A History of the Pony Express: Christine’s Chronicles

By Christine Lorraine Morgan
~ first published Jan. 16, 2011 for helium.com/revised Feb. 14, 2023

The Pony Express and its brief 18-month existence carved a deep niche in history because it exemplifies the tumultuous spirit of the American pioneer. With riders as young as 11 years old, the legend of this well-executed mail service remains an integral thread in the tapestry of primitive communications technology.

Somewhere between smoke signals and the telegraph, Americans needed a reasonable way to communicate with family and friends. This was a time in history when the country was expanding, growing faster than technology, and spreading west in unprecedented numbers.

The Need

As gold-fever-stricken miners headed to California and Mormons migrated to Utah in the mid-1800s, the U. S. government encountered extreme difficulties with delivering mail from the east to the west. It took about a month for a letter mailed from New York arrive in California because it traveled south by sea, then by land via the Isthmus of Panama before heading north to California.

In an effort to streamline cross-country mail delivery, Congress appropriated $30,000 to buy camels in 1855. This ill-conceived move failed when it was deduced that just because camels could cross the Sahara Desert did not mean they were able to traverse the rugged southwestern United States.

The Planning

In early 1860, three men set up a bold venture that was designed to let the east and west communicate with each other in a more expeditious fashion. William Waddell, William Russell and Alexander Majors already had an experienced hand in the freighting business, so they cooked up a revolutionary concept to fill the government’s need for a speedy option for mail delivery. They named it the Pony Express.

It was quite an ingenious idea for its day, and it required meticulous planning to execute, but the three owners had a vision. They believed that, if they employed lightweight men, horses and satchels, the mail could be carried at a rapid speed and delivered across the country in about 10 days. Naysayers said it couldn’t be done, but they were proven wrong.

The Start

When the first Pony Express rider hit the trail on April 3, 1860, at 7:15 p.m. from St. Joseph, Missouri, there were around 157 stations about 10 miles apart set up along the designated route. The distance between stations was carefully selected because this was approximately the length a horse might gallop before becoming exhausted.

Each carrier was given a lightweight pouch called a mochila, a Bible, a revolver, a water sack, and a horn. The latter was blown to let the relay station master know it was time to get the next horse ready. The Pony Express line covered plains, mountains, and desert between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

The first mochila carried five telegrams, papers that were bound for San Francisco, and 49 letters. Maximum weight for riders was 125 pounds, they were paid $25 per week, and their shift ended after traveling between 75 and 100 miles. When compared to typical unskilled laborers who earned about a dollar week, $25 was a tremendous amount of money.

The Risks

Ads were posted across the country to entice riders to join the Pony Express. Information posted at wikipedia.com depicts this politically-incorrect recruitment advertisement: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

The importance of the mochila was emphasized to carriers, and the philosophy was that the precious mail satchel should survive even if horse and rider did not. Over its 18-month duration, various riders met with misfortune. Tales of the rough-and-tumble Pony Express route include:

  • A horse that arrived without a rider, who was presumed dead
  • A German rider who froze to death on the job
  • The hiring of 11-year-old Bronco Charlie Miller as a mail carrier
  • A rider who took a break and fell asleep in a blizzard, only to be awoken by a rabbit. This carrier said he would have most likely frozen to death if not for this life-saving forest creature.
  • A war with native Americans that resulted in numerous Pony Express employee deaths

The Riders

According to ponyexpress.org, this is the oath that riders were forced to take:

“I,………..,do hearby 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 liqours, 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.”

The actual identity of the Pony Express’ first rider has been disputed over the years, but many historical records indicate that his name was Johnny Frye.

The Pony Express’ most notorious rider was William Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, who signed on for the tedious task at age 15. He later assisted with the construction of a handful of way-stations.

The Horses

One of its founders, Alexander Majors, worked on gathering over 400 horses to start this exciting endeavor. Their weight only averaged about 900 pounds, so, even though the name Pony Express is not entirely accurate, the smaller horses that were used almost qualify the business title.

On the eastern portion of the trail, thoroughbreds and Morgans transported carriers. In the nation’s mid-section, pintos were used, and on the challenging western trail, mustangs were selected as the breed to best handle the rough terrain. These horses were acquired in Iowa, Missouri, California, and western territories.

Unique lightweight saddles that used less metal, leather and wood were designed and placed on the backs of these mail-carrying horses.

The Accomplishments

A record was set in 1860 when people in California learned that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president only days after this important event. According to ponyexpress.org, “November 7, 1860: Pony Express riders carried word of Abraham Lincoln’s election as President from Fort Kearney, Nebraska to Placerville, California in a record 5 days. This was considered one of the most significant accomplishments by the Pony Express.”

Thus, the Pony Express established a new, more time-sensitive standard for news delivery.

The Finances

Startup expenses for the Pony Express were estimated at around $70,000 to cover the price tag of 400-500 horses, employee wages, and over 100 relay stations.

At the start, the cost of sending a half-ounce letter was $5. This price had plunged to a mere $1 for the same letter by the end of the mail company’s operations. It’s estimated that the $1 rate in 1861 was equivalent to about $85 today, so even the reduced cost of using this horseback service was out of the price range for many Americans.

In the spring of 1860 a Paiute uprising near Pyramid Lake, Nevada, resulted in the death of 16 employees and about 150 horses that were lost or stolen. This brief war cost the Pony Express about $75,000 in equipment and livestock, which put a notable dent in its already tenuous finances. This conflict marks the only instance in which the mail service was not successful in all of its journeys.

When the Pony Express shut down, its final figures painted a bleak financial picture: About $90,000 was grossed, and $200,000 was lost. In 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, assets of the Pony Express were combined with the Butterfield Stage, and sold to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.

The End of the Line

As transcontinental telegraph lines connected more and more American cities, there was less need for mail delivery. By March of 1861, the Pony Express route had dwindled down to delivery between Sacramento and Salt Lake City.

The announcement that the Pony Express would cease operating was made only two days after the telegraph connected Salt Lake City to Sacramento on October 26, 1861.


To keep the light shining on the Pony Express and its memorable role in U.S. history, the Pony Express Museum is open to the public in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The original Pony Express trail has deteriorated over time for the most part, but short segments that are presumed to be traces of this historic route are still visible in California and Utah.

Presently, there are about 250 examples of Pony Express mail still around.

If those mail pieces could talk, they’d have some pretty wild tales to tell of the Pony Express and its brave, adventurous chapter in American history.

Although the actual Pony Express is no more, its name continues to live on in uncountable ways and places. One of them is pictured below, a long-established post-office business in Erie, PA named none other than: Pony Express.

The mural of the rider taking off on his horse in an expeditious fashion helps paint the exciting picture of the memory of this early American method of getting the U.S. mail to its destination.







About xtinethewriter

* Freelance Writer Xtraordinaire * Producer of 300+ youtube videos * Cellist and bassist * Over 4,000 photos on Google maps viewed 300,000,000 times * Army veteran stationed in Bangkok, Thailand * Creative director for trainumentary.com and pugrealitytv.com * Former Advertising Executive, REALTOR, TV Producer, and Majority Inspector of Elections for Millcreek's 5th Ward, Erie County, PA. Also check out trainumentary.com and pugrealitytv.com * See her complete video collection at: https://www.youtube.com/user/fishiesswimming
This entry was posted in christine lorraine, christine lorraine morgan, Christine's Chronicles, communications, family, history, humor, military, newsletter, outdoors, scenery, travel, trivia and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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