The Pony Express: Rugged Riders on Fleet-footed Horses
Although the Pony Express was only a fleeting event in the history of the West—the service lasted only 18 months—it captured the imagination of Americans and embodied the essence of the Western mystique. It had all the ingredients for adventure: Fast horses, daring young men, immense danger.
Frontier newspapers reported hair-raising incidents involving riders and station masters for the Pony Express:
– Bart Riles, the pony rider, died this morning from wounds received at Cold Springs. – The men at Dry Creek Station have all been killed and it is thought those at Robert’s Creek have met with the same fate. – Six Pike’s Peakers found the body of the station keeper horribly mutilated, the station burned, and all the stock missing from Simpson’s. – Eight horses were stolen from Smith’s Creek last Monday, supposedly by road agents.
The Pony Express was established by three visionary men, William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors, who had the idea of setting up a route with stations about every 10-15 miles from St. Joseph’s to Sacramento, California, and having riders on fast horses deliver mail, switching to fresh horses at each station. A couple of years before the Pony Express was started in 1860, the Butterfield Overland Stage and Mail Route provided transportation and mail service from St. Joseph’s to San Francisco. But the route took 25 days to complete.
The Pony Express cut the time to 10-11 days. The men set about 200 relief stations across what is now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Single riders would ride about 75-100 miles, switching to fresh horses at every station. Then finally they would pass off their mail cargo to another courier. The Pony Express set a record for the entire route in March 1861, carrying Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address from Nebraska to California in just seven days, 17 hours.
One of the Pony Express’s first advertisement’s offered very little but danger and adventure to hirees. The ad read: "Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." They also preferred young men who weighed between 100-125 pounds—about the same size as jockeys today—to limit the weight horses had to carry. It wasn’t unusual for teenagers as young as 14 to be hired. One man named “Bronco” Charlie Miller claimed he was only 11 years old when he first joined the Pony Express. And Buffalo Bill Cody claimed he was 14 when he rode for the Pony Express.
Riders were paid about $100-150 monthly—a substantial sum for the time. Most unskilled labor at the time made between $12-26 a month. Pony Express riders were expected to take a loyalty oath that read: “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while 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.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay. But few Pony Express employees took the pledge seriously. Liquor flowed heavily at relief stations, and an eyewitness named Richard Burton wrote that he “scarcely ever saw a sober rider.”
One rider in particular made Pony Express history in May 1860. A 20-year-old, Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, was scheduled to make his usual 75-mile run from Friday’s Station to Buckland Station in Nevada. But when he arrived in Buckland, his relief rider refused to ride because Paiute Indians had been attacking stations along the route. Haslam immediately jumped on a fresh horse and rode on, eventually completing a 190-mile run before delivering his mail at Smith’s Creek. He then mounted a fresh horse and retraced his steps all the way back to Friday’s Station, along the way passing a relay outpost that had been burned by the Paiutes. When he returned to his home station, “Pony Bob”had set a Pony Express record—he’d ridden 380 miles in less than 40 hours!
The Pony Express employed about 85 riders and had about 400 fast horses distributed in stations all along the route. Dangers on the Pony Express route were many: extreme weather, rough terrain, riding accidents, robberies, and Indian attacks. According to the National Park Service that now manages the Pony Express route, there is historical documentation that only eight riders lost their lives during service for the Pony Express: four riders were killed by Indians; one was hanged for murder after he got drunk and killed a man; one died in an unrelated accident; and two froze to death.
Probably the more dangerous job for the Pony Express was the stock keepers who manned the relief stations. Most were crude, dirt floor hovels with a bed inside and corrals for the horses. Since most were in remote locations of the frontier, they were vulnerable to robberies and Indian attacks. In the summer of 1860, Indians attacked and burned several relay stations during the Pyramid Lake War, killing as many as 16 stock hands.
The extensive operation of the Pony Express was very expensive to operate and its services didn’t come cheap. In its early days the service cost $5 for every half-ounce of mail—the equivalent of some $130 today. Prices were later reduced but still remained too high for most citizens. The service was used mainly to deliver government dispatches, important business documents and contracts, and newspaper reports—all printed on tissue paper to keep the cost and weight down. Even despite its high charges, the Pony Express was a financial failure.
For all its financial troubles, the Pony Express didn’t truly collapse until technology renewed it obsolete. The company had spent its brief history bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western telegraph lines, but in October 1861 the Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City. The Pony Express ceased service just two days later. Despite operating for only 18 months, its riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier.
One of its riders, Buffalo Bill Cody, would later become one of the nation's most famous frontiersmen and he would immortalize the Pony Express in his Wild West Shows. The show featured daring riders on fiery, fleet-footed steeds thundering across the arena, rearing to a stop as the rider jumps from the horse still in motion, and with lightning speed jumps atop a fresh steed and is off again at a breakneck gallop, to brave Indians, wild animals and highwaymen alone on the frontier. The crowds loved it.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Climb on Board a Stagecoach!
-Early Train Wrecks
"The Pony Express" was first posted on Facebook on May 4, 2019
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