Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A horse-and-rider postal delivery service, the legendary Pony Express bridged the thousand-mile gap between St. Joseph, Missouri, in the east and Sacramento, California, in the west. The ten-day delivery period served a rising population on the West Coast but was superceded after just eighteen months by the new overland telegraph.

Summary of Event

In 1860, this little advertisement appeared in many American newspapers: Pony Express California;Pony Express Missouri;Pony Express Postal systems;Pony Express California;and Pony Express[Pony Express] Russell, William Hepburn Majors, Alexander Waddell, William B. Overland Mail Company [kw]Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail (Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861) [kw]Expedites Transcontinental Mail, Pony Express (Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861) [kw]Transcontinental Mail, Pony Express Expedites (Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861) [kw]Mail, Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental (Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861) Pony Express California;Pony Express Missouri;Pony Express Postal systems;Pony Express California;and Pony Express[Pony Express] Russell, William Hepburn Majors, Alexander Waddell, William B. Overland Mail Company [g]United States;Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861: Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail[3370] [c]Communications;Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861: Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail[3370] [c]Transportation;Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861: Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail[3370] [c]Trade and commerce;Apr. 3, 1860-Oct. 26, 1861: Pony Express Expedites Transcontinental Mail[3370] Cody, William [p]Cody, William;and Pony Express[Pony Express] Dinsmore, William B. Fargo, William George Gwin, William McKendree Haslam, Robert

Wanted: Young Skinny Wiry Fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. WAGES $25 per week. Apply, Central Overland Express, Alta Bldg., Montgomery St.

Now famous because it launched the creation of the Pony Express, that ad drew eighty riders, forty of whom were assigned to begin carrying mail from the east and forty from the west. The young men were in the saddle at all times, dressed in their distinctive costumes of gaudy red shirts and blue pants.

Pony Express service began on April 3, 1860, when the first rider left St. Joseph, Missouri. On the following day, another pony headed east from Sacramento, California. The enterprise was sponsored by Russell, Majors, and Waddell, a well-known freighting firm that recently had entered the overland mail business by consolidating the various lines along the central route into a company known as the Central Overland, California and Pikes Peak Express Company. Intense rivalry developed with the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, which had received a government contract to deliver the mails on a longer southern route from Missouri to San Francisco, running stages in a great semicircle by way of Fort Smith, El Paso, Tucson, Yuma, and Los Angeles Los Angeles;and stagecoaches[Stagecoaches] .

Some historians claim that the Pony Express actually began in 1839, when a Swiss adventurer named John Augustus Sutter Sutter, John Augustus arrived in Monterey in Upper California. Nine years later, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Sacramento fort caused a land rush across the United States in 1849 that inspired a new name for a class of people: forty-niners. By 1860, the U.S. population on the West Coast had grown to one-half million, with three hundred thousand people in California alone. Transplanted from parts east, they craved information, letters, newspapers, books, and magazines from “the States.” They wanted news that was not a month or two old.

William M. Gwin Gwin, William McKendree , a senator from California who supported all plans to improve mail service to the Pacific coast, was eager to publicize the fact that the central route, favored by emigrants, was practicable and shorter for mail delivery than the southern “oxbow” route. He suggested to William H. Russell of Russell, Majors, and Waddell that Russell’s firm establish a fast express and mail system with men on horseback over the central route. Gwin promised to seek congressional reimbursement for the cost of the experiment and pointed out to Russell that publicity associated with the enterprise would advertise the advantages of the stage route and might result in lucrative mail contracts.

Financial assistance was not forthcoming from the government, but Russell decided to go ahead; he notified his partners that he proposed to organize the Pony Express, with relays of horsemen that would carry the mails between Missouri and California in ten days. (Russell probably did not realize how much his proposal resembled a system used by Darius the Great Darius the Great , a ruler of Persia Persia, ancient during the late sixth and early fifth centuries b.c.e.)

Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, Russell’s partners, rejected the idea at first but later agreed, although with reluctance. The public announcement of the creation of the Pony Express caused great excitement, because Russell agreed to deliver letters between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Placerville, California, for five dollars per ounce within ten days, half the time that it took on the Butterfield route. Russell undertook the responsibility of establishing 190 way stations between ten and fifteen miles apart along the route, and he selected the fleetest horses to be ridden by men noted for their light weight, physical stamina, and steady nerves. Success depended on their ability and endurance.

Pony Express and Overland Mail Routes





The mail, wrapped in oiled silk to protect it from the weather, was placed in a leather mochila that fit over the saddle. No more than twenty pounds of mail was carried by a single pony, the number of letters depending upon the total weight. Among the most famous deliveries west were a copy of Lincoln’s inaugural address and news of the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-1865).

The Pony Express was organized as a giant relay race, each rider driving a pony at a gallop between one station and the next, where another animal would be saddled and waiting. Only two minutes were allowed to change horses and transfer the mochila before the rider was off to the next station. Each man had a run of between seventy-five and one hundred miles, over which he was expected to average nine miles per hour. If his replacement were not waiting at the end of his run, he was to ride on, because the mail had to be kept moving night and day. Eighty riders were in their saddles at all times. The life was hard and dangerous because of inclement weather and the possibility of Indian attacks. In emergencies, riders such as “Buffalo Bill” Cody Cody, William [p]Cody, William;and Pony Express[Pony Express] and “Pony Bob” Haslam Haslam, Robert made rides of several hundred miles that brought them great fame.

Pony Express rider riding past men stringing wires for the transcontinental telegraph, which would soon render the Pony Express obsolete.

(Library of Congress)

The pay for Pony Express riders was $125 a month, a good income for the time. The real test came in the winter of 1860-1861. Instead of covering the entire distance from Missouri to California, most trips were confined to the distance between Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and Fort Churchill, Nevada, the termini of the telegraph Telegraph;and Pony Express[Pony Express] under construction. A schedule of thirteen days was maintained between the ends of the telegraph lines, with a total of seventeen or eighteen days for the entire distance between St. Joseph and San Francisco. From the standpoint of drama, romance, and publicity, the Pony Express was an outstanding success.

Although rates were high—it cost approximately thirty-eight dollars to deliver each letter—the number of letters carried increased from 49 to 350 per trip within a year. Nevertheless, Russell, Majors, and Waddell encountered financial difficulties. They lost about one thousand dollars per day on the operation and did not receive payment from the U.S. government for delivering freight. Losses incurred by the Pony Express alone were estimated at $500,000.

In desperation, Russell, with the cooperation of a clerk in the Department of the Interior, appropriated $870,000 in Indian Trust Fund bonds to be used as security for maintaining the firm’s credit and borrowing power. Meanwhile, the Overland Mail Company had been forced to abandon its southern route through Texas after that state had joined the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War, and its equipment was moved to the central route. This company was heavily indebted to Wells, Wells, Fargo, and Company Fargo, and Company for funds advanced to outfit and maintain the line. Wells, Fargo directors on the board of the Overland Mail Company forced the retirement of John Butterfield as president and elected William Dinsmore Dinsmore, William B. to take his place.


On March 2, 1861, the reorganized company obtained a government contract that provided for a daily overland mail and a semiweekly Pony Express on the central route with an annual compensation of $1 million. Thus, the Pony Express received financial support from the federal government after July 1, 1861, and the responsibility for its operation was transferred to the Overland Mail Company controlled by Wells, Fargo. Russell, Majors, and Waddell were forced into bankruptcy, and the Pony Express was officially discontinued on October 26, 1861, two days after the overland telegraph line was completed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloss, Roy S. Pony Express: The Great Gamble. Berkeley, Calif.: Howell-North Books, 1959. A carefully researched, well-balanced story of the Pony Express.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Champlin, Tim. Swift Thunder. New York: Leisure Books, 2000. One of the few adult novels about the Pony Express, this well-written story of a Pony Express rider offers a vivid and largely authentic depiction of what life was like on the trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapman, Arthur. The Pony Express. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932. A well-written, popular account of the history and lore of the Pony Express.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corbett, Christopher. Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Corbett sifts through the legend that is the Pony Express, examining both its truths and fictions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hafen, LeRoy R. The Overland Mail, 1848-1869: Promoter of Settlement, Precursor of Railroads. 1926. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. This classic work on the subject provides the essential background for understanding the Pony Express in a single chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Contrasts the historical myths and the reality of the American West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moeller, Bill, and Jan Moeller. The Pony Express: A Photographic History. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 2002. A pictorial history of the Pony Express, with notes to the reader, photographs of stations along the route, and the appendix “Legends of the Pony Express: Facts and Fictions.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Rodman W. The Far West and the Great Plains in Transition, 1859-1900. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. A history of the settlement and development of the American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Settle, Raymond W., and Mary L. Settle. Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1955. Written by authors who have spent a lifetime studying the history of the Russell, Majors, and Waddell Company, for which their ancestors worked.

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Categories: History