The Pony Express

Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” And so ran the ad that heralded the opening of one of the most romantic episodes in American history, the Pony Express. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell started the service as an offshoot of their Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to compete with the Butterfield Stage Line and Pacific Mail Steamships by providing fast mail service between Missouri and California. Service started on April 3, 1860 when a horseman rode east from Sacramento and another west from St, Joseph. Initially the price of a letter was $5.00 per half ounce but that quickly fell to $1.00, still a huge sum in those days.

Frederic Remington, Coming and Going of the Pony Express

Pony Express riders

From Missouri the route followed the wagon trail along the Platte River to Fort Kearney, past Scott’s Bluff to Fort Laramie, along the Sweetwater River, through South Pass to Fort Bridger then on to Salt Lake City. Here the riders followed a new route called the Central Overland Trail that still crossed the Utah-Nevada desert, but used the Johnson Cutoff, a more direct path though the Sierra near Lake Tahoe. From Sacramento the mail pouch went by steamboat to San Francisco. Roughly 165 stations were spaced at intervals of about ten miles along the way. Here the riders, most under 18 years old, would change horses. Each man would ride for 75 to 100 miles a day. Around 400 horses were used, mostly morgans, thoroughbreds, mustangs and pintos and a large support staff was needed to man the relay stations.

Buffalo Bill Cody ca. 1875

The most famous of the Pony Express riders was William Cody, or Buffalo Bill as we know him now. Cody was only 15 when he signed up but quickly made a name for himself by riding nonstop for 322 miles across one of the most dangerous parts of the trail after his relief had been killed. It took him 21 horses and nearly 22 hours. The men rode night and day. In spite of Indian trouble, bad weather and accidents only one mail pouch was lost. The onset of the Civil War in March 1861 limited mail delivery to between Salt Lake City and Sacramento and on October 26, 1861, after the opening of the transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express officially closed. It had been a tremendous money loser and when the war ended the assets of the line, as well as those of the Butterfield Stage, were bought by Wells Fargo.

Buffalo Bill age 19


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