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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider c. 1861
U.S. Postal Service trademarked Pony Express logo

The Pony Express was a fast mail service crossing the North American continent from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, from April 1860 to October 1861. It became the west's most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph and was vital for tying California closely with the Union just before the American Civil War.

The Pony Express was a mail delivery system of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company of 1849 which in 1850 became the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company. This firm was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell.[1]

The original fast mail services had messages carried by horseback riders in relay across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. For its 18 months of operation, it briefly reduced the time for mail to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about ten days.[2]

By having a shorter route and using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches, the founders of the Pony Express hoped to establish their service as a faster and more reliable conduit for the mail and win an exclusive government mail contract. Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system could be built and operated continuously year round. Since its replacement by the telegraph, the Pony Express has become part of the lore of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of individual riders and horses over technological innovation was part of "American rugged individualism."

Its route has been designated the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Approximately 120 historic sites along the trail may eventually be open to the public, including 50 stations or station ruins.[3]

From 1866 until 1890, the Pony Express logo was used by Wells Fargo, which provided secure mail and freight services. The United States Postal Service (USPS) uses "Pony Express" as a trademark for postal services in the US. Freight Link international courier services, based in Russia, adopted the Pony Express trademark and a logo similar to that of the USPS.

April 1, 2010 will be the Pony Express' 150th anniversary. Located in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Patee House Museum, which was the Pony Express' headquarters, will be hosting events celebrating the anniversary.[4]



Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri [5]

A total of about 190 Pony Express stations were placed at intervals of about 10 miles (16 km) along the approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km) route.[6] This was roughly the maximum distance a horse could travel at full gallop. The rider changed to a fresh horse at each station, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch) with him. The employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds (10 kg) of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse. Included in that 20 pounds were a water sack, a Bible, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver.[citation needed] Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds (75 kg) on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, changed about every 75–100 miles (120–160 km), and rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a galloping horse.

It is unknown if riders tried crossing the Sierra Nevadas in winter, but they certainly crossed central Nevada. By 1860 there was a telegraph station in Carson City, Nevada. The riders received $25 per week as pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $1 per week.

Alexander Majors, one of the founders of the Pony Express, had acquired more than 400 horses for the project. These averaged about 14½ hands (1.47 m) high and averaged 900 pounds (410 kg)[7] each; thus, the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct in all cases.

Route of the Pony Express

Pony Express map from National Park Service.

The roughly 1900 mile route[8] roughly followed the Oregon Trail, and California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it roughly followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierras into Sacramento, California.

The route started at St. Joseph, Missouri on the Missouri River, it then followed what is modern day US 36—the Pony Express Highway—to Marysville, Kansas, where it turned northwest following Little Blue River to Fort Kearny in Nebraska. Through Nebraska it followed the Great Platte River Road, cutting through Gothenburg, Nebraska and passing Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, clipping the edge of Colorado at Julesburg, Colorado, before arriving at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From there it followed the Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock, Devil's Gate, and Split Rock, to Fort Caspar, through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then down to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City it generally followed the Central Nevada Route blazed by Captain James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859. This route roughly follows today's U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada and Utah. It crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, and the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe before arriving in Sacramento. Mail was then sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. On a few instances when the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland, California.


First Westbound Journey

The messenger delivering the mochila from New York and Washington missed a connection in Detroit and arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, two hours late [date??]. The railroad cleared the track and dispatched a special locomotive called the "Missouri" with a one-car train to make the 206-mile (332 km) trek across the state in a record 4 hours, 51 minutes — an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h).[9] It arrived at Olive and 8th Street — a few blocks from the company's new headquarters in a hotel at Patee House at 12th Street and Pennsylvania and the company's nearby stables on Pennsylvania. The first pouch contained 49 letters, five private telegrams, and some papers for San Francisco and intermediate points.[10]

St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson, William H. Russell and Alexander Majors gave speeches before the mochila was handed off. The ride began at about 7:15 p.m. The St. Joseph Gazette was the only newspaper included in the bag.

The identity of the first rider has long been in dispute. The Weekly West (April 4, 1860) reported Johnson William Richardson was the first rider (see Footnote 358 [1]).

This 25-cent stamp printed by Wells Fargo was cancelled in Virginia City, Nevada, and used on a revived Pony Express run between there and Sacramento beginning in 1862.
Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri
The postal service running pony logo used before 1970 was not inspired by the Pony Express as many believe.
Wells Fargo security patch

The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about a half mile (800 m) from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Johnny Fry is credited as the first westbound rider who carried the pouch across the Missouri River ferry to Elwood, Kansas. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river. In later rides, the courier crossed the river without a horse and picked up his mount at a stable on the other side.

The first westbound mochila reached its destination, San Francisco, on April 14, at 1:00 a.m. [11]


James Randall is credited as the first rider from the San Francisco Alta telegraph office, since he was on the steamship Antelope to go to Sacramento. At 2:45 a.m., William (Sam) Hamilton was the first rider to begin the journey from Sacramento.


Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern mail route was viable, Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Jeremy Dehut in March 1861, who had taken over the southern Congressionally favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line. Holladay took over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches.

Shortly after the contract was awarded, the start of the American Civil War caused the stage line to cease operation. From March 1861, the Pony Express ran mail only between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California.[12] Other telegraph lines connected points along the line and other cities on the east and west coasts.

The Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000.[13] In 1866, after the American Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.


Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo for its guard and armored car service. The logo continued to be used when other companies took over the security business into the 1990s. Effective 2001, the Pony Express logo was no longer used for security businesses since the business has been sold.[14]

In June 2006, the United States Postal Service announced it had trademarked "Pony Express" along with Air Mail.[15]

"Pony Express" is a trademarked name used by Freight Link international courier services company in Russia; their logo is similar to the one trademarked by United States Postal Service with "Since 1860" written under the image.[16]

Pony Express memorial statues are in Sacramento; Stateline, Nevada; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City; Casper, Wyoming; Julesburg, Colorado; Marysville, Kansas; North Kansas City, Missouri; and St. Joseph. The original and most famous is the one dedicated on April 20, 1940, in St. Joseph. It was sculpted by Hermon Atkins MacNeil. It is at City Hall Park. The city has rejected proposals to move it to the park opposite the stables.

Eagle Mountain, Utah, located on the original Pony Express Trail in Utah, has several locations and events that commemorate the Pony Express.

  • Pony Express Boulevard in Eagle Mountain, Utah may be the only street built on the original Pony Express Trail that is named after the Pony Express.
  • Pony Express Days, the annual community celebration of Eagle Mountain, are celebrated the first week of June of each year.
  • The Alpine School Districts's Pony Express Elementary School is located in Eagle Mountain and is a K-5 elementary school.
  • Eagle Mountain also has an official Pony Express monument on the site of the original Joe's Dug Out station on the Pony Express Trail.
  • Neighborhoods in Eagle Mountain are named after stations on the Pony Express Trail, such as: "Cold Spring", "Kennekuk", "Ash Point", and "Kiowa". A major road is named "Sweetwater", after another station, and a charter High School is named "Rockwell."
  • The term "pony express" has come to be used as a type of genericized trademark for other similar mail routes.

In popular culture

  • The Young Riders, a western television series created by Ed Spielman that presents a fictionalized account of a group of young Pony Express riders based at the Sweetwater Station in the Nebraska Territory during the years leading up to the American Civil War. The show ran on ABC from September 20. 1989 to July 23, 1992.
  • McGraw Hill and Amerikids USA[17] produced the game Pony Express Rider in 1996. In the game, the Pony Express helps the Union uncover the plans of the Knights of the Golden Circle.[citation needed]
  • The Pony Express is depicted in Spielberg's mini-series "Into the West" (2005).

See also





External links


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