The Pony Express
BY J. M. Guinn
With our daily newspapers before
breakfast, chronicling the history of the whole world for the
previous day, it is like going back into the Dark Ages to take a
retrospect of California as it was fifty years ago.
Then Eastern State news a month old,
and European dispatches that had voyaged on two oceans for 50
days or more, were the latest, and, on the arrival of the
steamer, the San Francisco papers got out extras, and prided
themselves on their enterprise as news disseminators. When mail
matter was sent out from the metropolis of California to the
mines in the north and the cow counties in the south, it often
took it another month to reach its destination.
It is of record that one mail from
San Francisco for Los Angeles, in 1851, was fifty-two days in
reaching the old pueblo; and four weeks was not uncommonly slow
time. The Star of October 1, 1853, under the head of
"Information Wanted," wants to know "what has become of the mail
for this section of the world." "Some four weeks since," says
the editor, "the mail actually did arrive; since then, two other
mails are due, but none have come."
Again, the Star of November 20, 1852,
says the latest date's from San Francisco are October 28 now 23
days old. Of the results of the State election that took place
three weeks ago, we are in the most profound ignorance, having
received returns from no county in the State except Los Angeles.
Think of the protracted agony of a candidate still waiting three
weeks after the election to know his fate!
While the newsmongers, the merchants
and the candidates suffered from the mail's delay, how was it
with the honest miners, in the lonely mining camps? No novelist
or sentimentalist has written of the hope deferred that made the
heart sick of many an Argonaut and all because of the mail's
uncertainty. Isolated from the world in mountain mining camps,
where no mail reached them, the miners of the early '50's were
dependent upon private carriers, who brought them at irregular
intervals the few letters that ran the gauntlet of ocean
disasters, careless postmasters and reckless stage drivers.
As the Argonaut, in most cases, was a
young man, fresh from home, who had left a girl behind him to
await his return with a fortune, the anxiety with which he
watched for a letter from home to know whether his girl was
still waiting for him or whether some other fellow was waiting
on her, was truly pathetic. Home-sickness killed many an
Argonaut, and the defective mail system of the early '50's ought
to have been indicted for manslaughter. I know we laugh at a
homesick individual, but a genuine attack of the disease is no
laughing matter. The medical reports of the Union army during
the Civil War attribute no less than 10,000 deaths to nostalgia,
the medical name for home-sickness.
As the population of the Pacific
Coast increased, the demand for quicker mail service became more
imperative. The scheme of importing camels and dromedaries and
using them in carrying the mail and express across the plains
was agitated. It was claimed that the camel, filling his
internal water tank out of the Missouri River, could strike
straight across the waterless wastes of New Mexico and Arizona,
stopping occasionally for a meal of sage brush, and taking a
drink at the Colorado river, he could trot across the Colorado
desert and deliver the mail in the California coast towns
fifteen days from New York.
As some of you will recollect, the
camels did come to the coast in 1857, but they were not
delivering mail; they were carrying freight, and were not much
of a success at that. The Butterfield stage route was
established in 1858. It was the longest stage line in the world.
Its western terminus was San Francisco, and its eastern termini
Memphis and St. Louis. It brought the eastern news in 20 days.
That was such an unprecedented quick time that the Los Angeles
Star rushed out an extra edition and proposed a hundred guns for
the overland stage. But the people wanted faster time, and the
Pony Express was established in 1860. I take the following
graphic description of its first trip across the plains from the
Kansas City Star:
''An important event in the history
of St. Joseph, Mo., was the starting of the 'Pony Express' on
April 3, 1860. The facts and incidents connected with this ride
of 2,000 miles to San Francisco form a most interesting chapter
in the story of early western progress.
"In 1859 St. Joseph was the western
terminus of railroad communication. Beyond the Missouri river
the stage coach, the saddle horse and the ox trains were the
only means of commerce and communication with the Rocky
Mountains and the Pacific Slope, across a space now traveled by
a dozen vestibule trains daily.
"In the winter of 1860 a Wall street
lobby was in Washing-ton trying to get $5,000,000 for carrying
the mails one year be-tween New York and San Francisco. The
proposition was nothing more or less than an attempt to bunko
the government. William H. Russell, who was then interested
largely in freighting business on the plains, backed by the
Secretary of War, resolved to give the lobby a cold shower bath.
Russell offered to wager $200,000 that he could put on a mail
line between San Francisco and St. Joseph that could make the
distance, 1,950 miles, in ten days. The wager was accepted, and
April 8, 1860, was fixed upon as the date for starting.
"Air. Russell summoned his partner
and general manager of business on the plains, A. B. Miller, for
many years a prominent citizen of Denver, told what he had done,
and asked if he could perform the feat. Miller replied, 'Yes,
I'll do it, and I'll do it by pony express.'
"To accomplish this service. Miller
bought 300 of the fleetest horses he could find in the West, and
employed 125 brave and hardy riders. These men were selected
with reference to their light weight and courage. It was highly
essential that the horses should be loaded as lightly as
possible, because some sections of the route had to be covered
at the rate of 20 miles an hour.
"The horses were stationed from 10 to
20 miles apart, and each rider was required to ride 75 miles.
For each change of animals and the transfer of the United States
mails two minutes were allowed. Where there were no stage
stations at proper distances, tents capable of accommodating one
man and two horses were provided. Indians, it was supposed,
would sometimes give chase, but their cayuse ponies could make
only sorry show in pursuit of Miller's thoroughbreds, many of
which could make a mile in 1 minute and 50 seconds.
"All arrangements being completed for
this great under-taking, a signal gun on a steamer at Sacramento
proclaimed the meridian of April 8, 1860, the hour for starting.
At that signal Mr. Miller's private saddle horse, Border
Ruffian, with a brave rider in the saddle, bounded away toward
the foothills of the Sierra Nevada's. The first 20 miles were
covered in 49 minutes, and this feat was repeated until the
mountains were reached. The snows were deep in the mountains,
and one rider was lost for several hours in a snow storm. After
Salt Lake Valley had been reached, additional speed became
necessary to reach St. Joseph in time. From there on, however,
all went well until the Platte River was to be crossed at
"The stream was swollen and running
rapidly, but the horse plunged into the flood, only, however, to
mire in quicksand and drown. The courier succeeded in reaching
the shore with his mail bag safe and traveled ten miles on foot
to reach the next relay. The journey from this point to within
60 miles of St. Joseph was made quickly and without incident.
Johnny Fry, a popular rider of his
day, was to make the finish. He had 60 miles to ride, with six
horses upon which to do it. When, the last courier arrived at
the 60 mile post out from St. Joseph, he was one hour behind
time. A heavy rain had set in and the roads were slippery.
"Fry had just 3 hours and 30 minute
in which to win. It was the finish of the longest race and
largest stake ever run in America.
"When the time for Fry's arrival was
nearly up, at least 5,000 people stood upon the river bank, with
eyes turned toward the woods from which the horse and its rider
should emerge into the open country in the rear of Elwood, one
mile from the finish.
"Tick, tick!' went hundreds of
watches. The time was nearly up. Only seven minutes remained.
"Hurrah!' A shout goes up from the
assembled multitude. The courier comes! A noble little mare
darts like an arrow from the bow and makes the run of the last
mile in 1 minute and 50 seconds, landing upon the ferryboat off
Francis Street with five minutes and a fraction to spare.
"The story of this remarkable feat is
only a scrap of history now. A few of the riders who
participated in the great race are still living, and hundreds of
old timer's recall the scenes and incidents that marked the
finish of the splendid contest against time. It was a great
event in the history of St. Joseph.
"It was five days prior to the
running of the great race for the $200,000 wager that the first
Pony Express left St. Joseph for the west. At 7:15 p. m. on
Tuesday, April 3, 1&60, a rider received at the United States
Express office in St. Joseph his light burden of dispatches, and
amid the cheers and huzzas of the vast throng assembled to
witness the event darted off across the plains of Kansas and on
into the distant west. This event created so much excitement in
St. Joseph that the little pony was almost robbed of his tail,
the crowds of people assembled at the starting point being
desirous of preserving a memento of the flying messenger."
The rider at the western end of the
route, who reached Sacramento April 13, 1860, was accorded even
a more enthustic reception, although no bet was pending on the
time of his arrival. The news of his coming was heralded with
great enthusiasm, and both houses of the Legislature adjourned
to welcome him. He came in time for the regular afternoon
steamboat, and the horse and the rider, with the mail bag, just
as they had come into Sacramento, took passage on the boat and
arrived at the wharf in San Francisco at 1 o'clock on the
morning of April 14th, with the mail, just 10½ days from St.
Joe. They were met by an enthusiastic crowd with a band and
torches. A procession was formed; and with music and continuous
cheers they were escorted to the post office. The quickest time
ever made between San Francisco and New York by overland mail
via the Buterfield route was 20 days. The Pony Express shortened
this time to 10 days.
The Pony Express was a semi-weekly
service. Fifteen pounds was the limit of the weight of the
waterproof mail bag and its contents that twice a week, from
each end started on its long journey.
The postage or charge was $5.00 a
letter of half an ounce. The line never paid. In fact, its
owners operated it through-out its existence at a loss. The high
charges necessitated by the cost of keeping up relays of men and
horses prevented it from being extensively patronized. It seldom
carried over 200 letters, and sometimes not more than 20. It
reduced the time for letters from New York to San Francisco to
13 days, and telegraphic dispatches to 9 days, at first; and
later on to 8 days. Messages were sent to Fort Kearny, the
extreme western station, and taken up by the rider as he came
along. The messages were re-dispatched from Carson City, which
was connected by telegraph with San Francisco. Letters and
messages were written on a tough page of tissue paper, very thin
and light, which was specially prepared for the express company.
The stamp, now very rare, was embellished with a picture of a
man on horseback spurring at a gallop across the plains. During
the exciting times at the breaking out of the Civil War in 1861,
the pony express was the sole reliance of the whole Pacific
Coast for the quickest news. The Indians on the western end, and
the Confederates on its eastern end had destroyed the
Butterfield stage line. It was to the Pony Express that everyone
looked for the latest intelligence.
Although the enterprise failed to pay
expenses, to the praise of Russell and Majors, be it recorded,
they kept it up until the overland telegraph was completed, in
The Pony Express required to do its
work nearly 500 horses, about 190 stations, 200 station keepers
and 80 riders. Each rider usually rode the horses on about 75
miles, though sometimes much greater distances were made. One
rider, Robert H. Haslam, or Pony Bob, as he was usually called,
on one occasion made a continuous ride of 380 miles within a few
hours of schedule time. Another Wm. F. Cody, now famous as
Buffalo Bill, rode in one continuous trip 384 miles without
stopping, except for meals and to change horses. The greatest
feat performed by the Pony Express was in carrying President
Lincoln's inaugural message, in March, 1861. The time on that
trip from the Missouri River to Sacramento was 7 days and 17
hours, which is perhaps the quickest time, considering the
distance, ever made on horseback.
Majors, the originator of the Pony
Express, a veteran of 70 years' pioneering on the frontiers,
died a few weeks ago. He was a man who had done much for his
fellow men. He was a public benefactor. Yet a few lines in an
obscure corner of the daily newspapers told the story of his
life, at least, it told all the reporter or editor of the paper
knew of it ; and hundreds who read it had no idea what the Pony
Express was. Most of the riders who forty years ago braved the
perils of mountain and desert and savage beast and more savage
men, in lonesome rides of the Pony Express have crossed the
divide between time and eternity.
The following graphic description of
the pony rider on his journey is taken from Mark Twain's
"Roughing It." Mark saw him in all his glory on his ride, when
he (Twain) crossed the plains in the overland stage in 1861:
"In a little while all interest was
taken up in stretching our necks watching for the pony rider,
the fleet messenger who sped across the continent from St. Joe
to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight
days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh and
blood to do! The pony rider was usually a little bit of a man,
brimful of spirit and endurance. No matter what time of the day
or night his watch came on, and no- matter whether it was winter
or summer, raining, snowing, hailing or sleeting, or whether his
beat was a level, straight road or a crazy trail over mountain
crags and precipices, or whether it led through peaceful regions
or regions that swarmed with hostile Indians, he must be always
ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind. There
was no idling time for a pony rider on duty. He rode fifty miles
without stopping by daylight, moonlight, starlight, or through
the blackness of darkness, just as it happened. He rode a
splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like
a gentleman, kept him at his utmost speed for ten miles, and
then, as he came crashing up to the station where stood two men
holding fast a fresh, impatient steed, the transfer of rider and
mail-bag was made in the twinkling of an eye, and away flew the
eager pair and were out of sight before the spectator could get
hardly the ghost of a look. Both rider and horse went flying
light. The rider's dress was thin and fitted close; he wore a
roundabout and a skull cap, and tucked his pantaloons into his
boot-tops like a race rider. He carried no arms, he carried
nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage
on his literary freight was worth five dollars a letter.
"He got but little frivolous
correspondence to carry, his bag had business letters in it,
mostly. His horse was stripped of all unnecessary weight too. He
wore a little wafer of a racing saddle, and no visible blanket.
He wore light shoes or none at all. The little flat mail packets
strapped under the rider's thighs would each hold about the bulk
of a child's primer. They held many and many an important
business chapter and newspaper letter, but these were written on
paper as airy and thin as gold leaf, nearly, and thus bulk and
weight were economized. The stage coach traveled about a hundred
to a hundred and twenty-five miles a day of 24 hours; the pony
rider about 250. There were eighty pony riders in the saddle all
the time, night and day, stretching in a long, scattering
procession from Missouri to California, forty flying eastward
and forty toward the west, and among them making four hundred
gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and see a deal of
scenery every single day in a year.
"We had had a consuming desire, from
the beginning to see a pony rider, but somehow or other all that
passed us, and all that met us managed to streak by in the
night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift
phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out
of the windows. But now we were expecting one along every
moment, and would see him in broad daylight. Presently the
driver exclaims: 'HERE HE COMES! Every neck is stretched
further, and every eye strained wider. Away across an endless
dead level of the prairie, a black speck appears against the
sky; and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In
a second or two a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising
and falling, sweeping towards us, nearer and nearer, growing
more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined, nearer
and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to
the ear, another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper
deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and
horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a
be but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing
on our mail sack after the vision had flashed by and
disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any
actual horse and man at all, may be."
"So sudden is it all, and so like a
flash of unreal fancy that lated fragment of a storm!
Source: Annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern
California and Pioneer register, Los Angeles, Part I. Vol.