the pony express -- 6/14/21

Today's selection -- from Wyoming: A History of the American West by Sam Lightner Jr. The brief, illustrious life of the Pony Express:
"In the mid-1850s, three business men, William Russell, William Waddell, and Alex Majors, formed a freight company that specialized in transporting hard goods over long distances. The business quickly grew, and within just a few years, it was employing thousands of people all over the country. They established a stage line following the Immigrant Trail, making it possible to cross the country in just over three weeks on public transit. Among other business ventures, the three men had managed to get a number of contracts with the federal government, including the movement of military freight across Wyoming during the Mormon War.

"In 1858, Waddell and Majors created a sub-company to the freight business, a stagecoach operation, called the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company (COCPPE). That firm was granted a non-exclusive United States Postal account expressly to carry mail from Missouri to California. With that, a letter that had previously taken three months to go across the country could now make the trip in three weeks. Waddell and Majors then went about improving that time by using the stage stops as infrastructure, adding riders and support buildings, and thus sped up the mail dramatically. By the summer of 1860, they had cut that three weeks down to ten days by what we know as the Pony Express.

"The Pony Express ran from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, a distance of about nineteen hundred miles. The majority of the route followed the Immigrant Trail and was broken into 185 segments, by relay stations, each separated by roughly ten or eleven miles of open country. The company hired around 180 riders, most of whom were under twenty years old and a few who were under fifteen. The key to moving fast was keeping the weight the horses had to carry low so, like race jockeys, each rider was required to keep his weight below 125 pounds. The riders' only freight was a 'mochilla,' a lightweight leather bag that held about twenty pounds of mail and documents, plus a revolver and a single water canteen. The company purchased four hundred horses as well, all picked for their speed over long distances and toughness in varied terrain and weather. Almost all the horses chosen were small (around fourteen hands) but hearty American Quarter Horses, purchased for an average of two hundred dollars a piece. There were roughly four hundred support personnel that maintained the relay stations and cared for the horses. Each man working for the company had to take an oath swearing to follow all company orders and to never drink or swear. In return, a rider could expect to make $100 to $150 a month, or three times the average salary for the time. Best of all, he would not be thrown into the carnage of Antietam, Vicksburg, Bull Run, or Gettysburg.

Pony express route April 3, 1860 - October 24, 1861

"Maintaining all of the infrastructure was not cheap, and as such the Pony Express was an expensive way to send a letter or package across the country. The starting price was $5 for half an ounce, then another dollar for each half ounce over that. By today's standards that is a bit expensive, but adjusting 2020 dollars to that of 1860, a five-dollar parcel cost the modern equivalent of $125, or four months of the average man's salary. This meant that the vast majority of the parcels carried were government documents or dispatches. That in mind, the company used the 1860 election as a marketing tool, putting together a special group of riders and horses that would cover the span much faster than the expected ten days. News of Lincoln's victory made it from Fort Kearney, Nebraska to Sacramento, California in seven and a half days.

"Pony Express Riders were expected to cover between sixty-five and a hundred miles a day, depending on the terrain and conditions. They would ride into a station, hop off their mount with the mochilla, then onto a fresh horse and speed on to the next station. Horses were saddled and kept at the ready by each station's personnel. Much has been made about the dangers of being a rider, but riders were actually safer than being settled in at one of the stations as the support personnel. The Cheyenne and Lakota harassed numerous stations along the route in Wyoming, and over a dozen support personnel were killed by Paiute warriors in Utah Territory.

"Despite the efficiency built into the relay system, it wasn't fast enough, and the Pony Express could not outrun technology. In June of 1860, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act, which called for private companies to bid on constructing a two-thousand­ mile telegraph line linking the East and West coasts. The government would come up with forty thousand dollars a year for a few years to get the operation started. Western Union had been putting in telegraph lines and stations east of the Mississippi, and it ended up being the only bidder. In the summer of 1861, Western Union created two sub-companies that worked from each end, in California and Missouri, and through Wyoming the lines were laid roughly following the Immigrant Trail. The wires were linked together on October 24th of that year near Salt Lake City, and the first message was sent from the chief justice of California to President Lincoln, assuring the president that California would stay faithful to the Union. The Pony Express, which despite extremely high costs had been losing money, lost their largest customer, in the federal government, the moment the electrical connection was completed. After delivering nearly thirty thousand parcels, the owners of the company shut down the courier service just two days after the first telegraph message. Despite the Pony Express's legendary status in United States history, it was only in operation for nineteen months."



Sam Lightner Jr.


Wyoming: A History of the American West


Sam Lightner


March 2020


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