If you’re a business man sending employees on a mission through the depths of the Wild West, alone, would you prefer to send someone with a family who will wail and moan (and sue?) should anything happen to him; or an unattached soul, say, an unmarried orphan?
The Pony Express was a genius mail system bridging a gap from Missouri to California. In the mid-1800’s, trains and telegraphs covered the geography from the East Coast to central lands, but there was nothing out to Gold Rush territory. And the people there demanded faster delivery of the mail. Enterprising folk stepped up to the challenge and invented the Pony Express.
St. Joseph, Missouri
During the Western Expansion, more people left St. Joseph MO than any other city on the Missouri River. That, and political persuasion, made it the city to host the Pony Express.
St Jo Mo (as they adorably call themselves) has a stellar Pony Express museum with knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff.
How Long Did Mail Delivery Take?
The journey consisted of two overarching legs (with sub-jaunts on the way). From the East Coast to Missouri letters were delivered by train. Or you could pack a lot of information into a few words via telegraph. Then both the letter and telegraph had to traverse from Missouri to California–but there were certainly no roads; and trains hadn’t yet been expanded, nor the telegraph.
Boats along the rivers took up to six months. Stagecoaches took 25 days. The Pony Express promised (and almost always delivered) 10 days spring-through-fall and 12-16 in winter. This meant the letters from family were actually current.
Building a Business–in Three Months
The Pony Express hit the ground running. (pun intended)
- 190 stations were chosen or built along the nearly 2,000-mile route.
- 400 horses were acquired, chosen for speed (of course)
- 80-100 riders were hired
- station keepers were hired to make sure provisions, mail, and more importantly the horses weren’t stolen
- stock tenders were hired to handle the horse care: blacksmithing, grooming, feeding, overall health.
To recruit riders, the company placed ads in the New York Herald and Missouri Republican newspapers.
Who Were These Orphans?
Well, they were young. Lore has it that the youngest was 11 years old. My niece is 11. She can kinda walk on the balance beam.
Most documentation says that 19 was considered too old. Remember that people died at younger ages than we do today–the interweb says the life expectancy was 39.5. But there are records of riders who were 40. They were livin’ on the edge. Literally, it seems.
The riders had to weigh less than 125 pounds, because the horses could only carry 165 total. Add 20 from the mail, and the rest from the saddle, water, and the mandatory bible and you’re at limit.
They signed an oath, and couldn’t drink, smoke, cuss, or gamble. The tour guide didn’t say anything about going to a brothel… I’m just saying. (Want to learn an interesting tidbit about brothels? Of course you do! Read on…)
I can’t fathom the bravery. They were TEENS riding fast, alone, and weathering, well, weather, tornadoes, buffalo stampedes, robbers, and Indians. (no political statement about Indians, it was the way of the day)
The Relay Race of the Pony Express
The horses got more rest than the human riders. Which in some ways make sense – they WERE the ones running. But it took a physical toll on the men, too.
The horses were switched out every 10-15 miles. Recall that there were 190 stations along the route: that’s what they were for. The rider had just two minutes to get a drink, go to the bathroom, and switch the mailbag to the fresh horse. Why SUCH a rush? Couldn’t they have say, three minutes?
Riders were given a rest every 75-120 miles. Rider A would hand off his mailbag to rider B, who would continue on the route.
They rode at 10 mph. We walk at 2.5 mph. The fastest run of the Pony Express was to deliver Lincoln’s inaugural address–it took 7 days and 17 hours.
Girls pined after these rugged and accomplished riders, but clearly they had no time to stop. Legend has it that to adapt their offerings, the girls stopped making cakes and instead invented donuts–something the men could grab while on the run. Think they grabbed anything else while on the run? Oh right, they took an oath. Wink, wink.
Everything Matters When Delivering the Mail
Since the horses had weight limits, so did the paper. No more fancy stationery–they went to onion-skin paper. In some cases, thinner is better. It was in turn wrapped in oil skin (I don’t know what that is and the name scares me) to protect it from the weather.
Letters were stamped with the Pony Express logo and date, both upon receipt at a station and upon delivery. At the Museum, you get to stamp, too!
The mail carrier was called a “mochila.” It was a four-pocket saddle that sat on top of the riding saddle. The pockets were called “cantinas.” Three of them held letters and telegrams, and they were locked for the entire ride. The only two keys were at either end of the route. The fourth pocket was open to pick up military dispatches.
When the Pony Express closed, all of the mochilas were returned but one–lost in the Colorado River. No robbers ever got a hold of one. But sadly, no one knows if any still exist. Maybe there’s one in a barn or attic somewhere. This is a photo of a reproduction.
The First Ride
On April 3, 1860, riders left both Sacramento CA and St. Joseph MO. The rider from St. Jo had 49 letters, 5 telegraphs, and a smattering of newspapers.
There was fanfare as each rider set off, and throngs stopped to meet them along the way. You may be thinking, why were people so excited? For comparison, think of today’s hooplah over the new iPhone. And we already have the ability to communicate. Makes their enthusiasm more pertinent, doesn’t it?
The Last Ride
The Pony Express only lasted 19 months. The telegraph made it out to California. The need for letter delivery was still strong, as the railroad wouldn’t make it for seven more years, but one of the three partners who developed the Pony Express got into some shady dealings and the company was bankrupt and ashamed. So literally the day after the telegraph was connected and confirmed, they hung their hats.
Whatever dismay they felt, the Pony Express logged 650,000 miles in less than two years and became part of American legend.
So how, if it only lasted 19 months, do we know so much about the Pony Express? Buffalo Bill Cody was one of the riders and glorified it in his Wild West Shows.
Embarrassed by their dissolution, the Pony Express partners destroyed all paperwork about the company, so we have no official documentation about the planning, locations, pay, riders, events, etc. The information is only known through tales passed down, and the riders’ letters and journals. Poetic that their own letters tell the tale of letter delivery in the Wild West.
If you were embarrassed of a failure, would you destroy everything related to it?
Disclosure: Thank you to the Missouri and St. Joseph Tourism Bureaus for facilitating my complimentary visits to this museum. And a special thank you to the amazing people at the Pony Express Museum for their gracious and enthusiastic welcome, unexpected gift of the tshirt, and unnecessary gift of the postcards.