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April 1, 2010

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If someone built a time machine, and everyone got a free ride to any time period in history, where would you go? It’s a tough choice, isn’t it? Our history is built upon so many fascinating moments and deeds that it’s hard to narrow it down to one choice. Personally, I think there is something incredibly fascinating about Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, but if I had to pick something in American history, I’d go with the Pony Express.

Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine life without cell phones, Internet, cars, planes, and all the other technological advances we’ve made in the short 150 years since the Pony Express ran mail across the United States, but in 1860, mail and newspapers were the only form of communication. The telegraph was on its way, but telephones were still in the developmental process and would not make an appearance until the late 1870s.

In 1845, it took President James K. Polk six months to get a message to California, and with the sudden rise in population in the West due to the Gold Rush, this became a big problem. There was simply no quick way to relay news between the East and West! Stagecoaches or ships transported mail, and the journey took months.

The government struggled to provide an effective mail system to the West Coast for the next decade. In 1855 Congress even appropriated $30,000 to investigate using camels to carry the mail from Texas to California, but they proved impractical. However, three enterprising men, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, proposed a mail relay system between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. This proposal became the Pony Express.

Now, the actual idea behind the Pony Express wasn’t anything new. Marco Polo witnessed post stations in 13th century China, and Oregon missionary Marcus Whitman suggested a relay of horses to deliver mail to Oregon from Missouri in 40 days in 1843.

The first pony left St. Joseph on April 3, 1860, heading west from St. Joseph. On April 4, 1860, a rider left Sacramento heading east. Ten days later, April 13, 1860, the eastbound rider arrived in St. Joseph with not only mail in his mochila, but with a pocket full of the ingenuity, courage, tenacity and determination upon which the United States has continually built itself.

About 80 young men were employed on a regular basis to ride the trail, and about 400 other employees manned the 190 way stations that were placed 10-12 miles apart along the route that crossed eight states and covered more than 2,000 miles. At any given time, there were two riders on the trail, which followed parts of the Oregon Trail, one going east and one going west. Each rider covered 75-100 miles and would usually change horses at every relay station. The horses averaged about 10 miles per hour. Contrary to legend, there really wasn’t much galloping. The terrain was hard and unforgiving on most legs of the journey, scattered with holes and other hazards, such as buffalo herds. The riders were instructed to always keep moving but not to take any risks.

National Park Service

According to records, approximately 400 horses were used and were selected for swiftness and endurance. The origins and breeds of these horses varied, and the Pony Express utilized everything from Thoroughbreds to Morgans to Mustangs in the relay system. Horses were purchased from Calvary units in the East and native stock, including the short coupled “California Horses,” were used in the West.

Two other advancements helped the ponies and riders make their routes in a timely manner: One was a lighter saddle, and the other was the mochila.

The mochila was probably the most important part, aside from the horse, of the whole operation. Mail pouches were too heavy and difficult to attach to the saddles, so they used the mochila, which was a leather covering that was thrown over the saddle. The saddle horn and cantle came up through holes in the leather. The mochila had four boxes of hard leather attached to the covering, and when the rider was in the saddle his legs would fall between the boxes, two on each side. The mail was placed in the boxes and then locked with small padlocks. Station keepers at the end of each line, or designated way stations, had keys to the boxes.

The beauty of the mochila came in its efficiency. When a rider arrived at a relay station, a fresh horse was waiting for him already saddled and bridled. The rider changed the mochila from one saddle to the other and was able to quickly get back on the road in the two-minute time frame allotted for changing horses. If a horse was killed or injured, the rider could strip the mochila from the saddle and walk to the next station with the mail.

Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider~ ca. 1861. US National Archives Records Administration

In the 18 months that the Pony Express ran, there was only one time where the mail did not get through. The Paiute Indian War broke out in May of 1860 and forced the Express to stop running. On May 7, the Paiute Indians raided the Williams Pony Express Station and killed five men. In total, seven relay stations were razed, 16 employees were killed, and 150 horses were driven off. The war cost Russell, Majors and Waddel about $75,000 in stock in equipment.

The war ended in June of 1860, and the Express began again. By the time a transcontinental telegraph line connected the East and West on October 24, 1861, making the Express obsolete, the Pony Express had delivered more than 34,000 pieces of mail and covered 650,000 miles.

On Oct. 26, 1861, the Pony Express officially ended its operations. On Nov. 21, the last run was completed. The Pony Express had achieved a legendary status, and at a time where the North and South were pulling apart, the Express successfully pulled the East and West together.

Of course, success is a relative term when it comes to the Pony Express. "The Pony Express is regarded as one of the most colossal and celebrated failures in American business history," wrote journalist and Pony Express expert Christopher Corbett in his article "The Pony Rides Again (And Again)," which was published in American Heritage Magazine’s Spring 2010 issue.

Considering the enterprise only lasted 18 months and lost its inventors more money than it made, that's a fair description. However, the Pony Express’ lasting legacy is not so much in its contribution to the U.S. Postal Service or business in general, but rather in the way it defined how people in the United States imagined their country. The Pony Express proved, yet again, that through determination and willpower, creativity and desire, great things could be accomplished.

Perhaps Frank Popplewell said it best when he stated:

 “In mid-century America, communication between St. Joseph on the fringe of western settlement and gold mining communities of California challenged the bold and made skeptical the timid. Into this picture rode the Pony Express.  In rain and in snow, in sleet and in hail over moonlit prairie, down tortuous mountain path . . . pounding pony feet knitted together the ragged edges of a rising nation. From these hearty souls who toiled over plain and mountain that understanding might be more generally diffused, a nation spanning a continent was ours to inherit. In the spirit of the Pony Express it is for us to bequeath to those who shall follow, new trails in the sky uniting in thought and in deed.”

Interesting Tidbits

  • Every year, the National Pony Express Association conducts a Re-Ride over the Pony Express National Historic Trail. This year, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express, the Re-Ride will take place June 6-26, beginning in Sacramento, Calif. Normally the ride is a 10-day, 24-hour per day, non-stop event completed by more than 500 horses and riders. This year, they will divert to all daytime hours in most locations to give the communities a chance to celebrate. For more information about the Re-Ride, visit the NPEA.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!

Sources:

Pony Express Home Station

Pony Express National Museum

American Heritage Magazine

Horses And Americans by Phil Stong

 

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