The Pony Express Museum., 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 already achieved some noteworthy accomplishments. The horses and riders 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 used between 400 and 500 horses.

During its 18 months of its existence, there was just one mail delivery lost. This happened during Paiute Indian raids in 1860 and altogether the 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.

Who started the Pony Express?

The service was the brainchild of three men, William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors. These visionaries saw mounting demand for a better line of communication with the western territories, 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 in the 1850s. By 1860 the population of California had grown to 380,000.  With the American Civil War approaching, communications between east and west was absolutely crucial.  Indeed, on the day the first rider set out on the inaugural ride west, Russell and Majors told the gala crowd that the service was the “precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railway.

Pony Express riders had to swear a special oath on The Bible.

AFrank Webner 1861. Pony Express rider.lexander Majors was a religious man, and he gave each one of the riders a Holy Bible. He also created an oath that each rider had to say that included how they would, ‘under no circumstances, use profane language”, and  “that I will not drink intoxicating liquors…’ Apparently few of the riders took the oath seriously, and they were described as being, ‘dreadful, rough and unconventional’ characters.

How much did it cost to send mail via Pony Express?

The cost to send a letter weighing about ½ ounce with the Pony Express service was not cheap, and was certainly beyond the reach of the average citizen in 1860.  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 at present day prices.  Of the 35,000 pieces of mail sent, only about 250 examples of the Pony Express postage survive today.

What dangers faced the Pony Express riders and their horses?

Riders braving the 2,000 mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California faced imminent danger from Indians (Native Americans) and many wild animals such as snakes, cougars and bears, and Mother Nature herself. Riders baked in their saddles as they traversed desert flats in hot summer temperatures, enduring dust storms, and snow and icy winds and frigid weather in the winter. They had to overcome their own exhaustion and stay alert or risk costly accidents while crossing the rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains. 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 printed poster calling 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, the message appears to be close to the truth.

Who were the men and boys of the Pony Express?

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.

How often did the Pony Express riders change horses?

In 1860, when the service started, there were approximately 157 Pony Express stations (some were still just camps) which were all about 1o miles (16 km) apart along the Pony Express route. The riders who rode day and night could not weigh more than 125 pounds (57 kilograms) as per company policy, and these riders’ shift ended (they were changed but the mail kept going) every 75 or 100 miles (120-160 kilometers). The riders and horses galloped at breakneck speed for ten miles (sixteen kilometers), and then switched to a fresh horse, and this relay system went on for the duration of the trip.  In theory, the mail never stopped traveling at breakneck speed.

Pony Express Map William Henry Jackson - Wikimedia Commons

How much money were Pony Express riders paid?

For this fast-as-possible ride into hell and back, a rider in the Pony Express would get $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 given day, there were about 80 riders and horses galloping across the country in various stages of the relays. And speed was mandatory! The mail bag that started with the rider leaving Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri would be galloped down the muddy main street of Sacramento, California in just under tens days. Interestingly, the reverse trip from west to east took a day or two longer.

How much mail could the Pony Express riders carry?

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, a Christian 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).

Did the men of the Pony Express ride ponies?

The word ‘pony’ is used to describe the service animals, but his term is only loose applied. The equine species bought for the service by Majors cost about $200 each, and 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 ‘horses’ technically speaking, for their size exceeded that of ponies.

Did Buffalo Bill Once Ride for the Pony Express?

William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill - pony express rdier

William F Cody, Buffalo Bill

Yes, or well maybe… The Pony Express service has continued to fuel and life and legends of the Old West, and the service will always be linked to the very famous cowboy William Cody, also well known as Buffalo Bill.  While his actual participation in the pony express has come under dispute, his autobiography, The Life of Buffalo Bill published in 1879 contains a wild account of carrying mail and narrowly escaping angry Indians, and his famous Wild West Show certainly featured the Pony Express and his part in it – true or not!  His show helped to keep up the legend of the express mail service alive in popular imagination, and a scene depicting it was used in his show. According to Cody, he signed on with the service at the age of 15, 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.

Was the Pony Express a profitable business?

Sadly the men who founded the Pony Express made no money at all. In fact they lost money; they invested $200,000 in the service and only grossed $90,000 when it ended.  The problem was high overhead and unstable native populations.  When the company began making deliveries in April 1860, it was off to a good start building a business, but then service ground to a halt just a few weeks later when the Pyramid Lake War erupted between the United States and the Paiute Indians. The temporary shutdown cost the company around $75,000 in lost equipment and stock, but the worst damage was done to credibility as it continued to hemorrhage cash over the next few months due to high operations costs and its failure to secure a government mail contract. 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.

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