The Pony Express

The most romantic enterprise connected with the Oregon Trail was the Pony Express. It was the conception of Senator Gwin, of California. In 1859, the only Overland Mail to California was by the Butterfield Route—from St. Louis and Memphis to Fort Smith; thence to El Paso; thence to Los Angeles, and thence to San Francisco. The Senator believed a shorter route could be found by the Oregon Trail and the road from Salt Lake City to the Pacific Coast. In the winter of 1859-60, W. H. Russell, of Russell, Majors & Waddell, was in Washington in connection with contracts his company then had with the Government. Senator Gwin sought him and discussed the plan of securing quicker communications with California. He suggested the Pony Express. Russell, Majors & Waddell were then running a daily stage from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, and they had contracts for transporting large quantities of freight over the same route. It was Senator Gwin’s idea to utilize the daily stage line in obtaining the better mail service for the Pacific Coast. Mr. Russell could not figure that the line would pay, but he agreed to submit to his partners the matter of its establishment. They believed it could not be made to pay expenses. The business already on hand required all their energies. To take on additional business only to lose money did not appeal to them, and Mr. Russell was turned down. This was a disappointment, for he had expressed the belief that the enterprise would be undertaken by his company. To carry a refusal to Senator Gwin would be a humiliation, and he made a last appeal to his partners to stand by him and establish the line. He rehearsed the arguments of the Senator, who, as an inducement, had given assurance of his efforts to secure a subsidy from the Government to aid in the payment of expenses if the line should prove unremunerative. The result was that the company determined to organize this shorter and quicker service to California—to establish the Pony Express. It is more than likely that the deciding factor in the matter was the hope that additional Government business would fall to the company as a consequence of setting up this new mail line to the Pacific Coast.

Having already suitable stations for this service between Missouri River points and Salt Lake City as a part of the equipment of the daily stage line, it remained to provide like facilities from the Utah point to Sacramento. This was accomplished within sixty days. More than four hundred horses were purchased. Two hundred additional station-keepers were employed. More than eighty express riders were hired and distributed along the line from St. Joseph to Sacramento. In this distance there were about one hundred and ninety stations. It was fixed that each rider should make thirty-three and one-third miles on one run changing horses twice after leaving his home station—about eleven miles for each horse. Both riders and horses often exceeded these distances in cases of emergency. The shortest time made on the Butterfield Route was twenty-one days from San Francisco. The schedule made out by Russell, Majors & Waddell for the Pony Express was ten days from St. Joseph to Sacramento—two thousand miles. Even this schedule was beaten on some occasions.

The express riders were paid by the month. Some of them received only fifty dollars, while others had three times as much—depending on the risk and responsibility of their assignments. All had their board in addition to their wages.

The regulations prepared for the government of the service by the Pony Express set the maximum weight of any mailbag to be carried at twenty pounds. The bag and mail usually weighed about fifteen pounds. The letters and messages were written on tissue paper. The minimum charge for carrying any letter or message was five dollars. If it weighed more than half an ounce there was an additional charge. The mail was carefully wrapped in oiled silk before being put into the bags. There were four packages of mail put into each bag.

The Government made a postage charge on the letters carried by the Pony Express. Each letter or message weighing a half-ounce was required to be enclosed in a ten-cent stamped envelope. The charge of the Company was in addition to the Government postage. The Company charge was expressed in stamps also, and these became known as “Pony Stamps.” Sometimes letters were carried which had as much as twenty-five dollars in “Pony Stamps” on them.

The first trip made by the Pony Express from an eastern point left St. Joseph, on April 3, 1860. Notice of the event had been published in the newspapers. Crowds had assembled, the town was decorated, speeches were delivered, and brass-bands had marched and played inspiring music. Upon the arrival of the train from Hannibal the mail was “made up” and taken by ferry to the Kansas shore of the Missouri. There was waiting there John Frey—later known only as “Pony Johnny”—with his coal-black racer. It was well past five o’clock, and the shades of night were settling. He mounted with the precious mail, replied to many a well-wisher standing about him, waived a parting to the assembled thousands on the Missouri shore, and plunged into the blackening night.

On the same day a scene somewhat like that at St. Joseph was enacted at Sacramento. That city was gayly decorated with bunting, flags and floral arches. Imposing parades headed by brass-bands were the order of the day. Speeches were made by the State officials, and artillery boomed from heights beyond the city. At the time set, the mail was delivered to Harry Roff, who mounted a white horse with his precious burden and left as on the wings of the wind. He had more daylight than his Eastern fellow-courier, and made two “stages” of his assignment—twenty miles—in fifty-nine minutes. He changed horses in ten seconds. At Folsom he changed again. He rode into Placerville—fifty-five miles—the end of his “run” in two hours and forty-nine minutes.

The mail carried away from St. Joseph by “Pony Johnny” reached Sacramento in nine days and twenty-three hours. That which left Sacramento arrived at St. Joseph in eleven days and twelve hours.

The Pony Express had a brief but stirring life. It was in existence about eighteen months, being succeeded by the telegraph line. It had aided in saving California to the Union, having carried President Lincoln’s inaugural address, March 4, 1861, from St. Joseph to Sacramento in seven days and seventeen hours.

Among the riders of the Pony Express was William F. Cody—Buffalo Bill. He was dashing, daring, efficient. “Pony Johnny” was in the Union army in the Civil War, and it is said that he was killed in the Baxter Springs Massacre by Quantrill. Many of the Pony Express riders were superior men and carved out fortunes for themselves in the Great West.

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