By Jeff Olson
“Can somebody tell us what has become of the U.S. mail for this section of the world?” lamented the editor of the Los Angeles Star in 1853, noting that “[it has been] some four weeks since it has arrived here.” Such was often the timeline in communications between the eastern and western parts of the country.
This week we take a look at an era of our nation’s history which was short in time but long in its impact on the speed of communications in the American West. Expanding settlement in this vast frontier created the need for a reliable means of mail delivery. Initially, this was met by overland stagecoach routes and by steamship routes that either went around South America or included an overland transfer across the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. With national tensions rising prior to the Civil War (1861–65), more expedient transmission of news became increasingly urgent, and the typical 24-day schedule for overland delivery from Missouri to the West Coast proved no longer sufficient. California Senator William M. Gwin is credited for the idea of a more efficient system which he conveyed to William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, owners of a private freighting firm.
This firm, the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, would come to be known as the Pony Express. The mail route planned was 1,966 miles long and would have about 190 stations across what are now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. It would require about 10 days to cover. Each rider: would carry up to 20 pounds of mail (in a specially designed saddlebag), would ride 75 to 100 miles and change horses every 10 to 15 miles or about every 8 stations. The system would use a total of about 400 horses and 80 riders, each of whom were to be paid $25 a week facing the harsh elements of mother nature and threats by bandits and Indians. The initial price for sending mail was set at $5 per one-half ounce, then $2.50, and by July 1861 $1. One Pony Express advertisement was said to have read:”Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” A rider’s weight was a factor because it was important to keep the horses’ loads as light as possible. Riders were typically between 100 and 125 pounds and with an average age of about 20, but some were teens and a few were pre-teens. They also were required to take a loyalty oath which stated, “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay, but many did.
One hundred sixty years ago this week, April 3, 1860, the first Pony Express riders left St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. On April 13 the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento, beating the eastbound delivery by two days. Never before in history had letters been delivered over such a distance so quickly.
The Pony Express was used mainly by newspapers and businesses and it was remarkably efficient, though not profitable. Actually, it lost money and quite a sum! During its time service, only one bag of mail was reported lost. Perhaps the company’s finest moment came in March 1861 when riders carried the inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln from Nebraska to California in just 7 days, 17 hours.
On June 16, 1860, about ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized a bill to subsidize a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast.
While the telegraph lines were under construction the Pony Express operated as usual, essentially bridging the gap between the advancing eastern and western telegraph lines.
On October 24, 1861, Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City and two days later the Pony Express was officially terminated when San Francisco and New York City made direct contact for the first time. In November 1861 the last Pony Express letters completed their journey. Despite operating for only 18 months, Pony Express riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier. A total of six riders and sixteen stock hands (at the stations) died in the line of duty.
Much has been written about the Pony Express, but very little of it paying homage to those mail carriers that were the most indispensable and worked the hardest. Author Stephanie Grace Whitson included this fitting tribute to them in her historical novel Messenger by Moonlight. “Farewell Pony: Our little friend, the Pony, is to run no more … Thou wert the pioneer of a continent in the rapid transmission of intelligence between its peoples, and have dragged in your train the lightning itself, which, in good time, will be followed by steam communication by rail. Rest upon your honors … Rest then, in peace; for thou hast run thy race, thou hast followed thy course, thou hast done the work that was given thee to do. – Sacramento Daily Bee, October 26, 1861”