The Pony Express Museum. Photo courtesy of The Pony Express National Museum, Inc., St Joseph, Missouri

The Pony Express Museum. Photo courtesy of The Pony Express National Museum, Inc., St Joseph, Missouri

By the time the famous Pony Express closed its doors, and retired its riders and horses on October 24, 1861, just 18 months after starting, it had some noteworthy statistics and some credible accomplishments to boast about: the riders and ponies covered about 250 miles a day in a 24-hour period; 35,000 pieces of mail were delivered during the service, there were more than 170 stations, and 80 riders and between 400 and 500 horses were used. However, perhaps the best statistic is that in the 18 months of its existence, there was just one mail delivery lost during Paiute Indian raids in 1860 and afterwards. These raids cost 16 men their lives, 150 horses were stolen or driven away, and $75,000 in equipment and supplies were lost. The mail pouch that was lost in these raids reached New York City two years later!

The service was the brainchild of three men, William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, who saw the need for a better way to communicate with the western part of the United States, and for the delivery of mail, newspapers, small parcels and messages. In 1848 gold had been discovered in California, and thousands of prospectors, businessmen and investors made their way out west. By 1860 the population had grown to 380,000. Also, the American Civil War was approaching so communications between east and west were crucial. However, on the day that the first rider set out for the inaugural ride west, Russell and Majors told the gala crowd that the service was the “precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railway.

Majors was a religious man and gave each one of the riders a bible, and created an oath that each rider had to say that included the words that they would, ‘under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will not drink intoxicating liquors…’ Apparently few of the riders took the oath seriously, and they were described in all manner of ways including, ‘dreadful, rough and unconventional.’

Frank Webner 1861. Pony Express rider.The cost to send a letter weighing about ½ ounce with the Pony Express service was not cheap and was certainly out of the realm of possibilities for most people back then. The cost was $5 at the start of the service and had dropped to $1 at the end but this is equivalent to about $26 in 2014 so there are only about 250 surviving examples of mail from this service.

The 2,000 mile route was filled with danger from Indians, dust storms, frigid weather, the Rocky Mountains, rough terrain, exhaustion and accidents. The boys who undertook this perilous journey were young, brave, and fearless, and the same can be said of the small horses who were a part of the relay teams. One poster which called for recruits advertised: Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. While the validity of this poster has been questioned, it is certainly not far from the truth.

So who were the men and boys of the Pony Express? While there are no records that remain, newspaper reports, letters and family records have helped to create a list of 228 riders with such interesting nick names as Pony Ned, Zogwalt, Little Yank, Yank, Sawed Off Jim and Cyclone Charlie. By the time The Civil War had begun in 1861, few people were interested in gathering lists of rider names for the history books. The riders who rode day and night could not weigh more than 125 pounds (57 kilograms) and riders changed about every 75-100 miles (120-160 kilometers). The riders and horses galloped at breakneck speed for 10 miles (16 kilometers), and then switched to a fresh horse, and this relay system went on for the duration of the trip. For this ride into hell and back they got $100.00 a month which was a huge amount compared to most men with few skills who might make $1.00 a day! One any day, there were about 80 riders and horses galloping across the country in various stages of the relays. And speed was mandatory! The first rider left from a place called Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri and galloped to Sacramento, California in just under 10 days. The reverse trip from west to east took a day or two longer.

Specially designed lightweight saddles and a minimum of extras were crucial to the success of the express. The mochila (Spanish word for pouch or backpack) had a hole in it that went over the saddle horn, the rider’s weight further secured the bag, and the four pockets that contained the mail were padlocked. The mail inside weighed about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) and the horse initially carried 20 pounds of gear or material including a water sack, the aforementioned bible, and a revolver that was fired to warn the upcoming station of their arrival. Eventually just the revolver and water sack remained to cut down on weight for a total of 165 pounds (75 kilograms).

Illustrated Map of Pony Express Route in 1860.

Illustrated Map of Pony Express Route in 1860.

The word ‘pony’ is used to describe the service, but his term is loose at best. The animals bought for the service by Majors cost about $200 apiece, they averaged about 14 1⁄2 hands (4 feet 10 inches or 1.47 meters) high and they weighed about 900 pounds apiece (410 kg) So, while some were technically ponies, there were also others that would have been technically horses by their size.

The Pony Express service has continued to fuel and life and legends of the old west, and the service will always be linked to one very famous cowboy William Code, also well known as Buffalo Bill. While his actual participation in the pony express has come under dispute, his autobiographies and his famous Wild West Show certainly feature the express and his part in it – true or not! His show helped to keep up the legend of the express service and a scene depicting it was used in his show. According to Cody, he signed on, at the age of 15, with the service when he was on his way to California. He did an initial short 45 mile run, and was later sent to Wyoming where he was challenged with a 322 (518 kilometer) run after his relief rider was killed. This he accomplished in just under 22 hours using 21 different horses.

After the east/west coast service was abandoned, the express did continue in 1861 from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, but stopped about six months later when the telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California.

Sadly the men who founded the Pony Express made no money from it. In fact they invested $200,000 in the service and only grossed $90,000 when it ended. In 1866 after the end of the Civil War, Holladay was able to sell the Pony Express assets to Wells Fargo for $1.05 million.

Today, the National Pony Express Association (NPEA) does re-rides annually to commemorate the service, the first one being in 1923 when 60 participants rode through the eight states of California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri which is the original express route.