Missouri to California (WHTM) Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week.
That was the want ad that enticed young men to ride with the Pony Express. Or maybe it wasn’t. There are a lot of myths wrapped around the express, and it might well be this ad was created after the Express saddled up for the last time. But it certainly embodies the mystique of a Legend of the Western Frontier. It was a legend that lasted less than two years, from April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861.
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The Pony Express grew out of the need for faster communications between the east and west coasts of the United States. After gold was discovered in 1848 in California, thousands of people flocked to California, Oregon, and Washington.
But there were only two ways to get mail to and from these growing territories. You could load mail on a ship, sail to Panama, unload the mail, carry it across the Isthmus (the narrowest stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific) load it onto another ship, and sail to your destination. Travel time-three to four weeks. Maybe. Sometimes.
Or, you could send mail by stagecoach. The mail would get to California in 24 days, except when it took months…
A California Senator, William Gwin, in an effort to speed up mail service, got Congress to approve an alternate overland route. Called the “Central Route” it was 800 miles shorter than the 2,795-mile “Southern Route”. (It was also further north, making it harder to reach by southern states – an important consideration given the increased tension between North and South on the eve of the Civil War.)
Then in 1860 William Russell of the Russell, Majors, and Waddell Freight and Stage Company proposed a relay system of riders to transport mail. He got a government contract, and he and partners Alexnder Majors and William Waddell established the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Their goal- complete the 1,900-mile trip from Missouri to California in ten days.
Alexander Majors did much of the logistical work, purchasing over 400 horses, building 200 stations about 10 miles apart, hiring station masters, stocking provisions, and hiring about 80 young men to ride. Majors gave each of them a Bible and had them sign a pledge not to drink, swear, or fight with their fellow employees. And he did all this in just two months. On April 3, 1860, the first express rider set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, bound for Sacramento, California.
The ponies of the Pony express were not really ponies, but almost. Officially a pony is defined as measuring less than 14.2 hands, or 58 inches, at the withers. The Pony Express horses were taller than 14.2 hands, but not by much. Large, heavy horses weren’t fit for the task. Most of them weighed about 900 pounds or less, sort of skinny and wiry like their riders.
One of the most enduring – and totally Hollywood – images of the Pony Express is of a rider galloping into a station, waving a set of saddlebags packed with mail. Another rider would spur his horse into action, and gallop alongside the first rider while he handed over the saddlebags like runners passing a baton in a relay race.
In fact, the mail was carried in a mochila, a leather saddle cover that had four pouches to carry mail. At every station, about ten miles apart, the rider would stop, dismount, transfer the mochila to a new horse, get on the new horse, and gallop off. A rider would generally travel 90-120 miles per day before being relieved by another rider, so the mail would travel 24 hours a day. (Yes, they rode through the night.) The route stretched from Missouri through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and finally to California.
That first mail run of the Pony Express arrived in Sacramento on April 13, exactly ten days after it left St. Joseph.
For the next 19 months, the Pony Express was the fastest way for information to travel from coast to coast. But while the riders were making their rides, the first transcontinental telegraph was stretching its way across the continent. It was completed on October 24, 1861, and the first cross-country message was sent on October 25.
On October 26, the Pony Express officially closed down.
Today the National Park Service maintains the Pony Express Historic Trail, along which you can (roughly) retrace the route the express riders took. It’s actually a series of trails; a lot of the route has been developed or is private property, Indian reservations, and military bases. You’ll want to visit the NPS website about it before you pack your mochila.
And every year members of the National Pony Express Association, dedicated to honoring the riders and preserving the route, holds an annual National Re-Ride in June, where people ride on horseback, along the trail, and retracing history.