Curator’s Corner: Pony Express
The time has come to get a few items straightened out about one of the great American legends. I am speaking of the pony express. Many people associate the pony express with the Post Office Department – part of the American Government. Actually there are several reasons why they think this way.
First, we are using the word mail- a term that has only been associated with the US Mail. Second, this is the logo used by the US Post Office Department from 1837 to 1971. In 1837 Postmaster General Amos Kendall ordered that the symbol of a horseback rider used during Benjamin Franklin’s era, be modified and have the words US Post Office Department added around the image Franklin had designed. So for almost 200 years the US Mail was associated with a horseback rider.
In its waning days, the post office department engulfed the operation of the “fast mail” into its mail transportation system. So how did it all start? An American transportation pioneer William H. Russell advertised for riders to work on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City in March 1860. Russell had failed repeatedly to get the backing of the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee for an express route to carry mail between St. Joseph, Missouri — the westernmost point reached by the railroad and telegraph — and California. St. Joseph was the starting point for the nearly 2,000-mile route to the West. This was not a well-developed area. There were a handful of forts and settlements, but the vast expanse between St. Joseph and California was inhabited primarily by Native Americans.
If you have been to the old museum we had a sign that advertised for riders for the pony express. It read something like “Wanted…. Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expertriders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages—$25 per week”
Many thought that it would be impossible to have this as a year-round transportation system because of extreme weather conditions. Russell organized his own express to prove otherwise. With partners Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, Russell formed the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. They began to set up their network of relay stations. Some were built from scratch while others were refurbished. The country was combed for good horses. They had to be strong enough to survive both deserts and mountains while being able to go long stretches without water.
There was a dire need for riders. Each was required to swear on a Bible not to cuss, fight, or abuse their animals and to conduct themselves honestly before they would be hired. On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began its run through of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. On average, a rider covered 75 to100 miles daily. He changed horses at relay stations located some 10 to15 milesapart. They had to be swift when transferring themselves and a Mochila. Mochilas were a saddle cover with pockets to the new mount. The first mail by Pony Express from St. Joseph to Sacramento took ten days, cutting the overland stage time via the southern route by more than half. The fastest delivery was in March 1861, when President
Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address was carried from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 7 days and 17 hours.
On July 1, 1861, the Pony Express began operating under contract as a mail route. By that time, the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company was deeply in debt. Hard to believe when you understand that they charged as much as $5 a half ounce for a letter. Then factor in that ordinary U.S. postage was no more than ten cents. After failing to turn a profit the Pony Express officially ended October 26, 1861, after the transcontinental telegraph line was completed. But oh do we love our legends.