The Surprisingly Short History of the Pony Express
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The Surprisingly Short History of the Pony Express

December 9, 2019

The Surprisingly Short History of the Pony
Express Given that most have still heard of the Pony
Express today, unlike so many other messaging companies long gone, you may think that the
Pony Express was once an integral part of communication between the East and West in
the United States. It turns out, this was never the case and the Pony Express was around
only for an extremely short amount of time. It all started on April 3, 1860, when two
riders, one in Sacramento, California, the other in St. Joseph, Missouri, simultaneously
embarked on a mirror-like mission – carry mail across the difficult and dangerous terrain
of the American West in the shortest amount of time possible. With each load (including
the riders) weighing no more than 165 pounds, the two men reached the others’ starting
point in record time: the westbound rider made it to Sacramento in just under 10 days,
while the eastbound man reached St. Joseph in 11.5. Together, these journeys marked the
beginning of the Pony Express. The brainchild of visionary businessman William
Russell, the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company (later to be known as the Pony Express)
was born of two desires: (1) people’s need to communicate and (2) a businessman’s need
for profit. By the 1850s, hundreds of thousands of Americans
had migrated to live west of the Rocky Mountains. Remember that by this time, California had
seen its great Gold Rush, the Mormons had fled religious persecution and were settling
in Utah in large numbers, and thousands of pioneers had made the arduous trek of the
Oregon Trail over the high mountains to homestead in the West.
Before the Pony Express, it could take up to 8 weeks for a letter from the eastern U.S.
to reach these westerners since most mail was shipped by boat. The few letters that
went overland only cut that time by half, and then only by taking a southern route for
mail service – out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, with stops in El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona,
before arriving in San Francisco, California, three to four weeks later. As you can imagine,
anyone who had a need for transcontinental communication was soon frustrated by the extraordinarily
long delivery time, and just as long for a reply.
Coinciding with the national desire for speedier mail service was Russell’s need for a new
source of income. Together with his partners, William Bradford and Alexander Majors, Russell
ran a stage coach and freight business out of Leavenworth, Kansas that by the late 1850s
was floundering. While on a trip to Washington, he pitched an idea to California’s Senator
William Gwin – to quickly deliver mail via an overland central route that followed the
Oregon and California trails. The key to his speedy delivery was to be a
system of hundreds of way stations where fresh horses and riders would be continuously substituted
all along the 1,800 mile trail. The route itself began in St. Joseph, Missouri, followed
the Platte and Sweetwater rivers, then crossed the Rockies via the South Pass to Salt Lake
City, Utah. From there, the riders crossed the deserts of Utah and Nevada, then went
over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and finally landed in California – all in about 10 days.
Hundreds of men were hired to manage the way stations where fresh horses (between 400 and
500 total) and riders (about 80) would be waiting to relieve a tired courier. The riders
themselves had to be small, under 120 pounds, and the mail bags were limited to 20 pounds,
all to keep the weight the horses had to bear to a minimum (which, with equipment and mail,
was capped at 165 pounds). The couriers, who were paid $25 per week (about
$640 today), were given a distinctive uniform of red shirt and blue pants, and at first,
they blew a brass horn to signal their impending arrival at a way station. This last was soon
discarded, however, when it became clear that the approaching hoof beats provided sufficient
notice. For maximum efficiency, a station was placed
every 10-15 miles for the riders to switch horses, and then after every 75-100 miles,
the couriers themselves would be replaced. The enterprise was intended to make a profit,
and Russell and his partners had hoped Uncle Sam would ultimately subsidize the venture.
It didn’t, and even though the Express initially charged $5 per half-ounce of mail (today’s
U.S. Post Office charges $0.49 for up to 13 ounces for first class delivery), the Pony
Express operated at a significant loss. Its end came quickly – just 19 months after
it started, when it was replaced with better technology. Beginning in June 1860 (only two
months after the first Pony Express ride), telegraph lines to connect the East and West
Coasts were begun by the Pacific Telegraph Company coming out of Nebraska and the Overland
Telegraph Company from California. On October 24, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph was
up and running and two days later, the Pony Express officially ended. A great idea, but
bad timing. Bonus Facts:
• Though not called spam back then, telegraphic spam messages were extremely common in the
19th century in the United States particularly. Western Union allowed telegraphic messages
on its network to be sent to multiple destinations. Thus, wealthy American residents tended to
get numerous spam messages through telegrams presenting unsolicited investment offers and
the like. This wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in Europe due to the fact that telegraphy
was regulated by post offices in Europe. • Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917) was a Pony
Express rider. Outside of riding for the Pony Express, he is estimated to have killed around
20,000 bison (often called “Buffalo,” even though they are not) in his lifetime.
For reference, one single hide in good condition would bring in about $3. Made into a winter
coat, it could bring in as much as $50. Ironically, Buffalo Bill was one of the most outspoken
supporters of plans to protect the bison populations through legislation. In the end, President
Grant vetoed the bill that would have protected the herds, due to the frequent small wars
the U.S. had to fight with the Plains Indians. By getting rid of the bison herds, it took
away the Plains Indians primary food and clothing source.
• A common myth surrounding American Bison is that there were massive herds before the
Europeans came to America, on the scale that Americans eventually encountered them at.
In fact, evidence suggests that the Native Americans naturally kept the bison populations
regulated by various means. After the European diseases wiped out most of the Native Americans,
the American Bison population exploded, becoming the most numerous large wild mammal on Earth
until eventually hunted to near extinction within a few centuries after this population
explosion. At their peak, it was estimated that there were nearly 100 million American
Bison in existence, only a few centuries ago. • The fastest delivery every made by the
Pony Express was President Lincoln’s inauguration address that was delivered in less than 8
days. • The first telegram sent, on May 26, 1844,
was from Samuel Morse (who invented the code) and read, “What Hath God Wrought?”

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  1. Since the narrator sounds British I'll forgive the narration. Next time you decide to post something about American History it might be in your best interest not to include a derogatory tone in your narration. The Pony Express was an integral part of American History and communication transportation. It proved that there was a faster way to transport messages than doing it by boat and by the Butterfield Trail (both taking about 30 days). It was that American spirit that helped to look for a different and more efficient way of sending and receiving mail.

    As a United States Citizen who is proud of my country's heritage it doesn't matter to me that the Pony Express only lasted about 18 months because, again, it shows American ingenuity at it's finest.

  2. It makes sense Buffalo Bill would want to pass bison protection legislation tough. As a prolific hunter he knew exactly what overhunting would do to the Bisons and as such he wanted to protect the game from going extinc. After all: what fun is hunting if there is no prey to slay?

  3. There was a short-lived TV show about the Pony Express to starring Josh Brolin and one of the Baldwin brothers. It was called The Young Riders.

  4. Wrong, the Mormons moved west to start an empire and NOT to avoid persecution. It was all about wealth and greed, period.

  5. I had opportunity earlier this year to follow a bit of the Pony Express route using the "loneliest Highway in America" US route 50. Ely Nevada to Austin,NV was the segment I drove.

    My trip was to a town 100 miles north of Austin that had been a crew change station of the Transcontinental railroad and now served Interstate 80. In traversing this more sparse route to the south I pondered the reasons for that choice rather than the Humbolt river route used by both the pioneer wagon trains and the railroads.
    It occurred to me that the southern route was quite a bit less likely to have washouts as the water requirements for the pony way stations were much less than the trains and wagon trains would want for their travel needs. An all season route for mail would be preferred as well.
    The wagon trains that did the passage first would follow rivers wherever they could, and plan their passage with the seasonal rains in mind. The trains which came later would add drainage and trestles needed to stay close to the rivers where larger communities were established, needing more water yet.
    I hope someday to discover this hypothesis to be confirmed for me.

  6. You have many of your facts incorrect. The telegraph was NOT the cause of the end of the Pony Express and Buffalo Bill did not ride for the Pony Express, he was only 14 at the time and not old enough for the company.

  7. Don't be naive to believe that Pony Express is an American invention.

    This system was used by the Persians, Romans, the Mongols and probably many other empires.
    2500 years ago, during Darius the great in Persia, couriers could travel 1677 miles in 7 days, on the "Royal road".

    Communication (and the flow of information in general) is one of the most important things in any empire. And replacing horses every 15 miles is a very simple and efficient solution for a such a great and common need.

  8. I own postage stamps to it .my husband tries anything with them I put his face in the Yellowstone county jail my living will of testament from 1978.written up recorded by my law firm will is Jones Blair is a judge in my grampa grampa moats Baptist church

  9. I sat looked at a deer and became sacred of eating wildest in 1966 Sunday 6:00pm then went in watched walt Disney his wonderful world he created I am named for .he is German

  10. Pony Express short. Memory immortal. This narrator's voice is irritating in style snd virtually dismissive tone and attitude.

  11. On the subject of horses (or ponies), have you ever wondered if mounted police have to clean up after their horses?

  12. It was short one year with the civil war my cousin rode horse delivering mail for the pony express with my great grampa moats being a civil war soldier

  13. 2 IN THE CHEST Performs a song called Pony Express.

  14. Pony Express rider Billy Tate was killed by Paiute Indians on his ride! When the Indians checked out his body (riddled with arrows) they were amazed at how young he was! Out of respect they didn't touch his body! They usually scalped their prey! And who knows what else? Billy Tate was a very brave kid! Must have looked 12!
    Gothenburg Nebraska has I believe the last Pony Express Way station (very cool to look at!) Log Cabin.

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