Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Home - Stamp Articles - Histroy of the Pony Express

Operation Equipment And Business

On entering the service of the Central Overland California and Pike's
Peak Express Company, employees of the Pony Express were compelled to
take an oath of fidelity which ran as follows:

"I, - -, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during
my engagement, and while I am an employe of Russell, Majors & Waddell, I
will, under no circumstances, use profane language; that I will drink no
intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with any other
employe of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself
honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win
the confidence of my employers. So help me God."[9]

It is not to be supposed that all, nor any considerable number of the
Pony Express men were saintly, nor that they all took their pledge too
seriously. Judged by present-day standards, most of these fellows were
rough and unconventional; some of them were bad. Yet one thing is
certain: in loyalty and blind devotion to duty, no group of employees
will ever surpass the men who conducted the Pony Express. During the
sixteen months of its existence, the riders of this wonderful
enterprise, nobly assisted by the faithful station-keepers, travelled
six hundred and fifty thousand miles, contending against the most
desperate odds that a lonely wilderness and savage nature could offer,
with the loss of only a single mail. And that mail happened to be of
relatively small importance. Only one rider was ever killed outright
while on duty. A few were mortally wounded, and occasionally their
horses were disabled. Yet with the one exception, they stuck grimly to
the saddle or trudged manfully ahead without a horse until the next
station was reached. With these men, keeping the schedule came to be a
sort of religion, a performance that must be accomplished - even though
it forced them to play a desperate game the stakes of which were life
and death. Many station men and numbers of riders while off duty were
murdered by Indians. They were martyrs to the cause of patriotism and a
newer and better civilization. Yet they were hirelings, working for good
wages and performing their duties in a simple, matter-of-fact way. Their
heroism was never a self-conscious trait.

The riders were young men, seldom exceeding one hundred and twenty-five
pounds in weight. Youthfulness, nerve, a wide experience on the frontier
and general adaptability were the chief requisites for the Pony Express
business. Some of the greatest frontiersmen of the latter 'sixties and
the 'seventies were trained in this service, either as pony riders or
station men. The latter had even a more dangerous task, since in their
isolated shacks they were often completely at the mercy of Indians.

That only one rider was ever taken by the savages was due to the fact
that the pony men rode magnificent horses which invariably outclassed
the Indian ponies in speed and endurance. The lone man captured while on
duty was completely surrounded by a large number of savages on the
Platte River in Nebraska. He was shot dead and though his body was not
found for several days, his pony, bridled and saddled, escaped safely
with the mail which was duly forwarded to its destination. That far more
riders were killed or injured while off duty than when in the saddle was
due solely to the wise precaution of the Company in selecting such
high-grade riding stock. And it took the best of horseflesh to make the

The riders dressed as they saw fit. The average costume consisted of a
buckskin shirt, ordinary trousers tucked into high leather boots, and a
slouch hat or cap. They always went armed. At first a Spencer carbine
was carried strapped to the rider's back, besides a sheath knife at his
side. In the saddle holsters he carried a pair of Colt's revolvers.
After a time the carbines were left off and only side arms taken along.
The carrying of larger guns meant extra weight, and it was made a rule
of the Company that a rider should never fight unless compelled to do
so. He was to depend wholly upon speed for safety. The record of the
service fully justified this policy.

While the horses were of the highest grade, they were of mixed breed and
were purchased over a wide range of territory. Good results were
obtained from blooded animals from the Missouri Valley, but considerable
preference was shown for the western-bred mustangs. These animals were
about fourteen hands high and averaged less than nine hundred pounds in
weight. A former blacksmith for the Company who was at one time located
at Seneca, Kansas, recalls that one of these native ponies often had to
be thrown and staked down with a rope tied to each foot before it could
be shod. Then, before the smith could pare the hoofs and nail on the
shoes, it was necessary for one man to sit astride the animal's head,
and another on its body, while the beast continued to struggle and
squeal. To shoe one of these animals often required a half day of
strenuous work.

As might be expected, the horse as well as rider traveled very light.
The combined weight of the saddle, bridle and saddle bags did not exceed
thirteen pounds. The saddle-bag used by the pony rider for carrying mail
was called a mochila; it had openings in the center so it would fit
snugly over the horn and tree of the saddle and yet be removable without
delay. The mochila had four pockets called cantinas in each of its
corners one in front and one behind each of the rider's legs. These
cantinas held the mail. All were kept carefully locked and three were
opened en route only at military posts - Forts Kearney, Laramie,
Bridger, Churchill and at Salt Lake City. The fourth pocket was for the
local or way mail-stations. Each local station-keeper had a key and
could open it when necessary. It held a time-card on which a record of
the arrival and departure at the various stations where it was opened,
was kept. Only one mochila was used on a trip; it was transferred by the
rider from one horse to another until the destination was reached.

Letters were wrapped in oil silk to protect them from moisture, either
from stormy weather, fording streams, or perspiring animals. While a
mail of twenty pounds might be carried, the average weight did not
exceed fifteen pounds. The postal charges were at first, five dollars
for each half-ounce letter, but this rate was afterward reduced by the
Post Office Department to one dollar for each half ounce. At this figure
it remained as long as the line was in business. In addition to this
rate, a regulation government envelope costing ten cents, had to be
purchased. Patrons generally made use of a specially light tissue paper
for their correspondence. The large newspapers of New York, Boston,
Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco were among the best customers of
the service. Some of the Eastern dailies even kept special
correspondents at St. Joseph to receive and telegraph to the home office
news from the West as soon as it arrived. On account of the enormous
postage rates these newspapers would print special editions of Civil War
news on the thinnest of paper to avoid all possible mailing bulk.

Mr. Frank A. Root of Topeka, Kansas, who was Assistant Postmaster and
Chief Clerk in the post office at Atchison during the last two months of
the line's existence, in 1861, says that during that period the Express,
which was running semi-weekly, brought about three hundred and fifty
letters each trip from California[10]. Many of these communications were
from government and state officials in California and Oregon, and
addressed to the Federal authorities at Washington, particularly to
Senators and Representatives from these states and to authorities of the
War Department. A few were addressed to Abraham Lincoln, President of
the United States. A large number of these letters were from business
and professional men in Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, and
Sacramento, and mailed to firms in the large cities of the East and
Middle West. Not to mention the rendering of invaluable help to the
Government in retaining California at the beginning of the War, the Pony
Express was of the greatest importance to the commercial interests of
the West.

The line was frequently used by the British Government in forwarding its
Asiatic correspondence to London. In 1860, a report of the activities of
the English fleet off the coast of China was sent through from San
Francisco eastward over this route. For the transmission of these
dispatches that Government paid one hundred and thirty-five dollars Pony
Express charges.

Nor did the commercial houses of the Pacific Coast cities appear to mind
a little expense in forwarding their business letters. Mr. Root says
there would often be twenty-five one dollar "Pony" stamps and the same
number of Government stamps - a total in postage of twenty-seven dollars
and fifty cents - on a single envelope. Not much frivolity passed
through these mails.

Pony Express riders received an average salary of from one hundred
dollars to one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month. A few whose
rides were particularly dangerous or who had braved unusual dangers
received one hundred and fifty dollars. Station men and their assistants
were paid from fifty to one hundred dollars monthly.

Of the eighty riders usually in the service, half were always riding in
either direction, East and West. The average "run" was seventy-five
miles, the men going and coming over their respective divisions on each
succeeding day. Yet there were many exceptions to this rule, as will be
shown later. At the outset, although facilities for shorter relays had
been provided, it was planned to run each horse twenty-five miles with
an average of three horses to the rider; but it was soon found that a
horse could rarely continue at a maximum speed for so great a distance.
Consequently, it soon became the practice to change mounts every ten or
twelve miles or as nearly that as possible. The exact distance was
governed largely by the nature of the country. While this shortening of
the relay necessitated transferring the mochila many more times on each
trip, it greatly facilitated the schedule; for it was at once seen that
the average horse or pony in the Express service could be crowded to the
limit of its speed over the reduced distance.

One of the station-keeper's most important duties was to have a fresh
horse saddled and bridled a half hour before the Express was due. Only
two minutes time was allowed for changing mounts. The rider's approach
was watched for with keen anxiety. By daylight he could generally be
seen in a cloud of dust, if in the desert or prairie regions. If in the
mountains, the clear air made it possible for the station men to detect
his approach a long way off, provided there were no obstructions to hide
the view. At night the rider would make his presence known by a few
lusty whoops. Dashing up to the station, no time was wasted. The courier
would already have loosed his mochila, which he tossed ahead for the
keeper to adjust on the fresh horse, before dismounting. A sudden
reining up of his foam-covered steed, and "All's well along the road,
Hank!" to the station boss, and he was again mounted and gone, usually
fifteen seconds after his arrival. Nor was there any longer delay when a
fresh rider took up the "run."

Situated at intervals of about two hundred miles were division
points[11] in charge of locally important agents or superintendents.
Here were kept extra men, animals, and supplies as a precaution against
the raids of Indians, desperadoes, or any emergency likely to arise.
Division agents had considerable authority; their pay was as good as
that received by the best riders. They were men of a heroic and even in
some instances, desperate character, in spite of their oath of service.
In certain localities much infested with horse thievery and violence it
was necessary to have in charge men of the fight-the-devil-with-fire
type in order to keep the business in operation. Noted among this class
of Division agents, with headquarters at the Platte Crossing near Fort
Kearney, was Jack Slade[12], who, though a good servant of the Company,
turned out to be one of the worst "bad" men in the history of the West.
He had a record of twenty-six "killings" to his credit, but he kept his
Division thoroughly purged of horse thieves and savage marauders, for he
knew how to "get" his man whenever there was trouble.

The schedule was at first fixed at ten days for eight months of the year
and twelve days during the winter season, but this was soon lowered to
eight and ten days respectively. An average speed of ten miles an hour
including stops had to be maintained on the summer schedule. In the
winter the run was sustained at eight miles an hour; deep snows made the
latter performance the more difficult of the two.

The best record made by the Pony Express was in getting President
Lincoln's inaugural speech across the continent in March, 1861. This
address, outlining as it did the attitude of the new Chief Executive
toward the pending conflict, was anticipated with the deepest anxiety by
the people on the Pacific Coast. Evidently inspired by the urgency of
the situation, the Company determined to surpass all performances.
Horses were led out, in many cases, two or three miles from the
stations, in order to meet the incoming riders and to secure the supreme
limit of speed and endurance on this momentous trip. The document was
carried through from St. Joseph to Sacramento - 1966 miles - in just
seven days and seventeen hours, an average speed of ten and six-tenths
miles an hour. And this by flesh and blood, pounding the dirt over the
plains, mountains, and deserts! The best individual performance on this
great run was by "Pony Bob" Haslam who galloped the one hundred and
twenty miles from Smith's Creek to Fort Churchill in eight hours and ten
minutes, an average of fourteen and seven-tenths miles per hour. On this
record-breaking trip the message was carried the six hundred and
seventy-five miles between St. Joseph and Denver[13] in sixty-nine
hours; the last ten miles of this leg of the journey being ridden in
thirty-one minutes. Today, but few overland express trains, hauled by
giant locomotives over heavy steel rails on a rock-ballasted roadbed
average more than thirty miles per hour between the Missouri and the
Pacific Coast.

The news of the election of Lincoln in November 1860, and President
Buchanan's last message a month later were carried through in eight

Late in the winter and early in the spring of 1861, just prior to the
beginning of the war, many good records were made with urgent Government
dispatches. News of the firing upon Fort Sumter was taken through in
eight days and fourteen hours. From then on, while the Pony Express
service continued, the business men and public officials of California
began giving prize money to the Company, to be awarded those riders who
made the best time carrying war news. On one occasion they raised a
purse of three hundred dollars for the star rider when a pouch
containing a number of Chicago papers full of information from the South
arrived at Sacramento a day ahead of schedule.

That these splendid achievements could never have been attained without
a wonderful degree of enthusiasm and loyalty on the part of the men,
scarcely needs asserting. The pony riders were highly respected by the
stage and freight employees - in fact by all respectable men throughout
the West. Nor were they honored merely for what they did; they were the
sort of men who command respect. To assist a rider in any way was deemed
a high honor; to do aught to retard him was the limit of wrong-doing, a
woeful offense. On the first trip west-bound, the rider between Folsom
and Sacramento was thrown, receiving a broken leg. Shortly after the
accident, a Wells Fargo stage happened along, and a special agent of
that Company, who chanced to be a passenger, seeing the predicament,
volunteered to finish the run. This he did successfully, reaching
Sacramento only ninety minutes late. Such instances are typical of the
manly cooperation that made the Pony Express the true success that it

Mark Twain, who made a trip across the continent in 1860 has left this
glowing account[14] of a pony and rider that he saw while traveling
overland in a stage coach:

We 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
the 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
it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling -
sweeping toward us nearer and nearer growing more and more distinct,
more and more sharply defined - nearer and still nearer, and the flutter
of hoofs comes faintly to the ear - another instant a whoop and a hurrah
from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hands but no reply and man
and horse burst past our excited faces and go winging away like the
belated fragment of a storm!

So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for a
flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a 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, maybe.

[9] This was the same pledge which the original firm had required of its
men. Both Russell, Majors, and Waddell, and the C. O. C. and P. P. Exp.
Co., which they incorporated, adhered to a rigid observance of the
Sabbath. They insisted on their men doing as little work as possible on
that day, and had them desist from work whenever possible. And they
stuck faithfully to these policies. Probably no concern ever won a
higher and more deserved reputation for integrity in the fulfillment of
its contracts and for business reliability than Russell, Majors, and

[10] Exact figures are not obtainable for the west bound mail but it was
probably not so heavy.

At this time - Sept., 1861 - the telegraph had been extended from the
Missouri to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and letter pouches from the Pony
Express were sent by overland stage from Kearney to Atchison. Messages
of grave concern were wired as soon as this station was reached.

[11] These were executive divisions and not to be confused with the
riders' divisions. The latter were merely the stations separating each
man's "run."

[12] Slade was afterward hanged by vigilantes in Virginia City, Montana.
The authentic story of his life surpasses in romance and tragedy most of
the pirate tales of fiction.

[13] The dispatch was taken from the main line to the Colorado capital
by special service. Denver, it will be remembered, was not on the
regular "Pony route," which ran north of that city. There was then no
telegraph in operation west of the Missouri River in Kansas or Nebraska.

[14] Roughing It.

Next: California And The Secession Menace

Previous: The First Trip And Triumph

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 1397