Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Pony Express

*Photo courtesy National Park Service: Fairbanks Pony Express Monument, SLC Utah

The Pony Express seared its hot brand deep into the naturally tough hide of the Western United States-- its mark, a visible reminder of a day when men were tough and comforts were scarce. The Pony Express filled a critical gap in East to West-coast communication as the Civil War loomed, but its existence was brief and it bankrupted its founders. San Francisco bankers and business men were frustrated at the minimum48 day turnaround for communication to the East. Answering this demand, the Pony Express cut in half the normal 24 or more-day trip by the Overland Mail Company stage line to St Joseph, Missouri where they could get telegraph service. For $5 one way, the Pony Express could hustle your message, written on very fine tissue, over the 1800 mile trail and do it in 10 days.

The Pony Express lasted 19 months. Each day, riders as young as 11 and as old as 40, averaged sixty hard miles and six ponies a day. They had to brave the weather (including winter), mountain passes, hostile Indians, outlaws, and the emptiness of the early West, yet only one mail-pouch (called a mochilla) was ever lost, and one rider killed by hostile Indians. The mail saw an average of 3 riders, 18 horses, and 180 miles each day. It ran 24/7. Rain or shine, snow or mud, heat or draught--the mail always got through. One of the primary successes of the Pony Express was proving that year round passage through our nation's middle was feasible.

This legendary help-wanted ad reputedly in a California newspaper read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Seventy-five men, none of them weighing over one hundred and ten pounds, were engaged as riders, being selected on account of their bravery, their capacity for deprivation and their horsemanship, as well as for their shooting abilities and their knowledge of the craft and the manner of attack of the Indians.

Pony Express founder, Alexander Majors, was a religious man and resolved "by the help of God" to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a Bible and required this oath:
"While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services."

Sir Richard Burton who, in 1860, journeyed the full length of the Pony Express trail and stopped at most of the stations made the following observations:
"His (Alexander Majors) meritorious efforts to reform the morals of the land have not yet put forth even the bud of promise. He forbad his drivers and employees to drink, gamble, curse, and travel on Sundays; he desired them to peruse Bibles, distributed to them gratis; and though he refrained from a lengthy proclamation commanding his lieges to be good boys and girls he did not the less expect it of them. Results: I scarcely ever saw a sober driver; as for profanity-the western equivalent for hard swearing they would make the blush of shame crimson the cheek of the old Isis bargee; and, rare exceptions to the rule of the United States, they are not to be deterred from evil talking even by the dread presence of a lady."

Destined to be temporary, the hard-riding Pony Express, a short enterprise for its owners, galloped long into the persona of the wild West.

eds. note: Some inconsistencies exist in the reports of the numbers of men hired and horses purchased--even from the most reliable sources. Click on any of the links in the story or below for more reading. (the annual re-ride)


Pineapple Princess said...

Orphans preferred?!!! We take it all for granted don't we. Thanks for reminding us of the sacrifices of those who went before.

Great read.

Wow, I wonder what they would all think of email!

Tamster said...

Yeah, they'd probably be more than amazed and awed by what we have now. I thought that orphan thing was interesting too. I'm also surprised that there was only one death and that it only lasted 19 months; I hadn't realized it was that short-lived. It is interesting that something that short-lived has made such a long-lasting mark on history. Thanks, Paul. :-)

Anonymous said...

An additional Web source for information on the Pony Express
is "" Larry
Carpenter, Corresponding Secretary
National Pony Express Association, Pollock Pines, California.

Paul said...

Hi Larry,

I've added your link. Thanks for the interesting compilation.


Paul said...

Another interesting side note: there is a group that re-enacts the pony express ride every year--they even ride as quick as they can through Salt Lake City, following the route as close as they can. Every year, the group takes turns covering various segements of the route. One participant told me they don't love it when its their turn to do the I-80 segement through Parley's canyon.

Here's another link:

Wendy in Alaska said...

Paul, are you missing all the research from your college days? What fun you must be having because there are no awaiting grades or deadlines.

Nice read. Keep em coming

BonBon said...

What I like to think about is the sense of dedication they had.

I also have wondered what they would think of all the comforts we have these days. They sure were a lot tougher back in those days.