A Quick History of the Pony Express

I lived in rural Nevada for thirty years and because my husband and I were originally geologists, we spent a lot of time beating around the state before settling down. The northern and middle part of Nevada can be either blazing hot or bone numbing cold, depending on the season—as near as I could tell, there were two: summer and winter, with three or four days of spring and fall between them. But don’t get me wrong, I love Nevada and its outback, and have so much respect for the early citizens—those that stayed and those that were there to do a job. The riders of the Pony Express were there to do a job. I’ve experienced the country that they crossed, and these guys were amazing.

So how did the Pony Express come about?

Ruby Valley Nevada station. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In brief, Senator William Gwin of California wanted a faster mail service between the eastern part of the country and California. He conferred with the operators of Overland Stage Line of Leavenworth, Kansas, which ran a stage between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City, asking them to develop a mail system. Reluctantly, due to the costs, the owners of the stage line agreed and began developing the Pony Express. On April 3, 1860, less than two months after promising the senator to develop a faster mail system, the first express was ready to run between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento.

In those two months, the organizers found 80 riders and 500 horses, and stations were built along the route through Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. The riders received $25 per week, two revolvers, a rifle, a bowie knife and a bible. The ponies were sturdy stock, many of them carrying California mustang blood.

The mail was carried in a leather mochila with four locked boxes sewn to it to carry the mail. The mochila fit over the saddle horn, and when the rider arrived at the station, he threw the mochila to the next rider, who would then be on his way. The Pony Express carried mail 2,000 miles in 10 days.

The Pony Express lasted only 18 months, but even in that short amount of time, it left an indelible mark on the history of the county and the region. Finances were part of the reason for the demise of the express. Mail carried by the express cost the sender between $1 to $5 dollars per ounce, but despite the high prices, the Pony Express failed financially, as its organizers had feared. Congress offered no financial subsidies to help the express, despite the fact that it helped keep California in the Union.

Ultimately, however, it was technology that ended the Pony Express. When the transcontinental telegraph system was completed on October 24, 1861, there was no more need for the Pony Express. Four days later, the Pony Express officially ended.

 

Jeannie Watt
Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

23 Comments

  1. Great blog and a great history lesson. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Did not know the cost was so high for the mail during the pony express time.

    1. Compared to what people made as a daily salary, that cost was astronomical. The telegraph was a blessing, even if it did put these guys out of work.

      1. Then about what 8 years later the railroads were connected so mail was sent via that way.

  3. Very interesting history lesson. I didn’t realize how expensive it was. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You are so welcome, Carol. I enjoyed studying up on it.

  4. This was a very interesting post. I had no idea the pony express lasted such a short time. It sure made an impact on history, so I figured it lasted much longer.

    1. That’s exactly what I thought, Janine.

  5. The Pony Express has always captured the imagination. It was amazing it was around for only a short period of time.

    1. Considering the legend, yes, it is astonishing that it was only around for 18 months.

  6. Thanks for the interesting info.

  7. Thank you for the short history lesson. I knew some of it but others helped pull it all together. I enjoy reading about the pony express. they were some tough people.

    1. I can’t imagine how they made those rides through such harsh conditions and weather. Boggles the mind.

  8. I loved this post, Jeannie! I fell in love with the idea of the Pony Express with the show The Young Riders. Do you remember that one from the early 1990s? When you think about how unsettled the country was that these men rode through, it’s amazing they were able to accomplish their routes. No wonder they needed three guns, a bowie knife, and a Bible. 🙂

    1. I remember that show, Karen! How could that have slipped my mind. I think it’s such a cool chapter of history!

  9. Jeannie, Thank you for this fascinating post!

  10. loved your post. Young Riders came up in discussion at the dinner table last week. There had been a Jeopardy question about the Pony Express.

    1. Thanks so cool, Denise! I’d like to see The Young Riders again. Might have to do some searching…?

  11. Do you know the reason their route went north through Wyoming instead of through Colorado? Weather wasn’t that much better. The only reason I can think of would be the Rocky Mountains would be easier to get through, but it still left the Sierras. With everything they had to deal with – weather, attacks by humans and animals, possible accidents – it is a wonder they were able to retain riders and get the mail through.In your research, did you find any indication that girls or women disguised themselves as boys to ride for the Pony Express?
    Thank you for an interesting post.

  12. Thank you so much Jeannie. I love reading about the pony express.

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