At A Nation's Crisis
The Pony Express was the first rapid transit and the first fast mail
line across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast.
It was a system by means of which messages were carried swiftly on
horseback across the plains and deserts, and over the mountains of the
far West. It brought the Atlantic coast and the Pacific slope ten days
nearer to each other.
It had a brief existence of only sixteen months and was supplanted by
the transcontinental telegraph. Yet it was of the greatest importance in
binding the East and West together at a time when overland travel was
slow and cumbersome, and when a great national crisis made the rapid
communication of news between these sections an imperative necessity.
The Pony Express marked the highest development in overland travel prior
to the coming of the Pacific railroad, which it preceded nine years. It,
in fact, proved the feasibility of a transcontinental road and
demonstrated that such a line could be built and operated continuously
the year around - a feat that had always been regarded as impossible.
The operation of the Pony Express was a supreme achievement of physical
endurance on the part of man and his ever faithful companion, the horse.
The history of this organization should be a lasting monument to the
physical sacrifice of man and beast in an effort to accomplish something
worth while. Its history should be an enduring tribute to American
courage and American organizing genius.
The fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861, did not produce the Civil War
crisis. For many months, the gigantic struggle then imminent, had been
painfully discernible to far-seeing men. In 1858, Lincoln had forewarned
the country in his "House Divided" speech. As early as the beginning of
the year 1860 the Union had been plainly in jeopardy. Early in February
of that momentous year, Jefferson Davis, on behalf of the South, had
introduced his famous resolutions in the Senate of the United States.
This document was the ultimatum of the dissatisfied slave-holding
commonwealths. It demanded that Congress should protect slavery
throughout the domain of the United States. The territories, it
declared, were the common property of the states of the Union and hence
open to the citizens of all states with all their personal possessions.
The Northern states, furthermore, were no longer to interfere with the
working of the Fugitive Slave Act. They must repeal their Personal
Liberty laws and respect the Dred Scott Decision of the Federal Supreme
Court. Neither in their own legislatures nor in Congress should they
trespass upon the right of the South to regulate slavery as it best saw
These resolutions, demanding in effect that slavery be thus safeguarded
- almost to the extent of introducing it into the free states - really
foreshadowed the Democratic platform of 1860 which led to the great
split in that party, the victory of the Republicans under Lincoln, the
subsequent secession of the more radical southern states, and finally
the Civil War, for it was inevitable that the North, when once aroused,
would bitterly resent such pro-slavery demands.
And this great crisis was only the bursting into flame of many smaller
fires that had long been smoldering. For generations the two sections
had been drifting apart. Since the middle of the seventeenth century,
Mason and Dixon's line had been a line of real division separating two
inherently distinct portions of the country.
By 1860, then, war was inevitable. Naturally, the conflict would at once
present intricate military problems, and among them the retention of the
Pacific Coast was of the deepest concern to the Union. Situated at a
distance of nearly two thousand miles from the Missouri river which was
then the nation's western frontier, this intervening space comprised
trackless plains, almost impenetrable ranges of snow-capped mountains,
and parched alkali deserts. And besides these barriers of nature which
lay between the West coast and the settled eastern half of the country,
there were many fierce tribes of savages who were usually on the alert
to oppose the movements of the white race through their dominions.
California, even then, was the jewel of the Pacific. Having a
considerable population, great natural wealth, and unsurpassed climate
and fertility, she was jealously desired by both the North and the
To the South, the acquisition of California meant enhanced prestige -
involving, as it would, the occupation of a large area whose soils and
climate might encourage the perpetuation of slavery; it meant a rich
possession which would afford her a strategic base for waging war
against her northern foe; it meant a romantic field in which opportunity
might be given to organize an allied republic of the Pacific, a power
which would, perchance, forcibly absorb the entire Southwest and a large
section of Northern Mexico. By thus creating counter forces the South
would effectively block the Federal Government on the western half of
The North also desired the prestige that would come from holding
California as well as the material strength inherent in the state's
valuable resources. Moreover to hold this region would give the North a
base of operations to check her opponent in any campaign of aggression
in the far West, should the South presume such an attempt. And the
possession of California would also offer to the North the very best
means of protecting the Western frontier, one of the Union's most
vulnerable points of attack.
It was with such vital conditions that the Pony Express was identified;
it was in retaining California for the Union, and in helping
incidentally to preserve the Union, that the Express became an important
factor in American history.
Not to mention the romance, the unsurpassed courage, the unflinching
endurance, and the wonderful exploits which the routine operations of
the Pony Express involved, its identity with problems of nation-wide and
world-wide importance make its story seem worth telling. And with its
romantic existence and its place in history the succeeding pages of this
book will briefly deal.
Next: Inception And Organization Of The Pony Express