Before planes and trucks, there was the Pony Express

The American people are used to getting their mail and news at the touch of a few buttons, or dedicated individuals in shorts and caps bringing them to your door. Before the USPS had trucks and plains to quickly deliver mail, and even before the telegraph, there was the Pony Express.

The United States Postal Service was founded in 1775, with Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General. The Pony Express was not founded until April of 1860. It ran for only 18 months, being officially terminated in October of 1861.

The Pony Express had a simple purpose; to bring letters and newspaper from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express prided itself on being able to make the 1,800 mile journey in 10 days flat. Each rider would go for 75 to 100 miles, and change horses every 10 to 15 to ensure maximum speed.

Before the 10-day sprints by the Pony Express, the average stage coach lines could take up to 24 days to deliver news, which was becoming more and more imperative to send and receive as political tensions rose just before the Civil War, the Encyclopedia Britannica said.

The Encyclopedia Britannica also said that during the 18 months of service, only one bag of mail was reported missing or lost.

During the 1840s and 1850s, the United States was expanding West rapidly. The California Gold Rush in 1849 and the “Mormon Exodus” of 1847, along with the expansion along the Oregon Trail spread out the U.S. populace much further than most privatized mail carriers contracted by the USPS were willing to go.

In most towns or cities, mail delivery was a non-issue, but a long-distance, dangerous mail run was beyond the scope of most deliverers, and the telegraph lines were still being raised.

The National Park Service offers some insights into the history of the Pony Express, including some of the private delivery companies involved in the brief but storied history of the Pony Express.

One of the outfits that attempted to accomplish the Pony Express’s mission was the Butterfield Overland Mail Service in 1857, and worked with others such as the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company, led by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell.

The Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express out-performed the other competitors, including the Butterfield Overland Mail. Postmaster General Joseph Holt, who made the decision that the USPS’s routes would go as fr as California in 1858, contracted L&PPE, and they became known as the Pony Express.

An ad in the Sacramento Union in March of 1860 advertised that the Pony Express was willing to pay an experienced rider for $50 a month, and in the ad, openly recruited riders from the Overland Express, their competition. Perhaps the most notable Pony Express rider was the infamous Buffalo Bill Cody.

Sending mail by the Pony Express was not cheap. The initial rate for mail was $5 an ounce, later lowered to $1 an ounce. Newspapers and businesses primarily used the express because the average citizen could not afford such large rates.

The Pony Express was not originally founded on the idea that it was only a short -term solution. It was not until June of 1860 that Congress signed a bill that would allow for the Secretary of the Treasury to fund the building of a transcontinental telegraph line. It would not be long before New York City could instantly transmit messages to the Pacific, and visa-versa.

The Pony Express operated through the duration of the telegraph raising, was but was released of its contract from the USPS shortly after the completion of the telegraph line. As the wire advanced, the necessary range of Pony Express routes diminished.

On Oct. 26, 1861, the final telegraph pole was in the ground, and Sacramento had direct contact to New York City. On the same day, the Pony Express’s contract was terminated, but the final deliveries were not finished until November.

Thought the Pony Express was short lived, the small-built, and often young riders were seen as giants by the nation. The riders had to be small to be less of a burden on the horse, much like jockeys in horse racing.

Newspapers, particularly in the West, wrote about the riders as epic heroes, because they did have one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. Weather, rough terrain, common robbers, and hostile Native American attacks made being a postal rider a job only for the bravest.

The exact routes of the Pony Express have been mostly reclaimed by nature, removed by human activity, or are locations up to debate on whether they are authentic routes or not. The National Park Service is in the process of establishing roughly 120 historic sites, including 50 still-standing Pony Express stations or confirmed station ruins. There were known to be as many as 150 Pony Express stations during its peak.


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