The Pony Express

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The Pony Express is one of the most enduring symbols of the Westward Expansion of the United States.

It began as a way to maintain communication between the "old" U.S. and the "new" state of California, which entered the Union in 1850. The Pony Express was primarily a mail-carry system. Riders carried the mail in satchels, and speed was the name of the game.

Before the Pony Express, the U.S. had three main methods of getting mail to the West Coast.

  • One was by ship, from New York or other ports, across the Isthmus of Panama (no Panama Canal yet) by mule, then by another ship to San Francisco. Most of the mail traveled on this route.
  • Another route used covered wagons and stagecoaches and went relatively straight across the country, from Independence, Missouri, to Sacramento, California.
  • The third route was also covered wagons and stagecoaches and had a name and reputation. It was the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, and its route went on a southern path to the West coast.

By the time the Civil War was brewing, however, Northern states wanted more rapid communication with California. That, coupled with increases in settlement in the lands in between the Midwest and the West Coast, helped bring about the beginning of the Pony Express.

It was the brainchild of William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors. A 1966-mile trail was agreed on from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. The first riders left on April 3, 1860. They left from both St. Joseph and Sacramento. The western journey took 9 days and 23 hours. The eastern journey took 11 days and 12 hours.

Why the two journeys took different times to arrive illustrates the natural hazard of the Pony Express: It was dangerous! Riders had little protection, from people or from the weather. The route went through the Rocky Mountains, which often had snow well into the spring and early summer. Much of this territory wasn't entirely settled yet, and riders made easy targets for bandits or even Native Americans who didn't want their lands taken over.

The Pony Express riders' best asset was the speed of their horses. A rider on healthy horses could cover 250 miles in a day, more than twice what a covered wagon or stagecoach could. For this reason (as well as to get the mail back and forth as quickly as possible), riders changed horses every 75 miles or so, at "way stations" along the route. Riders wouldn't ride the entire way. Often, they would ride several hundred miles and then give way to other riders (and horses).

Riders had to weigh less than 125 pounds, so they wouldn't overload the horses. The riders' ages varied, from 11 to nearly 50. They earned $100 a month, which was better pay than they could doing other "less exciting" jobs. One of the most famous riders was "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

The Pony Express at its height included 183 riders, 165 way stations, and between 400 and 500 horses. It was a short-lived enterprise, however. The last rider completed his route on October 24, 1861, just 19 months after the Pony Express began. The introduction of the telegraph made the Pony Express unnecessary.

The company that started the Pony Express also lost lots of money. They put up $700,000 initially and ended up losing $200,000 more. Only one rider was ever lost. Only one mail shipment was ever lost. The dramatic nature of the enterprise, however, has made the Pony Express live in on the American memory.

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David White