The Pony Express

Do you remember my “Face to Face” post? As much as I appreciate technology, learning and appreciating the history around me by visiting in person is my favorite! Dad, on vacations as a child, would point out places of significance as we drove to our destination. Basically anything historical fascinated me! Recently, I’ve taken mini field trips to all the fantastic places my own state has to offer. A weekend trip to St. Joseph this last weekend proved why history can come to life with “face to face” visits. Come along with me!


Do you write and mail letters? Send postcards? Receiving letters and cards excite me today! Choosing post cards while on vacation was, and still is, something I love to do. Pen pals were popular when I was growing up. At church we would write and send letters to missionaries across the world. Teaching the parts of a letter was expected at the elementary level. Now, abbreviated text messages are usually delivered within 5 seconds. We can communicate with the world in minutes and seconds. News can be read on a tiny screen with a swipe of a finger.

Step back with me over 150 years ago. It was 1860. A crowd had gathered along a dusty main street of St. Joseph, Missouri. A cannon boomed and a young wiry man on a horse quickly left a stable. He carried a lightweight leather bag (mochila) as he raced to the bank of the Missouri River to be ferried across the river for his great delivery ride! Have you ever asked a young person if they’ve heard of the Pony Express?

Before the telegraph there was a need for faster communication. A steam-clipper ship traveling around South America and Cape Horn took an average of six months delivery time (via the Isthmus of Panama only 4 weeks). Covered wagons along the Oregon or California Trail took four to five months. Even a stagecoach, via the southern route, took 21-25 days. Three businessmen (Alexander Majors, William H. Russell, and William B. Waddell) decided to create a straighter route to the west using a different delivery method-horses (they called their new business the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company-simply, the Pony Express).

The company had set up more than 150 stations along an 8-state route. Each station stood about 10 to 15 miles apart. A fresh horse would be supplied at each station; a new rider every 80-100 miles. A superintendent was hired for each five sections the trail was split. How could such an operation make money? It was their goal to earn a million-dollar contract from the federal government (worth $29 million today). Lost money could be recuperated with this contract. Eighty riders and four hundred horses were wanted. The average Pony Express rider was around 21 years old (the oldest likely in his 40’s). Thin and wiry riders were preferred. They made between $100-$150 each month (with free room and board, but comfort it was not). An oath had to be made to not fight with other employees, drink alcohol, or swear (would you be eligible 😉?).

Separating facts from legend can be difficult as several, like “Broncho Charlie” Miller claimed he rode at age 11. Two famous “Bills” associated with the Pony Express were “Wild Bill” Hickok and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. A few historians’ doubt Cody’s claim about being a rider; but undoubtedly, he made the Pony Express famous in his Wild West show. Other famous riders include Johnny Fry (the first rider to leave St. Joseph, Missouri) and “Pony Bob” Haslam (made the longest ride ever-380 miles in 78 hours). Adventures and danger certainly lurked for all drivers. Some lost their lives. Facts and legends have blended.

In March of 1861, the Pony Express carried the text of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address from Nebraska to California in the record time of 7 days and 17 hours. On April 12th, the Civil War began. The Pony Express remained deep in debt and telegraph lines were built to connect the U.S. from coast to coast. By October 1861 messages could travel from New York to San Francisco in minutes. The Pony Express ended just 18 months after it began. The final messages were delivered on November 20th. They never received the million-dollar grant (although the company was asked to continue mail service between St. Joseph and Salt Lake City, receiving $500,000). (John Micklos, 2016) It was too little, too late. Times had changed.

 “Cell phones and texting 
didn’t exist back then, 
The Pony Express used
fast horses and men.” 

Faith and Finley Tour the 50!-K.L Hale 

While we were in St. Joseph we visited the Patee House (National Landmark and hotel that had served as the Pony Express Headquarters) and the house in which Jesse James was shot and killed. Does your state have fascinating history? What is in your own backyard to explore? I want to thank Michelle and Cindy-Directors at the Pony Express Museum, for their hospitality and gifts to share with students (and my t-shirts!). The Missouri Department of Tourism has donated many Missouri Travel Guides to give. The caves and the Battlefield will also make donations. I’m so thankful for the face-to-face connections and the kindness of all who are helping me on this journey!

Have faith 💚


Enjoy some pics from the trip!

References

(Pony Express National Museum, 2020)

John Micklos, J. (2016). Bold Riders The Story of the Pony Express. North Mankato: Capstone Press.

Pony Express National Museum. (2020). Retrieved from Pony Express National Museum: http://www.ponyexpress.org

The Pony Express National Museum. (2021, July 18). Preserving the Legacy and the Legend. St. Joseph, MIssouri, USA: Pony Express National Museum.

“The Pony Express Museum, Inc., is a private nonprofit organization created in 1990 to interpret, preserve, and promote the legend and legacy of the Pony Express as it originated in St. Joseph, Missouri.”