19th Century

The Pony Express

Have a drink with: The Riders of the Pony Express
Colt pistols, bacon and beans, buns of steel.

Ask them about: Are horses allowed in the Dunkin’ drive-thru?

Pony Express

It’s December 1860, you live east of the Mississippi, and your options for sending Christmas cards* to West Coast relatives are, shall we say, limited. You can take the overland option, which involves sending your holiday greetings by stagecoach: wagons fording rivers and dodging rocks (and dysentery!) on lousy roads down to Texas and through the unending desert, but that’ll take a good month even at a good clip, so if you’re not on top of things by Thanksgiving, you’re toast. Steamers are no more help: they’re reliable, but since they go to California by way of Panama, that’ll still take 6 weeks.

And yet, all is not lost: the Pony Express can get your elf on the shelf in ten days.

The history of the Pony Express, as author Jim DeFelice relates it in West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express, is not what most of us might think. For one, the service was available for a remarkably short period in American history: only eighteen months, beginning in April 1860. For another, the Pony wasn’t the only game in town as far as mail delivery went, and it wasn’t just the telegraph that did it in. And last but not least, the Pony Express wasn’t an end in and of itself, but part of a larger business venture that ultimately had its sights set on creating an American overland shipping empire.

The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell. The men started out freighting for the U.S. Army with ox and wagon, and even though they had a lock on shipping military cargo for the United States government (including a contract that worked out to more than $68 million in modern money), they had their sights set on greater reach and greater profit. Specifically, the men saw their company as a way to get out in front of the needs of not just the army, but everyone in a growing nation: to be part of all transportation, delivery and construction in the West. After the Utah War led them into unforeseen debt when Congress couldn’t pay its bills, the men came around to the idea of the Pony Express as a float: a flashy, albeit costly way to land a federal mail contract and nationwide publicity. Though it was all but certain the Pony would lose money, the men hoped it would be a loss leader that could open a door to other new business. They got to work hiring men and purchasing 500 horses, stationing them along the “central route” through the American West.

The eastern terminal of the Pony Express route was St. Joseph, Missouri, a supply stop situated on the Missouri River. From St. Joe’s, riders made their way west by relaying through a chain of Pony Express stations, dotted anywhere from fifty to a hundred miles apart along the route from Missouri to San Francisco. In between each home station was a smaller dotted line of transfer points, at which employees waited with fresh horses. Along a given run, a rider would take his horse at a canter for ten or fifteen miles before hopping directly onto a fresh ride, repeating the process maybe half a dozen times before reaching the next home station, tagging in the next rider to take off, and retiring to a nearby hotel or barn for a plate of beans and a snooze before it was time to head back east again.

The venture was well-known almost immediately. The first westbound run left St. Joe’s on April 3rd, behind schedule at the outset thanks to a delayed incoming train bringing a mailbag due for California. Riders rode so fast they made up a two and a half hour train delay. Eastbound, the first rider left San Francisco at 4pm on April 3, 1860, and arrived in St. Joseph on April 13th at exactly 4 in the afternoon: ten days to the minute.

Pony Express riders had their own celebrity thanks to a common stew of bad-boy romanticism, courage, athleticism and the superhuman stamina required to ride horseback at speed for hours on end, a pursuit as comfortable as sitting on a paint mixer. Riders were not permitted to stop on their routes – both for the benefit of the company’s strict timelines and the fact that they banked on being able to outrun any danger rather than engage with it; as DeFelice notes, “in the stretches beyond St. Joe’s they were far from any help; using a gun even from the saddle meant giving an enemy that much better a chance at overtaking you.” Riders allegedly swore an oath against swearing, drinking and fighting, but this was perhaps more a guideline than a rule.

Despite the popular understanding that the telegraph killed the Pony Express, the two worked in concert at first: the Pony took over from telegraph operators to carry messages where wires didn’t yet reach in the United States. (The most famous example, which DeFelice relates throughout his book, is the Pony Express run that took news of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election to the presidency to eager western news bureaus.)

Ultimately the idea was more important than the reality to many Americans, which is part of why the Pony only lasted a year and a half (the 1861 transcontinental telegraph, William Russell’s involvement in a bond scandal and impending Civil War didn’t help either). Just because everyone loved to pump their firsts in the air at the uniquely American idea that a handful of intrepid young men could carry mail across the frontier at breakneck speed in jeans and buckskin, stopping only to change horses and pee in a bush, not everyone was willing to pay $10 an ounce of paper weight to keep it in business.

Fun Facts:

* Yes, there were Christmas cards in the 1860s, though honestly they weren’t a thing for a good few decades afterwards, so the Pony really wouldn’t have had much to do with them.

You’re just in time to send a letter on the 2018 Pony Express re-ride, though.

Buffalo Bill Cody, Pony Express rider? Nope. “In fact,” writes DeFelice, “the Pony’s most famous rider ever almost certainly never actually rode for the service.” But when Ned Buntline’s romantic Wild West stories made a larger-than-life character out of Buffalo Bill in his fringed buckskin, and Cody’s service as a scout made him the hero of real-life military escapades, a showman was born. In 1883 he debuted Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a classic of rollicking 19th century entertainment. Not only did the outdoor revue feature battle re-enactments, rodeo skills, celebrities like Annie Oakley and general cowboys-and-Indians spectacle; it was typically kicked off with a live tribute to the Pony Express.  (1908 film footage of Cody, here.)

There are a lot of stories about the Pony Express, many if not most of them unverifiable. One claims we have the Pony Express riders (or, rather, the ladies who loved them) to thank for inventing the donut: fangirls would often offer homemade treats to riders as they passed through, and when one woman noticed that dashing rider Johnny Fry was having a hard time hanging on to pastries while riding his horse at a full gallop, she decided to give him one with a more convenient built-in handle.

Package, freight and mail delivery was big business in the middle 1800s, and some of our largest modern financial institutions trace their lineage back to this time and industry. Messrs. Henry Wells, William Fargo and John Butterfield founded American Express in 1850 as a mail and shipping courier for the eastern United States. When AmEx balked at the idea of expanding into California, William and Henry forged ahead anyway and formed Wells Fargo & Co., which ultimately took over the Pony Express line after Russell’s arrest (he was, however, relieved of charges on a technicality – too big to fail?).

Additional Reading:

Jim DeFelice, West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express (2018)

“The Indian Bonds Defense of W.H. Russell,” The New York Times, April 2, 1861