• Pony Power
    The Pony Express sought employees with this advertisement: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

    Photograph courtesy The St. Joseph Museums, Inc.

    Pony Express National Historic Trail
    Although most of the trail used by the Pony Express has been overtaken by development, the route is a National Historic Trail. A driving map of eight states is available from the National Parks Service.

    Horsey Express
    The Pony Express didn't actually use ponies. Ponies are small breeds of horses. The Pony Express used regular horses that were incredibly reliable, fast, and tough. They galloped at speeds between 16 and 40 kilometers per hour (10 and 25 miles per hour). The horses that ran the eastern part of the Pony Express route were often cavalry horses used by the military. Read more about the horses of the Pony Express here.

    Pony Express GPS
    The National Pony Express Association conducts rides of the trail every year. Spectators can follow the riders with GPS.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    On April 3, 1860, a rider named Johnny Fry departed on horseback with a bag of mail from St. Joseph, Missouri. He headed west on the first leg of a 2,000-mile route across the continent. The mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. This was the first ride of the Pony Express.

    The current president of the National Pony Express Association, Les Bennington, compares the advent of the legendary Pony Express to a more recent advance in communication. “The Pony Express was the e-mail of 1860 and 1861, because it would make the trip in the summer months in 10 days,” he says.

    Before 1860, mail from the eastern United States sent to the west coast traveled by stagecoach on the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, a 4526-kilometer (2,812-mile) route through the present-day states of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The Butterfield Overland Mail Trail ended in San Francisco. From Missouri, the trail swung south to avoid regions of the west that were frequently covered in snow during the winter months. Delivery took around three weeks.

    Mail was also carried by ship down the eastern seaboard, over the Isthmus of Panama—a narrow strip of land that links North and South America—by train, and up the west coast of Central America, Mexico, and California by boat. That route took an even longer time.

    “That would take probably two to three months, so the mail was old—and the news was old—by the time it got there,” Bennington says.

    Riding the Pony Express

    Studded with 153 stations, the Pony Express trail utilized 80 riders and between 400 to 500 horses to carry mail from the settled Midwest to the new state of California, which had experienced a surge in population after the 1849 Gold Rush.

    In fact, the western end of the Pony Express was the B.F. Hastings Building in Sacramento, near where gold was found years earlier. In the large building, the Pony Express office shared space with the California Supreme Court and Theodore Judah, the engineer who is largely responsible for the planning of the first transcontinental railroad.

    Riders for the Pony Express carried the mail in saddlebags along the trail for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles) before transferring the mail to another rider at a home station. Home stations could vary from a nice shelter, like a hotel, to a more primitive rest stop such as a dugout near a creek. The more elite home stations were usually located along the eastern route, which had stable urban areas. The west was still being settled with permanent residents, and western home stations were often spartan.


    Along their section of trail, riders would stop every 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles) to hop onto a fresh horse at the four to six relay stations on their leg.

    Jackie Lewin, the executive director of the St. Joseph Museums and the co-author of On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders, says that most of the riders were small, lightweight men around 20 years old. The most popular rider associated with the mail company is William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who later became known for his Wild West stage show. There are some historians who dispute Cody’s claim that he was employed for the Pony Express, however.

    Pony Express riders rode over rugged terrain that included passes high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but Lewin believes the most difficult part of the trail was its desert regions.

    “I would say the hardest section would be the Utah Territory, which would be today’s [states of] Utah and Nevada, because it was pretty isolated and has extreme temperatures,” she says. “That’s the area where the Paiute Indians attacked the line.”

    Even though riders from the Pony Express had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes, the greatest difficulty for the mail carriers occurred in May of 1860 with the eruption of the Pyramid Lake War. A flood of white settlers seeking silver in Nevada brought the newcomers into conflict with the region’s native inhabitants, the Paiute Indians. The Paiutes, who realized that the settlers would permanently disrupt their way of life, began attacking Pony Express stations in the area. The Pyramid Lake War caused the Pony Express to suspend operations from Carson City, Nevada, to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a month.

    “The company had to rebuild stations and restock them,” Lewin says. “It cost about $75,000. It really did hurt the company.”

    Bennington, president of the National Pony Express Association, says that the station keepers of the Pony Express, not its riders, were most susceptible to attacks by the Paiute. “We had quite a few station keepers killed,” he says. “We know one rider was killed by Indians. Overall, we didn’t lose many riders that were actually carrying the mail. There were some other ones that were killed just defending the stations.”

    Yet it wasn’t conflict with the Native Americans that caused the demise of the Pony Express just 18 months after it first began delivering mail. Rather, it was a technological development: the construction of telegraph lines that ended up sewing the west to the rest of the nation. This development had actually been expected by the owners of the Pony Express, who always viewed the service as a temporary one.

    Legacy of the Pony Express

    Even though the Pony Express had a relatively short run, it has secured a prominent position in the history of the American West. Bennington, whose organization has conducted a re-ride over the Pony Express Trail every year since 1980, is still in awe of the Pony Express riders 150 years after Fry’s first ride.

    “It was no small undertaking when you start to look back and see what these people had,” he says. “I mean there’s no place colder than on the back of a horse when it’s brutally cold. You gotta keep in mind they didn’t have down-filled jackets or hats made for snowy conditions.”

    To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express, the city of St. Joseph, Missouri, hosted a Buffalo Bill Look-a-Like Contest, some Pony Express re-enactments, and a parade with the Budweiser Clydesdales. In addition, the National Pony Express Association embarked on a special 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) re-ride of the trail.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    advent Noun

    start or beginning of something.

    American West Noun

    U.S. states west of the Missisippi River.

    awe Noun

    great respect or amazement.

    bison Noun

    large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.

    breed Verb

    to produce offspring.

    brutally Adverb

    roughly or not gently.

    Butterfield Overland Mail Trail Noun

    (1857-1861) mail route from Missouri to California.

    cavalry Noun

    military unit that serves on horseback.

    Clydesdale Noun

    large, powerful horse originally bred in Scotland.

    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    communication Noun

    sharing of information and ideas.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    demise Noun

    death or end.

    depart Verb

    to leave.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    development Noun

    growth, or changing from one condition to another.

    Encyclopedic Entry: development
    dispute Noun

    debate or argument.

    down Noun

    soft, fuzzy feathers of young birds.

    dugout Noun

    temporary shelter dug out from the earth around a river or hill.

    eastern seaboard Noun

    eastern coast of a continent, usually referring to the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida.

    elite Adjective

    exclusive or the best.

    embark Verb

    to leave or set off on a journey.

    frequent Adjective

    often.

    gallop Verb

    to ride a horse at full speed.

    Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun

    system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    home station Noun

    stop on the Pony Express where riders would rest and transfer mail to another rider.

    horseback Adverb

    riding on the back of a horse.

    hotel Noun

    business offering shelter to guests.

    isolate Verb

    to set one thing or organism apart from others.

    isthmus Noun

    narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses.

    Encyclopedic Entry: isthmus
    Midwest Noun

    area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

    Native American Noun

    person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

    operations Noun

    work or work processes.

    Paiute Noun

    people and culture native to the Great Basin.

    pony Noun

    small breed of horse.

    Pony Express Noun

    (1860-1861) mail route between Missouri and California.

    primitive Adjective

    simple or crude.

    prominent Adjective

    important or standing out.

    Pyramid Lake War Noun

    (1860) violent dispute between settlers and Paiute, centered around Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Also called the Paiute War or the Washoe Indian War.

    relatively Adverb

    in comparison to something else.

    reliable Adjective

    dependable or consistent.

    route Noun

    path or way.

    rugged Adjective

    having an irregular or jagged surface.

    saddlebag Noun

    large bag laid over the back of a horse, behind the saddle.

    sesquicentennial Noun

    150th anniversary.

    settler Noun

    person who migrates and establishes a residence in a largely unpopulated area.

    Spartan Adjective

    simple and lacking in any luxury.

    stable Noun

    building where horses or other animals are kept.

    stagecoach Noun

    covered vehicle pulled by horses, used to transport people and cargo.

    stampede Noun

    sudden, violent movement of a crowd.

    surge noun, verb

    sudden, strong movement forward.

    susceptible Adjective

    able to be influenced to behave a certain way.

    suspend Verb

    to temporarily stop an activity.

    telegraph Noun

    system of communication involving devices connected through electrical wires.

    temporary Adjective

    not lasting or permanent.

    terrain Noun

    topographic features of an area.

    tornado Noun

    a violently rotating column of air that forms at the bottom of a cloud and touches the ground.

    transfer Verb

    to pass or switch from one to another.

    urban area Noun

    developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban area
    Utah Territory Noun

    (1850-1896) administrative area of the United States, including all or part of the modern states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.

    vary Verb

    to change.

    Wild West Noun

    (1850-1900) western part of the United States, before and during the establishment of stable government.

    William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody Noun

    (1846-1917) American entertainer.

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