On April 3, 1860, the first successful United States Pony Express runs between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, began simultaneously. The first westbound Pony Express trip left St. Joseph and arrived ten days later in Sacramento on April 14. The letters were sent under cover from the East to St. Joseph, and never directly entered the U.S. mail system. The first eastbound trip left Sacramento on April 3, and also arrived at its destination ten days later in St. Joseph. From St. Joseph, letters were placed in the U.S. mails for delivery to eastern destinations.
Officially operating as the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company in 1859, and changing its name to the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company the following year, the firm was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, all of whom were notable in the freighting business.
During its 19 months of operation, the Pony Express reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to 10 days. From April 3, 1860, to October 1861, it became the West’s most direct means of east–west communication before the transcontinental telegraph was established on October 24, 1861, and was vital for tying the new state of California with the rest of the United States.
The idea of a fast mail route to the Pacific coast was prompted largely by California’s newfound prominence and its rapidly growing population. After gold was discovered there in 1848, thousands of prospectors, investors and businessmen made their way to California, at that time a new territory of the United States. In 1850, California entered the Union as a free state. By 1860, the population had grown to 380,000. The demand for a faster way to get mail and other communications to and from this westernmost state became even greater as the American Civil War approached.
William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell were the three founders of the Pony Express. They were already in the freighting and drayage business. At the peak of the operations, they employed 6,000 men, owned 75,000 oxen, thousands of wagons, and warehouses plus a sawmill, a meatpacking plant, a bank and an insurance company.
Russell was a prominent businessman, well respected among his peers and the community. Waddell was co-owner of the firm Morehead, Waddell & Co. After Morehead was bought out and retired, Waddell merged his company with Russell’s, changing the name to Waddell & Russell. In 1855 they took on a new partner, Alexander Majors, and founded the company of Russell, Majors & Waddell. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies to the western frontier, and Russell had a similar idea for contracts with the U.S. Government for fast mail delivery.
By utilizing a short route and using mounted riders rather than traditional stagecoaches, they proposed to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, with letters delivered in 10 days, a duration many said was impossible. The initial price was set at $5 per ½ ounce (14 g), then $2.50, and by July 1861 to $1. The founders of the Pony Express hoped to win an exclusive government mail contract, but that did not come about.
Russell, Majors, and Waddell organized and put together the Pony Express in two months in the winter of 1860. The undertaking assembled 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and several hundred personnel during January and February 1861.
Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved “by the help of God” to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a special edition Bible and required this oath, which they were also required to sign:
“I, …, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”
The Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system of communications could be established and operated year-round. When replaced by the telegraph, the Pony Express quickly became romanticized and became part of the lore of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of individual young, hardy riders and fast horses was seen as evidence of rugged American individualism of the Frontier times.
From 1866 until 1889, the Pony Express logo was used by stagecoach and freight company Wells Fargo, which provided secure mail service. The United States Postal Service (USPS) used “Pony Express” as a trademark for postal services in the U.S. Freight Link international courier services, based in Russia, adopted the Pony Express trademark and a logo similar to that of the USPS.
The approximately 1,900-mile-long (3,100 km) Pony Express route started at St. Joseph, Missouri on the Missouri River, it then followed what is modern-day U.S. Highway 36 (also called the Pony Express Highway) to Marysville, Kansas, where it turned northwest following Little Blue River to Fort Kearny in Nebraska. Through Nebraska it followed the Great Platte River Road, cutting through Gothenburg, Nebraska, clipping the edge of Colorado at Julesburg, Colorado, and passing Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, before arriving at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From there it followed the Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and Split Rock, to Fort Caspar, through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then down to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City it generally followed the Central Nevada Route blazed by Captain James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859. This route roughly follows today’s U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada and Utah. It crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, and the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe before arriving in Sacramento. Mail was then sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. On a few instances when the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland, California.
There were 184 stations about 10 miles (16 km) apart along the route. At each station stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him. The stations and station keepers were essential to the successful, timely and smooth operation of the Pony Express mail system. The stations were often fashioned out of existing structures, several of them located in military forts, while others were built anew in remote areas where living conditions were very basic. The route was divided up into five divisions. To maintain the rigid schedule, 157 relay stations were located from 5 to 25 miles (8 to 40 km) apart as the terrain would allow for. At each swing station, riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones, while “home stations” provided room and board for the riders between runs. This technique allowed the mail to be whisked across the continent in record time. Each rider rode about 75 miles (120 km) per day.
The employers stressed the importance of the mail pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds (9 kg) of mail along with the 20 pounds (9 kg) of material carried on the horse. Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds (75 kg) on the horse’s back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds (57 kg), rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a quickly moving horse.
It is unknown if riders tried crossing the Sierra Nevada in winter, but they certainly crossed central Nevada. By 1860, there was a telegraph station in Carson City, Nevada. The riders received $100 a month as pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $0.43–$1 per day.
Alexander Majors, one of the founders of the Pony Express, had acquired more than 400 horses for the project. He selected horses from around the west, paying an average of $200. These averaged about 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) high and averaged 900 pounds (410 kg) each; thus, the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct in all cases.
The first westbound Pony Express trip left St. Joseph on April 3, 1860, and arrived ten days later in Sacramento, California, on April 14. These letters were sent under cover from the East to St. Joseph, and never directly entered the U.S. mail system. Today there is only a single letter known to exist from the inaugural westbound trip.
The messenger delivering the mochila from New York and Washington, D.C., missed a connection in Detroit and arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, two hours late. The railroad cleared the track and dispatched a special locomotive called Missouri with a one-car train to make the 206-mile (332 km) trek across the state in a record 4 hours 51 minutes, an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). It arrived at Olive and 8th Street, a few blocks from the company’s new headquarters in a hotel at Patee House at 12th and Penn Street and the company’s nearby stables on Penn Street. The first pouch contained 49 letters, five private telegrams, and some papers for San Francisco and intermediate points.
Before the mail pouch was delivered to the first rider on April 3, 1860, time was taken out for ceremonies and several speeches. First, St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson gave a brief speech on the significance of the event for St. Joseph, declaring:
“The mail must go through! Hurled by flesh and blood across two thousand miles of desolate space . . . neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains or Indians, burning sand or snow must stop the precious bags. The mail must go!”
Then William H. Russell and Alexander Majors addressed the gala crowd about how the Pony Express was just a “precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railroad. At the conclusion of all the speeches, approximately 7:15 p.m., Russell turned the mochila over to the first rider. The St. Joseph Gazette was the only newspaper included in the bag. A cannon fired, the large assembled crowd cheered, and the rider dashed to the landing at the foot of Jules Street where the ferry boat Denver, under a full head of steam, alerted by the signal cannon, waited to carry the horse and rider across the Missouri River to Elwood, Kansas Territory.
The identity of the first rider has long been in dispute. The St. Joseph Weekly West in its April 4, 1860, edition reported Johnson William Richardson was the first rider. Johnny Fry is credited in some sources as the rider. Both Expressmen were hired at St. Joseph for A. E. Lewis’ Division which ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas, a distance of 80 miles (130 km).
The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about ½ mile (800 m) from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river. In later rides, the courier crossed the river without a horse and picked up his mount at a stable on the other side.
On April 9 at 6:45 p.m., the first rider from the east reached Salt Lake City, Utah. Then, on April 12, the mail pouch reached Carson City, Nevada at 2:30 p.m. The riders raced over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through Placerville, California and on to Sacramento. Around midnight on April 14, 1860, the first mail pouch was delivered via the Pony Express to San Francisco. Bringing with it was a letter of congratulations from President Buchanan to California Governor Downey along with other official government communications, along with other important mail to banks and commercial houses in San Francisco. In all, 85 pieces of mail were delivered on this first trip.
James Randall is credited as the first eastbound rider from the San Francisco Alta telegraph office since he was on the steamship Antelope to go to Sacramento. Mail for the Pony Express left San Francisco at 4:00 pm, carried by horse and rider to the waterfront, and then on by steamboat to Sacramento where it was picked up by the Pony Express rider. At 2:45 a.m., William (Sam) Hamilton was the first Pony Express rider to begin the journey from Sacramento. He rode all the way to Sportsman Hall Station where he gave his mochila filled with mail to Warren Upson.
According to Winifred Gallagher in How the Post Office Created America, this first eastbound journey was fraught with perils:
The boat was more than two hours late, and Mother Nature was not cooperating. Two days of hard rain had turned Sacramento’s mud roads into glue, and a huge blizzard racked the Sierra Nevada Mountains above….despite the terrible conditions, Harry Roff grabbed the mochila from Randall, plunged into rainy darkness, and slogged through twenty miles of sludge in a mere fifty-nine minutes. Then, as the trail ascended and the weather worsened, he raced fifty-five miles more, to end his round at the foot of the High Sierras.
Completing the next relay over the icy summit through the accelerating blizzard was a nearly impossible task. Bolivar Roberts, the Pony’s clever western superintendent, assigned it to Warren “Boston” Upson, the adventurous twenty-year-old son of a wealthy publisher. Roberts had sent teams of sure-footed pack mules high into the peaks, where they tramped through the deep snow in an effort to keep the sketchy trail open. The muleteers had subdued the worst drifts, but others forced Upson to make treacherous detours from what little trail there was. He sometimes dismounted to walk behind his horse, allowing it to pick their way. His mount collapsed under him just short of the summit, so he staggered to the relay station on foot and took off on his next horse, making the easier descent in better weather conditions. Somehow Upson reached his destination, Friday’s Station, near Lake Tahoe, in the eight hours scheduled for the leg in summer. By the time William “Sam” Hamilton completed the next leg, to Fort Churchill, at what’s now Silver Springs, Nevada, the riders had covered 185 mountainous miles in a freakish spring blizzard in fifteen hours and twenty minutes—nine hours faster than planned.
The next man to race off with the mochila was “Pony Bob” Haslam, a twenty-year-old welterweight who later earned the distinction of completing the service’s longest and most dangerous ride. Born in London, he made his way to America, traveled west with the Mormon migration, and arrived in Salt Lake City at the age of fourteen. Roberts first hired the teenager to help build relay stations but soon sensed his spunk and made him a rider. Haslam leapt onto one of the barely broken desert mustangs he preferred — this one had been shod for the first time just the day before — and tore through hostile Indian country in a third of the scheduled time.
The Pony Express had an estimated 80 riders traveling east or west along the route at any given time. In addition, there were also about 400 other employees, including station keepers, stock tenders and route superintendents. Many young men applied; Waddell and Majors could have easily hired riders at low rates, but instead offered one hundred dollars a month — a handsome sum for that time. Author Mark Twain described the riders in his travel memoir Roughing It as: “… usually a little bit of a man”. Though the riders were small, lightweight, generally teenage boys, they came to be seen as heroes of the American West. There was no systematic list of riders kept by the company, but partial list has been compiled by Raymond and Nancy Settle in their book, Saddles & Spurs (1972).
Probably more than any other rider in the Pony Express, William Cody (better known as Buffalo Bill) epitomizes the legend and the folklore, be it fact or fiction, of the Pony Express. Numerous stories have been told of young Cody’s adventures as a Pony Express rider. At the age of 10, Cody was on his way west to California when he met Pony Express agents along the way and signed on with the company. Cody helped in the construction of several way-stations. Thereafter, he was employed as a messenger/rider and was given a short 45-mile (72 km) delivery run from the township of Julesburg which lay to the west. After some months he was transferred to Slade’s Division in Wyoming where he made the longest non-stop ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back when he found that his relief rider had been killed. The distance of 322 miles (518 km) over one of the most dangerous sections of the entire trail was completed in 21 hours and 40 minutes, and 21 horses were required to complete this section. On one occasion when carrying mail, Cody unintentionally ran into an Indian war party but managed to escape. He was present for many significant chapters in early western history, including the gold rush, the building of the railroads and cattle herding on the Great Plains. A career as a scout for the Army under General Phillip Sheridan following the Civil War earned him his nickname and established his notoriety as a frontiersman.
A minor series of raids and ambushes initiated by the Paiute Indian tribe in Nevada resulted in the disruption of mail services of the Pony Express from May through June 1860, though sporadic violence continued for a period afterward. After completing eight weekly trips from both Sacramento and Saint Joseph, the Pony Express was forced to suspend mail services because of the outbreak of the Paiute Indian War in May 1860.
Approximately 6,000 Paiutes in Nevada had suffered during a winter of fierce blizzards that year. By spring, the whole tribe was ready to embark on a war, except for the Paiute chief named Numaga. For three days Numaga fasted and argued for peace. Meanwhile, a raiding party attacked Williams Station, a Pony Express station located on the Carson River near present-day Lake Lahontan. One account says the raid was a deliberate attempt to provoke war. Another says the raiders had heard that men at the station had kidnapped two Paiute women, and fighting broke out when they went to investigate and free the women. Either way, the war party killed five men and the station was burned.
During the following weeks, other isolated incidents occurred when whites in Paiute country were ambushed and killed. The Pony Express was a special target. Seven other express stations were also attacked; some 16 employees were killed and approximately 150 express horses were either stolen or driven off. The Paiute war cost the Pony Express company about $75,000 in livestock and station equipment, not to mention the loss of life. In June of that year, the Paiute uprising had been ended through the intervention of U.S. government troops, after which four delayed mail shipments from the East were finally brought to San Francisco on June 25, 1860.
During this brief war, one Pony Express mailing, which left San Francisco on July 21, 1860, did not immediately reach its destination. That mail pouch did not reach St. Joseph and subsequently New York until almost two years later.
William Russell, senior partner of Russell, Majors, & Waddell and one of the biggest investors in the Pony Express, used the 1860 presidential election as a way to promote the Pony Express and how fast it could deliver the U.S. Mail. Prior to the election, Russell hired extra riders to ensure that fresh riders and relay horses were available along the route. On November 7, 1860, a Pony Express rider departed Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory (the end of the eastern telegraph line) with the election results. Riders sped along the route, over snow-covered trails and into Fort Churchill, Nevada Territory (the end of the western telegraph line). California’s newspapers received word of Lincoln’s election only seven days and 17 hours after the East Coast papers, an unrivaled feat at the time.
During its brief time in operation, the Pony Express delivered approximately 35,000 letters between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern mail route was viable, Russell, Majors and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Jeremy Dehut in March 1861, who had taken over the southern Congressionally favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line. The so-called ‘Stagecoach King’, Ben Holladay, acquired the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches.
Shortly after the contract was awarded, the start of the American Civil War caused the stage line to cease operation. From March 1861, the Pony Express ran mail only between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California. Other telegraph lines connected points along the line and other cities on the east and west coasts.
Despite the subsidy, the Pony Express was a financial failure. It grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866, after the Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.
As the Pony Express Mail service existed only briefly in 1860 and 1861, there are consequently very few surviving examples of Pony Express mail. Also, contributing to the scarcity of surviving Pony Express mail is that the cost to send a ½-ounce (14 g) letter was $5.00 at the beginning, (about $130.00 to today’s standards). By the end period of the Pony Express, the price had dropped to $1.00 per ½ ounce but even that was considered expensive (equivalent to $27 in 2017) just to mail one letter. As this mail service was also a frontier enterprise, removed from the general population in the east, along with the largely unaffordable rates, there are consequently few pieces of surviving Pony Express mail in the hands of collectors and museums. There are only 250 known examples of Pony Express mail, according to a census by philatelist Richard Frajola.
Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo for its guard and armored car service. The logo continued to be used when other companies took over the security business into the 1990s. Since 2001, the Pony Express logo is no longer used for security businesses since the business has been sold. The United States Postal Service has trademarked “Pony Express” along with “Air Mail.”
The Pony Express route has been designated the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Approximately 120 historic sites along the trail may eventually be open to the public, including 50 stations or station ruins.
The United States Post Office Department, precursor to the United States Postal Service, has directly commemorated the significance of the Pony Express on three occasions beginning with the release of Scott #113 in 1869. The 2-cent brown stamp was the first in U.S. postal history to depict an actual event, illustrating something other than portraits of national leaders. At the time it was issued, the Pony Express Rider stamp was severely criticized for its design. The horse appears to be leaping rather than galloping; some say the horse’s position is nearly impossible. However, it captures our nation’s infatuation with the romance of the Pony Express.
The 1868 pictorials were to be produced over a four-year period by the National Bank Note Company. When issued, however, the stamps were unpopular with the public and were withdrawn from sale within a year after their release.
Scott ##894 was issued on April 3, 1940, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Pony Express. It pictures a Pony Express rider leaving a relay station with a parcel of mail. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was instrumental in the design and issuance of the stamp. Introduced to stamp collecting at a young age by his mother, Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned to his collection throughout his life to relax and unwind.
The 3-cent henna brown stamp was printed on the rotary press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. A total of 46,497,400 copies of the stamp were printed, perforated 11×10½. Immediately after the stamp was issued with dual first day cities of St. Joseph and Sacramento, a noted sculptor was quoted in a national newspaper claiming that a horse could not possibly run in the position shown on the stamp. Veterinarians, horse breeders, jockeys and horse enthusiasts agreed. Rumors claimed that the stamp was going to be re-issued due to the error, so collectors purchased large quantities of the stamp, expecting it to be removed from sale. In the end, the stamp was never re-issued, but sold out anyway, making it scarce today.
Scott #1154 commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Pony Express and was issued on July 19, 1960, initially through the St. Joseph and Sacramento post offices. Designed by Harold von Schmidt, the sepia-colored stamp depicts a Pony Express rider on his stead in full gallop. This image is superimposed over a rendition of a map showing the journey from St. Joseph to Sacramento. The stamp was printed by the rotary process, electric-eye perforated in a gauge of 11×10½, and issued in panes of fifty stamps each. An initial printing of 120 million stamps was authorized of which 119,665,000 were released.
At the same time that Scott #1154 was released, a similar design was used for a embossed, stamped envelope printed in brown (Scott #U543).
Even if one cannot obtain covers carried by the original Pony Express in 1860-1861, there is a wealth of postal history and philatelic material to collect based around this topic aside from the three United States stamps, including the carriage labels produced for the later Wells Fargo services, numerous covers carried by various re-enactments of the Pony Express journeys and other commemorative material. A simple search on eBay will reveal quite a variety. I highly recommend Frajola’s site including an online exhibit of the original covers and a downloadable copy of his book on the subject.