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The Fascinating Story of the Pony Express

For better or for worse, in 2021, we take for granted instant communication and the near-instant delivery of just about anything we want. It was a much, much different story in 1850s America — when the demand for services to transport people, goods, and especially information across a rapidly expanding country was badly outpacing the abilities of the stagnant systems and technologies in place.

Mail sent from New York to California by steamship, which was routed south through the Isthmus of Panama, could spend months in transit. And the cross-country service provided by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, which advertised a 24-day delivery, could also be delayed for weeks.

People yearned for faster communications to bring the world as they knew it closer together. Enter the Pony Express, which thrillingly fulfilled that need for just 19 months (beginning in spring 1860) but lives on today as a legendary symbol of the Old West and thrill of racing against time.

The Pony Express Sprung From the Ambitions of Co-Founder William H. Russell

A letter from 1862 that was sent through the Pone Express.
Credit: Heritage Art/ Heritage Images via Getty Images

It's unclear who first conceived of the famed service, but according to West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express by Jim DeFelice, it ultimately came to life through the efforts of Missouri-reared businessman William H. Russell.

Russell had established a successful freighting business with partners Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell by the mid-1850s, but he had his eye on an exclusive mail contract with the U.S. government. To improve his chances, he met with California Senator William Gwin around late 1859 to discuss an enterprise certain to capture the attention of potential federal employers as well as the public: A delivery service, comprised of the speediest horses and bravest riders to bring mail from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast in the unheard-of time of 10 days.

Russell and Gwin were both enraptured with the idea; Majors and Waddell were decidedly less enthusiastic, given their company's mounting debts. However, they ultimately agreed to establish the Pony Express under the formal name of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, and dove into the logistics of acquiring both human and nonhuman personnel and establishing a route across the daunting mountains and deserts of the West.

The First Deliveries Met the Promised 10-Day Timeframe

A painting depicting the inaugural ride of the Pony Express, spectators watching man ride away on horse.
Credit: Ed Vebell via Getty Images

On April 3, 1860, crowds gathered in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, for the inaugural rides of the Pony Express.

As described in West Like Lightning, the St. Joseph mayor delivered a speech that foretold of the great things the Pony Express would do for the country. The audience cheered and waited for the climactic moment when the first rider, said to be Kentucky-born Johnny Fry, would lay the four-compartment mail bag known as a mochila across the saddle and set the race in motion from the service's eastern starting point.

The wait dragged on longer than expected, as the train bringing the mail was two-and-a-half hours late; scheduled to leave at 4 p.m. sharp, Fry didn't get out of the gate until approximately 7:15.

Nevertheless, he and the relay riders who assumed the load every 100 miles or so made up for lost time as they streaked the 1,800-plus miles across the remote frontierland of the West. The mail bags arrived at their final destinations on April 14, just over 10 days after the start of their separate journeys, proof that the Pony Express could indeed deliver the goods with its promise of a leaner, faster service.

Money and War Proved Ongoing Problems

A painting depicting a Pony Express rider being chased by Native Americans while delivering mail.
Credit: Ed Vebell via Getty Images

While Russell basked in the coast-to-coast excitement the Pony Express generated, its riders enjoyed a taste of celebrity in their respective territories. Like Fry, they were almost entirely young, white men in their late teens to early 20s, slight of build but renowned for their ability to race like their saddles were on fire.

Stories abounded of riders who got lost in the sweltering desert and in blinding blizzards, only to fight through the elements and complete their assignments on time. Others told of unimaginable feats of endurance, like the 380-mile round trip allegedly undertaken by "Pony Bob'' Haslam in less than two days.

But for all the inspiring tales, there were already problems afoot. Not many people were using the Express, as the initial cost of $5 per half ounce, which is around $165 in 2021, was too expensive for the average person. And by June 1860, the specter of its pending demise had already materialized when Congress authorized the development of a transcontinental telegraph line.

Meanwhile, tensions between settlers and Native American tribes in current-day Nevada had erupted into the Pyramid Lake War and halted mail delivery to California. Although major skirmishes largely died out by late summer 1860, both the riders and stationkeepers in isolated regions remained susceptible to ongoing guerilla attacks.

Reeling from the hits, Russell sought money owed to the company by the federal government. With none forthcoming, he instead made things worse by accepting bonds held in trust for Native tribes and using them as collateral to raise cash.

1861 drawing of a Pony Express rider passing the transcontinental telegraph line under construction.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

The Pony Express continued to enjoy a strong reputation for reliable service thanks in part to Russell's promotional acumen. Grasping the magnitude of the 1860 presidential election, he had extra relay stations installed along the route, enabling reports of Abraham Lincoln's Union-shattering victory to reach Placerville, California, in just five days.

But his financial mishaps ultimately fueled the company's demise: Russell was arrested on Christmas Eve 1860 on suspicion of embezzlement, and while he managed to get the charges dropped, a tarnished reputation doomed his chances of landing the lifeline of a national mail contract.

After the government awarded the deal to the Overland Mail Company in March 1861, Russell and Co. salvaged what they could of their business by permitting the use of the Pony Express route and overseeing its eastern portion — on the condition that control of the company would pass to Overland Mail by July 1 — and that the Pony would cease operations altogether when the transcontinental telegraph line was finished.

That moment came when the line connecting east to west was completed at Salt Lake City on October 24, 1861, eliminating the need for the intrepid riders who raced day and night through relentless weather and unforgiving terrain to service the public. Per West Like Lightning, the October 26 edition of Sacramento Union published a tribute that listed the Pony's official accomplishments, including a total of 34,753 letters carried over 308 runs and a distance of 616,000 miles, with just one mochila, which means “backpack” in Spanish, of letters reportedly lost.

The Pony’s Legend Endured Through the Tall Tales of Buffalo Bill Cody

A poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, showing cowboys on horses.
Credit: MPI via Getty Images

The Pony Express quickly faded from the public record, as the country was swept up in the Civil War and then in the rapid social and industrial changes that followed. But its memory came roaring back with the popularization of dime novels that celebrated American frontier life and its larger-than-life characters.

The bygone service got a major boost from Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured a Pony Express segment as part of his immensely popular touring Wild West shows that ran into the second decade of the 20th century. Cody claimed to have been a Pony man himself and the true owner of its long-distance riding record, though many historians agree that he was probably too young to have been prominently involved.

Regardless, it was the exciting and likely tall tales told by Cody, Fry, Haslam, and other riders that enabled the Pony Express to outlive its brief moment in time. Celebrated today through the creation of the National Pony Express Association, and the official designation of a historic trail of the National Park Service, the legend of the Pony Express endures.