keepers and stole horses and equipment. Even before the Pony express had started Waddell, Majors, and Russell had lost a large quantity of money due to a large herd of oxen pulling supply wagons froze to death in a terrible blizzard at Ruby Valley, Nevada. Together this two events would cost around $75,000 to replace all the horses and assets lost, which the company could hardly afford. Another cause for the downfall of the Pony Express was the lack of support from the public. Many people found the Pony Express too expensive at $5 per ounce of mail. So then the company reduced the rate to $1 per ounce, but still the average citizen could not afford to send mail by the Pony Express. A significant cause for the failure of the Pony Express was the company’s financial problems. The company wasn’t meeting their necessary expenses, which was about $1000 a day. As people became aware of the company’s financial losses, the creditors of the company became anxious and demanded immediate payment, which put more pressure on Russel, Waddell, and Majors. Then to make things worst in December 1860, Russell was arrested in New York City for accepting stolen government bonds. Also in October Major had begun to prepare for bankruptcy by allowing the sale of the company’s assets for the benefit of its creditors (Britannica). The leading and immediate cause for the collapse of the Pony Express was the Telegraph line. On June 16, 1860, Congress had passed a bill that instructed the Secretary of Treasury to sponsor the working of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. During the construction of the telegraph line, the Pony Express was still working like usual. On October 26, 18861 the telegraph line was finally constructed, and San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. On that day the Pony Express was formally ended, yet it was not until November that the last letters finished their journey over the course (National Park Service).
Fg 5. A picture of a Pony Express rider passing through telegraph workers near Chimney Rock on the Platte River (Britannica).
The Pony Express affected the United States tremendously in a variety of ways. The first way the Pony Express changed America was by improving communication. The Pony Express helped deliver messages, mail, and newspapers from the East to the West. So this helped people on both sides stay in touch as well as up to date with everything that was going on during that time. The Pony express improved communication because people were able to converse with other people across the country in a matter of days. Another way the Pony Express changed America was by delivering mail at a rapid speed. Before the Pony Express mail would take weeks to arrive when a horse carriage sent it. So when the Pony Express first launched many people were excited because they realized how quickly their mail would be delivered. The Pony Express could deliver mail as fast as ten days, which was an incredible speed back then. Never before had mail been delivered so quickly. Lastly, the East and the West merged due to the Pony Express. The Pony Express system connected St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. So, therefore, people across the country could now communicate. People were able to share ideas, beliefs, and traditions, which would result in an emersion of cultures.
In conclusion, the Pony Express, which was founded by Alexander Majors, William B. Waddell, and William Hepburn Russell, was a mail delivering system that delivered not only mail but also newspapers and messages. It was formed due to events such as the Gold rush of 1849, the Mormon exodus, and the Oregon Trail, which all created an increasing demand for a swifter mail service between the East and the West. The Pony Express worked by using a trail that stretched from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. It operated on horses, which would carry mochilas of mail from station to station that were along the trail. After running for only eighteen months, the Pony Express would quickly come to an end due to technological competition, bankruptcy, and the Pyramid Lake War. On October 26, 1861, the telegraph line connecting San Francisco and New York City was finished, which would officially terminate the Pony Express. Although the Pony Express only lasted over a year, the Pony Express had a lasting effect on the United States. Not only did it increase the speed of mail delivery and improve communication but it also caused the East and the West to collide their cultures and ideas. The Pony Express is a standout amongst the most preserving images of the Westward Expansion of the United States.
Citations for pictures and information
- Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express.” History, A & E Television Networks, 3 June 2016, www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-pony-express. (Figure 1 and 4)
- Harris, Kim. “A Hero of Our West: Pony Express Rider – Warren Boston Upson.” Carson Valley Nevada, Carson Valley Nevada, 2018, visitcarsonvalley.org/hero-west-pony-express-rider-warren-boston-upson/.
- History.com Editors. “Oregon Trail.” History, A&E Te;Evision Networks, 6 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/oregon-trail.
- McKeighan, Tammy Real. “Pony Express Riders Faced Many Dangers.” Freemont Tribune, Freemont Tribune, 19 July 2010, fremonttribune.com/news/local/pony-express-riders-faced-many-dangers/article_ef8e9c90-934e-11df-b50b-001cc4c03286.html.
- Melton, J. Gordon. “Mormon.” Britannica, Britannica , 28 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Mormonism.
- “Pony Express.” Ducksters, Ducksters, 2019, www.ducksters.com/history/westward_expansion/pony_express.php.
- “Pony Express.” HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 2018, www.historynet.com/pony-express.
- “Pony Express.” National Park Service , National Park Service , 20 July 2018, www.nps.gov/poex/learn/historyculture/index.htm.
- Pope, Nancy. “The Story Of The Pony Express.” Smithsonian, Smithsonian, 1992, postalmuseum.si.edu/research/articles-from-enroute/the-story-of-the-pony-express.html.
- Tanner, et al. “Pony Express.” Amazing Counters, Amazing Counters, michaellamarr.com/PearleyMonroe/PonyExpress/index.html. (Figure 2)
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff, and Joseph J Di Certo. “Pony Express.” Britannica, Britannica , 18 May 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Pony-Express. (Figure 3 and 5)
- Weiser , Kathy. “Johnny Fry – First Rider of the Pony Express.” Legends of America, Legends of America, Sept. 2017, www.legendsofamerica.com/we-johnnyfry/.
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