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April 21, 2016


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In the late 1850's, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell ran sucessful freight lines, shipping wagonloads of merchandise both military and civilian across the United States. Due to the "Gold Rush", the population in California had grown to over 38,000 people. Waiting for horse drawn shipments was taking too long, so Russell, Majors, and Waddell invented "the Pony Express" a U.S. Government fast mail delivery.

The Pony Express consisted of 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and several hundred people to maintain them. The route stretched from St. Joseph, Missouri, across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada's to Sacramento and San Francisco, California.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

The initial price of a letter was $5.00 per 1/2 ounce. With increased mail it dropped to $2.50, to eventually $1.00 per 1/2 ounce.

In 1860, there were 157 Pony Express stations that were 10 miles apart along the Pony Express route. This was the approximate distance that a horse could run at full gallop before tiring. At each stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch with him. This was not an ordinary mail pouch. It was a small leather pouch with holes for the saddle horn and seat as it would slip over the saddle to be held on by the weight of the rider. It had 4 locked pockets, 2 on each side, to carry letters and small packages. It was known as a "mochila" which is Spanish for pouch or backpack. The saddle was designed to hold 20 lbs., which included a water sack, a Bible, a horn to alert upcoming stations of their arrival, and a pistol. Eventually, everything was discarded except for the water sack and the pistol. The riders could not weigh more than 125 lbs., because they limited the weight to a total of 165 lbs. so the horse could run fast.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

Alexander Majors, one of the owners, purchased 400 horses at $200 per horse, for the project. The average horse measured 14 1/2 hands (4 feet 10 inches) and weighted 900 lbs. Being this small, it truly was classified as a "Pony".

The Pony Express route started at St. Joseph, Missouri on the Missouri River, (now US Highway 36), to Marysville, Kansas. It turned northwest following the Little Blue River to Fort Kearny in Nebraska. From there, it followed the Great Platte River Road, cutting through Gothenburg, clipping the edge of Colorado, and passing down many roads before arriving at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. It dropped down to Salt Lake City, Utah and across Nevada (on today's US Highway 50). From there, it crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe, before arriving in Sacramento. When mail was destined to San Francisco, the rider would catch a steamboat down the Sacramento River, but if he missed it, he would ride to Oakland and catch a ferry to San Francisco.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

The route was divided into 5 divisions with 184 stations. Some were in military forts and some where in the wilderness. They were designed to be located from 5 to 25 miles apart depending on the terrain. Each rider rode about 75 miles a day.

The first Westward Pony Express trip left St. Joseph, Missouri on April 3, 1860 and arrived 10 days later in San Francisco, California on April 14. According to the "St. Joseph Weekly West" newspaper, on April 4, 1860, it reported that "Johnson William Richardson" was the first rider. Other outfits claim that "Johnny Fry" was the first rider. Both were accomplished riders and the mail did reach its destination at 1:00 pm on April 14th in San Francisco.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

The first Eastbound Pony Express trip left San Francisco, California also on April 3, 1860 and arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri in 10 days. James Randall is credited as the first rider to carry the mail on this occasion. There are only a few letters left from these 2 inaugural trips.

The riders braved the elements and Indian attacks too. In May through June of 1860, the Paiute Indians were at war with settlers, the military, and anyone else that decided to infiltrate their territory near the Carson River. A band of Paiutes raided a station in Lake Lahontan, near the Carson river, killed 5 men and burned down the station. They were a bit upset when they discovered that 2 of their Paiute women were kidnapped and assaulted. With the military outnumbering the Paiutes, the war ended quickly. In total, the Pony Express lost about 150 horses, had 20 employees killed, and cost the company over $75,000 in livestock and station equipment.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

In 1860, the Pony Express had hired about 80 riders utilizing an advertisement which read:

"Wanted: Young, skinny fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

One of the young men hired was a 15 year old named "William Cody", otherwise known as "Buffalo Bill". He was traveling west to California and decided this would provide means to get there. Cody helped build many of the stations before taking on the duties of a rider. He was given a 45 mile route from Julesburg, Colorado. From there he was transferred to Slade's Division in Wyoming where he made the "longest not-stop ride" from Red Buttes station to Rocky Ridge station and back when he discovered that his relief rider had been killed. Cody covered 322 miles over one of the most dangerous sections of the entire trail and finished in 21 hours 40 minutes, while changing horses 21 times.

Pony Express
"Pony Express"

Many others helped make the Pony Express a successful venture. With the invention of the telegraph and the "transcontinental railroad" in the making, the Pony Express stopped in October 1861. Although its existence lasted only 19 months, it will always remain part of the "Great American History and Western Folklore".

Gary "Colonel Klink" Klinke
John A. Sutter-Historian