The Pony Express: A Journey Across the American West

Mail From Coast to Coast: During the mid-1800s, American settlers were on the move, relocating from crowded Eastern cities to the untamed wilderness of the West. Many made their way to California. With the surge of settlers, California began to thrive and emerge as a new center for commerce. Businesses and settlers in the West needed a fast way to correspond with their Eastern contemporaries. Recognizing a business opportunity, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell established the Pony Express. The Pony Express consisted of relays of men riding horses carrying saddlebags of mail across a 2,000-mile trail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The service opened officially on April 3, 1860.

A Dangerous Ride: 120 young riders carried correspondence through dire conditions, bravely speeding across the prairies, mountains, and deserts with only the whip of the wind at their backs. The brave few faced freezing temperatures, limited supply lines, hostile Native Americans, and dangerous raiders. Many riders were killed while making the journey.

Exchanging Mail at Schell Creek Station: An individual rider did not typically carry the mail for more than 75 miles (or longer than a 24-hour journey). Swing stations and home stations were established to help the riders make their way across the West. Swing stations were located 10-15 miles apart. At the swing station, a rider dismounted from his tired horse and quickly mounted a fresh horse ready to restart the journey. The exchanges were quick—never lasting more than two minutes—just long enough for the rider to take a quick drink and swing the mochila over the saddle of his new horse. This spot marks the swing station at Schell Creek (Pony Express Station 128). Westbound riders would have reached the station on the seventh or eighth day of the mail’s ten-day journey.

The Pony is Replaced: As telegraph lines moved across the West, the Pony Express became obsolete. Schell Creek Station outgrew its purpose. The area was renamed Schellbourne and instead of welcoming dusty, trail-worn Pony Express riders, a small mining community of 400 persons occupied the area.

This historic marker is located at the Schellbourne Rest Area is located along Highway 93 in Nevada.

National Pony Express Centennial Association – 1860-61 – Trail Marker – 1960-61

The Crowds Cheered On…

In 1845, it took six months to get a message from the east coast of the United States to California. By the time it arrived, the news was old. In the late 1850s, a half million people had migrated west, and they wanted up-to-date news from home. Something had to be done to deliver mail faster and to improve communication in the expanding nation.

“The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company,” a subsidiary of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, announced the formation of the Pony Express on January 27, 1860. They planned to carry letter mail between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California in only ten days. Although the Pony Express was a financially risky enterprise, the company hoped to attract a lucrative contract with the U.S. Postal Service.

Knowing that a healthy horse could run at a full gallop for only 10 to 12 miles, the Pony Express needed stations for its riders to change mounts. They utilized existing stage stations on the eastern end of the route, but needed to build many new station in remote areas across the Great Basin. Alexander Majors said that 400 to 500 mustang horses were purchased, 200 men were hired to manage the station, and 80 riders signed on to begin the run of the Pony Express.

Although the Pony Express captured the admiration, imagination, and hearts of people, it was a financial disaster for its founders. The Pony era, however, was not brought to an end by its financial failure, weather, or even problems with Indians – but by the completion of the Transcontinental Telegraph on October 26, 1861.

Every neck is stretched, and every eye stained… Across the endless prairie a black spec appears… In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling – sweeping toward us – growing more and more distinct, 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 hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like belated fragment of a storm.” – Mark Twain – Roughing It, 1872.

Speedy Riders

The first teams of Pony Express riders amazed the nation by accomplishing their east and west bound deliveries within the projected 10 day schedule. The speed of the riders even had a role in swaying a divided California to stay with the union during the American Civil War. News of President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration address was delivered in record-setting time—a mere seven and one-half days.

On a typical run, Pony Express riders changed horses at “relay stations” located every 12-15 miles. At “home stations,” spaced about every 75-100 miles, a fresh rider and mount would continue the run to the next relay station.

With speed however, came limits. Each express rider had a carrying capacity of about 10 pounds. The payload was limited to what could fit into the four pockets of the “mochila.”

High demand for such limited capacity, combined with the monumental express of funding the system made Pony Express rates extremely high: initially $5.00 per half ounce, or $1,000 per ounce in 2002 dollars. Consequently, other than the military and the U.S. Government, only major newspapers and other well-capitalized businesses and individuals could afford the service.

The Mochila

The mochila, a leather apron that slipped over the rider’s saddle, was the most important piece of his gear. It had four small, lockable pouches that securely held the mail as the horse galloped toward the next station.

The saddles used by Express riders were custom made to be lighter and more streamlined, allowing the mochila to be easily removed from one saddle and tossed over the horn and seat of the saddle on the next horse.

Saddles made by Israel Landis typically were lighter and more comfortable for both horse and rider.

Strength and Endurance

Descriptions of the variety and number of horses used by the Pony Express became distorted during the course of its history since November 1861. In general, the type of horse used for carrying the rider and mail depended greatly on the region. The more fleet-footed thoroughbred horses worked fine on the central prairies, but the strength and endurance of half-broken mustangs were needed to cross the arid deserts and rugged mountain ranges of the West. Alexander Majors, one of the three founders of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company’s Pony Express, chose the California mustang for its strength and endurance, describing it “as alert and energetic as their riders.”

As each of the more than 100 stations spread along the route, relays of horses needed to be kept in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of the relay system. As the C.O.C.&P.P.E.C prepared for the “start-up” of the Pony Express, the company estimated that it would take approximately 75 horses to make the nearly 2,000 mile trip from Missouri to California.

A little more than two months before the first riders left from St. Joseph and Sacramento, the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell began purchasing 500 of the best horses available, paying as much as $200 a head for some stock. One ad, posted in the Kansas Leavenworth Daily Times, asked for “200 grey mares, from four to seven years old, not to exceed fifteen hands high, well broke to the saddle and warranted sound …”

So, just how far and how long can a horse run? A modern-day horse in good shape can travel at a full gallop on flat terrain for maybe five to eight miles. Over the mountainous terrain in the Sierra Nevada, a horse and rider may be able to cover five miles. Pony Express mustangs could travel at speeds of about 10 miles an hour, but at times could gallop at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. At a full gallop, the distance that the horse could travel before becoming exhausted depended on several variables—if it was a hot or cool day, state of health, and when the horse last had a drink of water.

A good Pony Express rider rode his horse at a steady spring and generally galloped the horse only to get out of harm’s way. None were easy to ride, but all agreed that in a race for life and mounted on a half-broken mustang, the express rider could leave danger far behind.

There were about eighty pony riders in the saddle all the time, night and day, stretching in a long, scattering procession from Missouri to California, forty flying eastward, and forty toward the west, and among them making four hundred gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and see a deal of scenery every single day of the year.”—Mark Twin, Roughing It, 1872

“The worst imps of Satan in the business. The only way I could master them was to throw them and get a rope around each foot and stake them out, and have a man on the head and another on the body while I trimmed the feet and nailed the shoes on … It generally took half a day to shoe one of them.”
—Pony Express Farrier and Station Keeper, Levi Hansel, in 1901 describing his experience shoeing half-wild California mustangs at Seneca, Kansas. Photograph—D.B. Young, wild mustangs near Simpson Springs Pony Express Station, January 2010.