"I, ......, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God."
- Pony Express Rider Oath
Mark Twain, who saw the Pony Express in action first hand, described the riders as: "... usually a little bit of a man". Though small in stature, their untarnished record proved them to possess the hearts of lions. History would record that they were among the most durable horsemen to ever straddle a saddle. despite its brief history and troubled finances, the Pony Express has achieved a legendary status. Only one mail delivery was lost and 34,753 pieces of mail were sent across the continent by its colorful dispatch riders. At a time when the North and South of the nation were pulling apart, the Pony Express helped the East and West connect together. Etched into our collective memories will always be that solitary figure of the Pony Express rider dashing across the wide plains on horseback. His time may have been brief but his legend continues on.
The Making of the Pony Express
The idea behind the Pony Express—a horseback relay mail service—goes back at least as far as thirteenth-century China, where Marco Polo saw "post stations twenty-five miles apart." Oregon missionary Marcus Whitman proposed in 1843 using a relay of "fresh horses" to deliver mail from the Missouri to the Columbia in forty days. In 1845 it took President James K. Polk six months to get a message to California, which dramatically pointed up the need to improve communications in the expanding nation. After the Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of Americans to the far west, getting the mail between the nation's coasts became an increasingly important problem.
Nothing meant more to people who went west in the 1840s and 1850s than mail from home. The government had wrestled with the challenge of developing a transcontinental mail service since the War with Mexico. Congress established postal service to the Pacific Coast in 1847, and in 1851 set the rate for a half-ounce letter at three cents if it went less than 3,000 miles and six cents if it went more. Private contractors handled the business, which depended on huge subsidies.
The government struggled to provide an effective mail link to the west coast for the next decade. In 1855 Congress even appropriated $30,000 to investigate using camels to carry the mail from Texas to California. The camels proved impractical, but John Butterfield's Overland Mail Company provided mail service contracts on routes that took three to four weeks to get to California via stagecoach. Butterfield's main "ox bow" route left Fort Smith, Arkansas, and reached San Francisco via El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona Territory, crossing 2,800 miles of some of the toughest terrain in North America. Despite its length and the scarcity of water, no snowbound mountain blocked this route, and powerful Southern political interests kept most government subsidies on southwestern trails.
With the discovery of gold followed by statehood, the population of California exploded. Half a million Americans lived in the regions west of the rocky mountains. At that time, St. Joseph, Missouri, was the westernmost point which the railroad and telegraph had reached. It was the strategic starting point over the heart of the "great American desert" by way of the direct "Central" route to the west. Except for a few forts and settlements the route beyond St. Joseph was a vast, silent wilderness inhabited primarily by Indians. Transportation across this area on a year-round bases was believed impossible because of weather.
Mail normally took at least a month by boat. When carried by overland stagecoaches, mail between St. Louis and San Francisco took 24 days. This would be the same as if someone wrote you about their Thanksgiving dinner and you did not receive their letter until after Christmas (not much different as today!)
The people of California were eager for news from their many family and business connections back east. Increasing political tensions leading to the Civil War made it imperative to keep the far west, with its treasures of gold, in the Union.
With civil war threatening to close the southern routes, northern politicians wanted to keep the communication lines to California open. California Senator William Gwin had crossed the California Trail in 1854 with Benjamin F. Ficklin, "an enthusiastic supporter of closer communications with the East," who proposed that the government provide mail service using a mounted relay. Sensing an opportunity, William H. Russell of the freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell created the Pony Express almost by accident. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors were Missouri businessmen with vast experience in overland freighting and passenger service—and a great interest in government mail contracts. Their firm already provided mail and passenger service between the Missouri River and Great Salt Lake City. With the support of Senator Gwin but to the dismay of his partners, Russell committed to open a mail service on the northern route in April 1860. The company had sixty days to do the job.
Dates and Events
Click on the dates below for more information.
William H. Russell and U.S. Senator William M. Gwen meet to discuss establishing a 10-day mail service to California. Russell then met with Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, to form the Pony Express.
First ad placed for riders.
Pony Express begins operations with the first rider (Johnny Frey) leaving from St. Joseph, Missouri.
James Randall carries the first eastbound Pony Express mail from the Alta Telegraph Company, Montgomery Street, to the San Francisco wharf where it is placed on the steamer "New World" for transport to Sacramento.
First eastbound run (rider Sam Hamilton) by the Pony Express leaves Sacramento, California, at 2:45 a.m.
First Eastern mail arrives in Sacramento (rider Sam Hamilton).
First westbound mail to be routed overland between Sacramento and Oakland arrives in Benicia, California. Rider Sam Hamilton delivered the mochila to Thomas Bedford who carried the mail on to Oakland.
Westward building crew of the transcontinental telegraph project, under the direction of Edward Creighton, arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Eastward building crew of the transcontinental telegraph project, under the direction of James Gamble, arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Pony Express officially ceased operations.
Last run of the Pony Express completed.
Historical Significance of the Pony Express
Although in action for only 19 months when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph ended its operations, the Pony Express was of great historical significance. The Pony Express proved to the eastern establishment that the Central Route could be used by the railroads to bind our country together. In less than a decade the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific rails would meet at Promontory, Utah, to form the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
The ten-day delivery time of the Pony Express was a revolution in its day bringing political and social news to a hungry readership.
Buchanan's last message to Congress was delivered in eight days from St. Joseph to Sacramento. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States California knew about it eight days after the news had reached St. Joseph's telegraph terminal. Details of Lincoln's inaugural address covered the distance between St. Joseph and Sacramento in seven days, 17 hours! In eight days, 14 hours out of St. Joseph, the unionists and their foes in California knew that Fort Sumter had been bombarded.
The Pony Express can be credited with keeping California in the Union during the dark days preceding the civil war when there was a real threat that California would side with the Confederacy. There was some pro-secessionist sentiment in Benicia. Critical, was the question of General Johnston's loyalty to the Union, for he commanded the entire Department of California. Edmund Randolf, who was a Virginian loyal to the Union, told James McClatchey in 1861 that Johnston was disloyal and was going to turn the Benicia Arsenal's arms over to the rebellious south. McClatchey hurried a secret message by the new Pony Express to President Lincoln. Brigadier General Sumner, whose loyalty to the Union was unquestioned, was sent to relieve General Johnston. Before General Sumner arrived in Benicia, General Johnston resigned his commission and went to the South.
All through the spring and summer of 1861 the far west followed the tidings of the ebb and flow of battle, calls for volunteers, the Battle of Bull Run, and the lists of dead, wounded and missing. Because of the rapid communication afforded the military and the timely delivery of news of early Union victories, California and its gold stayed in the Union.
Financially, the venture did not pay off. Congress never got around to paying Russell, Majors & Waddell for services rendered during the Utah War. The firm had been surviving on loans made against its government debts since 1858, but the company was essentially bankrupt even when it launched the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company. (The C.O.C.&P.P. was also known to its employees as "Clean Out Of Cash and Poor Pay"). Russell counted on winning the overland mail contract, but Congress adjourned in June 1860 without taking any action. In desperation, Russell secured new loans using government Indian Trust Funds he did not own. The story became public in December 1860 and Russell was arrested. He eventually beat the charges, but the scandal spelled the end of the trail for Russell, Majors & Waddell.
With the country disintegrating, Congress finally appropriated money to support the overland mail after the succession of Texas closed the southern mail routes. But the contract went to the Butterfield company, which provided service west of Salt Lake using Wells Fargo and Company. The C.O.C.&P.P. controlled only the eastern half of the route, and the government contract ended with the completion of the overland telegraph.
Rumors about the firm's shaky finances were almost as numerous as its actual money problems. The May to June disruptions caused by the Paiute Indian War cost the company $75,000, and loses mounted as Indian conflicts in the Great Basin continued through the summer. To build public confidence, Russell, Majors & Waddell used the 1860 presidential election to provide a dramatic example of what the Pony Express could do. On November 7, a rider left the western end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearny with news of the election of Abraham Lincoln. Despite heavy snow, the mail reached Salt Lake in three days and four hours. A rider arrived at Fort Churchill, the eastern end of the telegraph line, in time to get the election results to the California newspapers by November 14, an impressive feat.
Although the Pony Express was an efficient mail service, it failed as a profitable enterprise. It is not know exactly how much the service cost Russell, but during its operation the company only grossed $90,141, or about the cost of purchasing horses for the service. By all accounts the Pony Express had lost $200,000 by the time it closed operations.
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