Pony Express

The ten-day delivery period provided by the Pony Express greatly shortened communication times between the East and West Coast of the United States and helped foster the development of the West. However, the Pony Express became obsolete only eighteen months after it began when the transcontinental telegraph service suddenly made possible virtually instantaneous cross-country communication.

In 1860, a tiny advertisement appeared in many American newspapers calling for “Young Skinny Wiry Fellows not over eighteen” who were “willing to risk death daily: for twenty-five dollars per week.” Now famous because it launched the creation of the Pony Express, that advertisement attracted eighty riders, forty of whom were assigned to begin carrying mail from the east and forty from the west. The young riders dressed in their distinctive costumes of gaudy red shirts and blue pants.Pony Express

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 WaddellRussell, 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.

Origins of the Pony Express

Some historians claim that the Pony Express had actually begun in 1839, when a Swiss adventurer named John Augustus Sutter 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 American population on the West Coast had grown to one-half million people, three hundred thousand of whom were in California. Transplanted from the East, they craved information, letters, newspapers, books, and magazines from “the States.” They wanted news that was less than a month or two old.

William M. Gwin, William M.Gwin, 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 HepburnRussell, William Hepburn 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. 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 $5 per ounce within ten days–half the time required 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.

How the System Operated

Mail packages, wrapped in oiled silk to protect them from the weather, were placed in leather mochilas that fit over the riders’ saddles. No more than twenty pounds of mail were carried by a single pony. The number of letters in a given package depended on their total weight. Among the most famous deliveries west were a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address and news of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War.

A Pony Express rider passes men stringing wires for the transcontinental telegraph, which would render the Pony Express obsolete.

(Library of Congress)

The Pony Express was organized as a giant relay, with each rider driving a pony at a gallop from one station to 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 was 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 and “Pony Bob” Haslam made rides of several hundred miles that brought them great fame.

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 system then 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.

Financial Problems

Although rates were high–it cost approximately $38 to deliver each letter–the numbers of letters carried increased from 49 to 350 per trip within a year. Nevertheless, Russell, Majors, and Waddell encountered financial difficulties. They lost about $1,000 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, 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 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

  • 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.
  • 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 its fictions.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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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