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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

icating 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.