Pony Express: History, Route & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Pony Express is one of the fabled institutions of the Old West, but how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll explore the history and significance of the Pony Express.

The Pony Express

Why has the digital age become so important? It's because communication matters to us, and the speedier the communication, the better. We in the 21st century are far from the first people to appreciate this sentiment. In fact, there's a large portion of American history continually dedicated to trying to improve our methods of communication.

Several famous figures have emerged from this history, but perhaps none so much as the riders of the Pony Express. This overland mail delivery system promised to do the impossible: cut the time it took to get information from Missouri to California to a mere ten days. Although the Pony Express only lasted for 18 months before being shut down, it etched a permanent place in American cultural memory. Before the post office promised to deliver mail come rain or sun or snow, there was the Pony Express.

Poster for the Pony Express
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The Need for Speed

Let's start with the obvious question: why would anybody think this was necessary? In the 1850s, the United States was growing rapidly. Thousands of families had tramped across the Oregon Trail at its height in the 1840s. In 1847, the Mormons relocated their faith overland to Utah, and in 1849, the California Gold Rush inspired thousands more to make the journey. The West Coast was filling up quickly, and these people needed ways to stay in touch with the nation back east.

Private mail carriers popped up in California, but the mail could be long delayed in arriving. The federal government signed contracts with the Butterfield Overland Company to transport mail from Missouri to Texas, but they were often subject to Comanche and Apache raids. This route was also caught up in growing tensions between the North and South, and as the Civil War drew closer ,it was clear that such mail lines would become contested.

By 1860, William Russell of the Russell, Majors and Waddell freight and stage company was proposing a new system, one in which a relay system of riders would transport mail quickly across a northern route. Russell secured the government contract before discussing it with his partners, leading Majors and Waddell to a certain level of shock. Nevertheless, the three hastily established the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company to handle the new enterprise. The Pony Express was underway.

How It Worked

Russell, Majors and Waddell planned out a route running from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. The first leg of the journey would follow the roughly defined Oregon Trail from Missouri through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. From there, the route split off and ran through Nevada to Sacramento or San Francisco. The first riders embarked on this route in April of 1860.

Map of the most common Pony Express route
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The company promised that they could complete this 1,800-mile route in ten days. That's roughly 180 miles a day. The only way to do this was for riders to travel at top speeds, and to do this, they needed plenty of fresh horses. Around 190 stations were built along the route, where riders could stop and change horses before galloping off towards the next station. The average Pony Express rider changed horses every 10-15 miles, and traveled 90-120 miles per day.

Stamp from the first set of mail carried by the Pony Express
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Legacy and End

The exploits of the Pony Express riders quickly became the stuff of legends. Rider Pony Bob Haslam completed a 380-mile journey in a single run through warring Paiute country in 1860. Young men like ''Buffalo'' Bill Cody rode dozens of miles at a time, participating in a legend that would define their reputations for the rest of their lives. It was grueling and dangerous work, and there were riders who died when their horses tripped over the rough terrain.

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