I grew up around horses and was emotionally attached to them as individuals and pets. In the West, however, horses were essential “tools” that made transportation, communication, shipping of goods, herding cattle, and other work possible. Horses were an especially critical component of the Pony Express. This express mail service operated for only 18 months—from April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861—but its legacy remains a larger-than-life chapter in the history of the American West.
The Overland Mail Company had the $1-million-annual government contract for, you guessed it, daily overland mail as well as semi-weekly Pony Express delivery. The route extended from St. Louis, Missouri to Placerville, California, a distance of about 1,900 miles. The Overland Mail Company partnered with other entities, such as the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express companies to complete the western route, particularly within California. Before the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, Pony Express riders also carried information to the areas between telegraph lines.
The service consisted of a series of stages or stations at regular intervals, often using the same routes and infrastructure as the stagecoaches or military posts. The Pony Express had 186 stations along its route, roughly 10 miles apart, depending on the terrain. The route followed portions of the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, thoroughfares that carried many settlers and homesteaders into the West. The infrastructure to run the Pony Express required 600 horses and more hundreds of personnel to care for horses and riders as stock tenders and station keepers.
Riders traveled at a fast trot, cantor or gallop at speeds of 10-15 mph (or even as fast as 25 mph). Consequently, riders needed to stop frequently to get a fresh horse. Each rider rode 75-100 miles and the Express operated continuously, day and night. Buffalo Bill Cody rode the longest nonstop route between the Red Butte and Rocky Ridge stations in Wyoming. The journey was 322 miles, took nearly 22 hours, and required 21 horses!
Every effort was made to reduce the weight a horse carried to maximize speed. Riders could not weigh more than 125 pounds and carried no more than 40 additional pounds in mail, a revolver, water or other necessary gear. The Pony Express used Morgans, Thoroughbreds, and Mustangs, all of which averaged 14.2 hands—truly ponies! The express mail was carried in a mochila (Spanish for pouch or backpack) that was specially designed to be thrown over the saddle with the saddle horn (front) and cantle (back) protruding through. It was held in place by the rider sitting on top of it. The letters were tucked into cantinas or small leather boxes at the mochila’s four corners.
The Pony Express was an expensive way to send mail. Initially, a ½-ounce letter cost $5, which would be roughly equivalent to $150 today. Costs declined over time and, by 1861, postage was only $1 (although still a significant sum). For comparison, regular mail could be sent for 2¢, but could take months to reach its intended recipient. During its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express delivered an estimated 35,000 letters.
Pony Express riders carried verbal news as well as written correspondence. A stagecoach passenger on the Central Overland Stagecoach route recalled an exchange one November night in 1860 when the Pony Express rider dashed by: “What’s the news?” shouted the coach’s driver. “Lincoln elected! New York gives him fifty thousand majority!” was the reply from the darkness. In this way, California newspapers learned of Lincoln’s election victory in just seven days and 21 hours. Lightning speeds for the time.
The Pony Express was made obsolete by the arrival of the transcontinental telegraph, which could transmit news almost immediately. Importantly though, the Pony Express paved the way for the modern US Postal Service.
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Jackson, W. Turrentine (1966) A New Look at Wells Fargo, Stage-Coaches and the Pony Express. California Historical Society Quarterly 45(4):291-324.
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White, John H. (2013) “Down that Long and Dusty Road: Stagecoach Travel in America.” In Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.