As America expanded westward, one pressing question arose again and again: How would the East communicate with the West and vice versa? The early pioneers were largely isolated from their friends and relatives back East, and the California Gold Rush with its unprecedented influx of new settlers magnified the problem.
To meet the needs of the forty-niners, the United States Post Office Department awarded a delivery contract to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. This service carried the mail by ship from New York to Panama. Canoes, pack mules, or trains then transported the mail across Panama to another ship waiting to deliver it to San Francisco. Theoretically this service should have been able to make deliveries in three or four weeks, but generally the trip took much longer than that.
And so in the 1850s several overland stagecoach routes through the West were chosen.
The Pony Express Route
One of the first was known as the Central Route and roughly followed the trail of the pioneers to California. It was a grueling 2,000-mile path through some of the most rugged and sparsely settled land in America. Starting in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Central Route crossed northeastern Kansas and southern Nebraska before swinging up to Fort Laramie and South Pass in Wyoming. From there it curved back down toward Salt Lake City, crossed the Sierra Nevada range, and ended in Sacramento, California.
Out of all the stagecoach routes that were awarded government mail contracts, the Central Route was the shortest, but it was also one of the most formidable. It ran through both deserts and mountains, and all along its winding course winter travelers faced perilous ice and blinding blizzards. For this reason, the route’s competitors insisted that, even though their more southerly routes were longer, they were more reliable because they could be followed year-round.
However, having so many mail routes so far south was not without drawbacks, especially in the tense days leading up to the Civil War. There was always the danger that an outbreak of conflict would sever the communications between East and West, but that was not all. California grew restless as news slowly trickled in over the long stagecoach routes, each delivery taking about 24 days to complete. Americans everywhere suspected that war was inevitable. Once it started, which side would California take? The answer would largely depend on the information that reached it.
The North was determined to keep California and its valuable mineral resources in the Union. The government quietly began to search for an efficient way to maintain contact between the two shores, even investigating camel mail service at one point. Then in 1859, Senator William Gwin of California had an inspiration. He introduced a bill that would establish an express service between St. Louis and San Francisco. Mail would be delivered weekly by a relay of horsemen over the Central Route.
The choice of the Central Route ensured the bill’s doom in the Senate. Gridlock between Northern and Southern senators ensued, and the project was tabled indefinitely. But Senator Gwin did not give up. If the government could not do it, perhaps entrepreneurs could.
Accordingly, Senator Gwin presented his idea to William Russell of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express (C.O.C & P.P.). The company was already using the route. All they would have to do would be to find the horses and riders and build a network of stations. It would be an inestimable service to the country and mostly likely a boon to the C.O.C. & P.P., as well. The company was already teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The Pony Express Beginning
Russell and his partners worked feverishly to prepare the Pony Express for action. The stations were constructed about 10 to 15 miles apart, the distance a horse could gallop without stopping. 400 station keepers were hired to man these buildings, care for the horses, and provide the riders with food and a place to sleep. Each of the station keepers received between $50 and $100 a month, good pay for the time.
Then there were the horses to be chosen—400 to 500 of them. The C.O.C. & P.P. sent out a delegation of experienced cowboys to select the fastest, hardiest horses they could find. They were small, wiry animals, averaging about 14½ hands high (58 inches at the shoulder) and not one of them weighing over 900 pounds. A wide variety of breeds and combinations of breeds were represented, from the speedy Thoroughbred to the range-tough mustang.
Finally the company advertised for riders. Contrary to popular notion, there is no evidence that the ad ever read, “Wanted. Young, Skinny, Wiry fellows not over 18,” and so forth. Many historians believe that in reality nearly anyone could ride for the Pony Express, provided that he could ride and that he would keep his oath to conduct himself honestly and to refrain from fighting, drinking, and swearing. Most of the riders, however, were small; Mark Twain called them “little bits of men, brimful of spirit.” They were attracted to the enterprise by the promise of adventure and by the unusually good pay, initially $50 a month, but later $100 or even up to $150 for riders who had braved exceptional dangers.
All was ready right on schedule and the Express got underway on April 3, 1860. In St. Joseph, Johnny Fry galloped off shortly after 7 PM with 49 letters, five telegrams, and several special-edition newspapers. In San Francisco, James Randall boarded a ferry bound for Sacramento, his horse laden with 85 letters. He arrived at 2:45 AM on the morning of April 4 to hand the mail off to Samuel Hamilton for the first eastbound ride. The Pony Express had begun.
The Pony Express Rider
The riders mostly struggled with fatigue and inclement weather. To make life a little easier for them, the station keepers took pains to provide them with filling meals and comfortable sleeping quarters. The horses, too, received high-quality grains from Iowa.
The mail was carried in reinforced leather boxes attached to a mochila (Spanish for “knapsack”). Each mochila could carry about 20 pounds of mail. The riders also carried a canteen, a leather-bound Bible, a horn to attract the attention of the station keepers, and two guns, either a brace of revolvers or one revolver and one rifle. In a later effort to speed up delivery times even further, the riders were reduced to one gun and no Bible.
Each rider galloped out from his home station for 10 to 15 miles before reaching the next way station. He hastily switched the mail to another horse and set off again, repeating the procedure until he reached another home station, a ride of 75 to 100 miles. There he was relieved by the next rider. By relaying in this fashion, a delivery could be completed in only 10 to 13 days.
The End of the Pony Express
The C.O.C. & P.P. was nearly defunct by the time the Pony Express started, and the additional expense proved to be more than the company could bear. Furthermore, the faster, less expensive transcontinental telegraph was completed on October 24, 1861. The Pony Express officially ended two days later after nearly 19 months in operation.
Interesting Pony Express Facts
- The longest ride on the Pony Express was a 380-mile round trip made by Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam in May 1860.
- The fastest delivery to California was made in 7 days and 17 hours despite heavy snows. The message was Lincoln’s inaugural address.
- The Pony Express cost about $100,000 to start and about $480,000 to maintain, compared to $90,000 in gross profits made during the entire time in operation.
- The Express rider was a prominent feature in William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s traveling Wild West show, which is how most Americans heard of it originally.
- The Pony Express proved the worth of the Central Route, which was then chosen as the course of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Pony Express History
Includes the Pony Express oath and a timeline (scroll down).
When the Pony Express Was in Vogue
The California point of view.
Pony Express Rider, 1861
Eyewitness to History account taken from Buffalo Bill’s autobiography.
Pony Express Mochila
A closer look from the Smithsonian.
Romance Versus Reality
Myth is separated from facts. From the Smithsonian.
Remember the Pony
Virtual exhibition presentation from the Smithsonian.
Pony Express Interactive Map
From the National Park Service.
Riding the Pony Express by Clyde Robert Bulla
Fast-paced historical fiction from a favorite author.
The Real Story of the Pony Express by Glenn D. Bradley
Public domain work.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Fastest Mail in the West
4-day lesson plan in this 30-page download from the National Pony Express Association. Great printables!
The Pony Express
Simple plan from EduPlace that focuses on math and mapping.
Oh, California: The Pony Express
Another lesson plan from EduPlace incorporating research and writing.
The United States Postal Service: A Unit Study
Tie-in with another one of our units that explores the history of U.S. mail service.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
The Pony Express Map
Large foldable map for notebook.
The Pony Express Lapbook
Free foldables from Homeschool Helper Online.
Pony Express Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.