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Inception And Organization Of The Pony Express

Following the discovery of gold in California in January 1848, that

region sprang into immediate prominence. From all parts of the country

and the remote corners of the earth came the famous Forty-niners. Amid

the chaos of a great mining camp the Anglo-Saxon love of law and order

soon asserted itself. Civil and religious institutions quickly arose,

and, in the summer of 1850, a little more than a year after the big rush

had started, California entered the Union as a free state.

The boom went on and the census of 1860 revealed a population of 380,000

in the new commonwealth. And when to these figures were added those of

Oregon and Washington Territory, an aggregate of 444,000 citizens of the

United States were found to be living on the Pacific Slope. Crossing the

Sierras eastward and into the Great Basin, 47,000 more were located in

the Territories of Nevada and Utah, - thus making a grand total of

nearly a half million people beyond the Rocky Mountains in 1860. And

these figures did not include Indians nor Chinese.

Without reference to any military phase of the problem, this detached

population obviously demanded and deserved adequate mail and

transportation facilities. How to secure the quickest and most

dependable communication with the populous sections of the East had long

been a serious proposition. Private corporations and Congress had not

been wholly insensible to the needs of the West. Subsidized stage routes

had for some years been in operation, and by the close of 1858 several

lines were well-equipped and doing much business over the so-called

Southern and Central routes. Perhaps the most common route for sending

mail from the East to the Pacific Coast was by steamship from New York

to Panama where it was unloaded, hurried across the Isthmus, and again

shipped by water to San Francisco. All these lines of traffic were slow

and tedious, a letter in any case requiring from three to four weeks to

reach its destination. The need of a more rapid system of communication

between the East and West at once became apparent and it was to supply

this need that the Pony Express really came into existence.

The story goes that in the autumn of 1854, United States Senator William

Gwin of California was making an overland trip on horseback from San

Francisco to Washington, D. C. He was following the Central route via

Salt Lake and South Pass, and during a portion of his journey he had for

a traveling companion, Mr. B. F. Ficklin, then General Superintendent

for the big freighting and stage firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell of

Leavenworth. Ficklin, it seems, was a resourceful and progressive man,

and had long been engaged in the overland transportation business. He

had already conceived an idea for establishing a much closer transit

service between the Missouri river and the Coast, but, as is the case

with many innovators, had never gained a serious hearing. He had the

traffic agent's natural desire to better the existing service in the

territory which his line served; and he had the ambition of a loyal

employee to put into effect a plan that would bring added honor and

preferment to his firm. In addition to possessing these worthy ideals,

it is perhaps not unfair to state that Ficklin was personally ambitious.

Nevertheless, Ficklin confided his scheme enthusiastically to Senator

Gwin, at the same time pointing out the benefits that would accrue to

California should it ever be put into execution. The Senator at once saw

the merits of the plan and quickly caught the contagion. Not only was he

enough of a statesman to appreciate the worth of a fast mail line across

the continent, but he was also a good enough politician to realize that

his position with his constituents and the country at large might be

greatly strengthened were he to champion the enactment of a popular

measure that would encourage the building of such a line through the aid

of a Federal subsidy.

So in January, 1855, Gwin introduced in the Senate a bill which proposed

to establish a weekly letter express service between St. Louis and San

Francisco. The express was to operate on a ten-day schedule, follow the

Central Route, and was to receive a compensation not exceeding $500.00

for each round trip. This bill was referred to the Committee on Military

Affairs where it was quietly tabled and "killed."

For the next five years the attention of Congress was largely taken up

with the anti-slavery troubles that led to secession and war. Although

the people of the West, and the Pacific Coast in particular, continued

to agitate the need of a new and quick through mail service, for a long

time little was done. It has been claimed that southern representatives

in Congress during the decade before the war managed to prevent any

legislation favorable to overland mail routes running North of the

slave-holding states; and that they concentrated their strength to

render government aid to the southern routes whenever possible.

At that time there were three generally recognized lines of mail

traffic, of which the Panama line was by far the most important. Next

came the so-called southern or "Butterfield" route which started from

St. Louis and ran far to the southward, entering California from the

extreme southeast corner of the state; a goodly amount of mail being

sent in this direction. The Central route followed the Platte River into

Wyoming and reached Sacramento via Salt Lake City, almost from a due

easterly direction. On account of its location this route or trail could

be easily controlled by the North in case of war. It had received very

meagre support from the Government, and carried as a rule, only local

mail. While the most direct route to San Francisco, it had been rendered

the least important. This was not due solely to Congressional

manipulation. Because of its northern latitude and the numerous high

mountain ranges it traversed, this course was often blockaded with deep

snows and was generally regarded as extremely difficult of access during

the winter months.

While a majority of the people of California were loyal to the Union,

there was a vigorous minority intensely in sympathy with the southern

cause and ready to conspire for, or bring about by force of arms if

necessary, the secession of their state. As the Civil War became more

and more imminent, it became obvious to Union men in both East and West

that the existing lines of communication were untrustworthy. Just as

soon as trouble should start, the Confederacy could, and most certainly

would, gain control of the southern mail routes. Once in control, she

could isolate the Pacific coast for many months and thus enable her

sympathizers there the more effectually to perfect their plans of

secession. Or she might take advantage of these lines of travel, and, by

striking swiftly and suddenly, organize and reinforce her followers in

California, intimidate the Unionists, many of whom were apathetic, and

by a single bold stroke snatch the prize away from her antagonist before

the latter should have had time to act.

To avert this crisis some daring and original plan of communication had

to be organized to keep the East and West in close contact with each

other; and the Pony Express was the fulfillment of such a plan, for it

made a close cooperation between the California loyalists and the

Federal Government possible until after the crisis did pass. Yet,

strange as it may seem, this providential enterprise was not brought

into existence nor even materially aided by the Government. It was

organized and operated by a private corporation after having been

encouraged in its inception by a United States Senator who later turned

traitor to his country.

It finally happened that in the winter of 1859-60, Mr. William Russell,

senior partner of the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, was called

to Washington in connection with some Government freight contracts.

While there he chanced to become acquainted with Senator Gwin who,

having been aroused, as we have seen, several years before, by one of

the firm's subordinates, at once brought before Mr. Russell the need of

better mail connections over the Central route, and of the especial need

of better communication should war occur.

Russell at once awoke to the situation. While a loyal citizen and fully

alive to the strategic importance which the matter involved, he also

believed that he saw a good business opening. Could his firm but grasp

the opportunity, and demonstrate the possibility of keeping the Central

route open during the winter months, and could they but lower the

schedule of the Panama line, a Government contract giving them a virtual

monopoly in carrying the transcontinental mail might eventually be


He at once hurried West, and at Fort Leavenworth met his partners,

Messrs. Majors and Waddell, to whom he confidently submitted the new

proposition. Much to Russell's chagrin, these gentlemen were not elated

over the plan. While passively interested, they keenly foresaw the great

cost which a year around overland fast mail service would involve. They

were unable to see any chance of the enterprise paying expenses, to say

nothing of profits. But Russell, with cheerful optimism, contended that

while the project might temporarily be a losing venture, it would pay

out in time. He asserted that the opportunity of making good with a hard

undertaking - one that had been held impossible of realization - would

be a strong asset to the firm's reputation. He also declared that in his

conversation with Gwin he had already committed their company to the

undertaking, and he did not see how they could, with honor and

propriety, evade the responsibility of attempting it. Knowledge of the

last mentioned fact at once enlisted the support or his partners.

Probably no firm has ever surpassed in integrity that of Russell,

Majors, and Waddell, famous throughout the West in the freighting and

mail business before the advent of railroads in that section of the men,

the verbal promise of one of their number was a binding guarantee and as

sacredly respected as a bonded obligation. Finding themselves thus

committed, they at once began preparations with tremendous activity. All

this happened early in the year 1860.

The first step was to form a corporation, the more adequately to conduct

the enterprise; and to that end the Central Overland California and

Pike's Peak Express Company was organized under a charter granted by the

Territory of Kansas. Besides the three original members of the firm, the

incorporators included General Superintendent B. F. Ficklin, together

with F. A. Bee, W. W. Finney, and John S. Jones, all tried and

trustworthy stage employees who were retained on account of their wide

experience in the overland traffic business. The new concern then took

over the old stage line from Atchison to Salt Lake City and purchased

the mail route and outfit then operating between Salt Lake City and

Sacramento. The latter, which had been running a monthly round trip

stage between these terminals, was known as the West End Division of the

Central Route, and was called the Chorpenning line.

Besides conducting the Pony Express, the corporation aimed to continue a

large passenger and freighting business, so it next absorbed the

Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Co., which had been organized a year

previously and had maintained a daily stage between Leavenworth and

Denver, on the Smoky Hill River Route.

By mutual agreement, Mr. Russell assumed managerial charge of the

Eastern Division of the Pony Express line which lay between St. Joseph

and Salt Lake City. Ficklin was stationed at Salt Lake City, the middle

point, in a similar capacity. Finney was made Western manager with

headquarters at San Francisco. These men now had to revise the route to

be traversed, equip it with relay or relief stations which must be

provisioned for men and horses, hire dependable men as station-keepers

and riders, and buy high grade horses[1] or ponies for the entire

course, nearly two thousand miles in extent. Between St. Joseph and Salt

Lake City, the company had its old stage route which was already well

supplied with stations. West of Salt Lake the old Chorpenning route had

been poorly equipped, which made it necessary to erect new stations over

much of this course of more than seven hundred miles. The entire line of

travel had to be altered in many places, in some instances to shorten

the distance, and in others, to avoid as much as possible, wild places

where Indians might easily ambush the riders.

The management was fortunate in having the assistance of expert

subordinates. A. B. Miller of Leavenworth, a noteworthy employe of the

original firm, was invaluable in helping to formulate the general plans

of organization. At Salt Lake City, Ficklin secured the services of J.

C. Brumley, resident agent of the company, whose vast knowledge of the

route and the country that it covered enabled him quickly to work out a

schedule, and to ascertain with remarkable accuracy the number of relay

and supply stations, their best location, and also the number of horses

and men needed. At Carson City, Nevada, Bolivar Roberts, local

superintendent of the Western Division, hired upwards of sixty riders,

cool-headed nervy men, hardened by years of life in the open. Horses

were purchased throughout the West. They were the best that money could

buy and ranged from tough California cayuses or mustangs to thoroughbred

stock from Iowa. They were bought at an average figure of $200.00 each,

a high price in those days. The men were the pick of the frontier; no

more expressive description of their qualities can be given. They were

hired at salaries varying from $50.00 to $150.00 per month, the riders

receiving the highest pay of any below executive rank. When fully

equipped, the line comprised 190 stations, about 420 horses, 400 station

men and assistants and eighty riders. These are approximate figures, as

they varied slightly from time to time.

Perfecting these plans and assembling this array of splendid equipment

had been no easy task, yet so well had the organizers understood their

business, and so persistently, yet quietly, had they worked, that they

accomplished their purpose and made ready within two months after the

project had been launched. The public was scarcely aware of what was

going on until conspicuous advertisements announced the Pony Express. It

was planned to open the line early in April.

[1] While always called the Pony Express, there were many blooded horses

as well as ponies in the service. The distinction between these types of

animals is of course well known to the average reader. Probably "Pony"

Express "sounded better" than any other name for the service, hence the

adoption of this name by the firm and the public at large. This book

will use the words horse and pony indiscriminately.