Pony Power

Pony Power

In its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express became a legend. The service provided a faster way to transport mail across the United States, just before the use of the telegraph.


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Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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On April 3, 1860, a rider set out on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, United States. The man's name was Johnny Fry. He carried a bag of mail with him. Fry traveled west for many kilometers (miles). Then, he passed his bag on to another rider. This rider traveled some more, then passed the bag to another rider. The next rider did the same, and so on. In the end, the mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. It had traveled 3,319 kilometers (2,000 miles).

This was the first ride of the Pony Express. Never before had mail been delivered so quickly.

Les Bennington is the president of the National Pony Express Association. This group helps keep the memory of the Pony Express alive. Before 1860, mail sent from the eastern United States to the West Coast took much longer. It got carried by stagecoach, ship, or train. It took weeks, or even months, Bennington said. Everything changed with the Pony Express. Now mail could be delivered in just 10 days, he said.

Riding the Pony Express

The Pony Express had 153 stations along its route. Riders used the stations to rest, switch horses and pass off the mail. There were around 80 riders in all. There were 400 to 500 horses.

Each rider traveled about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles). Riders would stop every 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles). They would then hop onto a fresh horse. The horses were waiting for them at one of the stations on their route. Some stations were nice hotels. Others were nothing but a simple shack.

The riders were usually small, light men. Most were around 20 years old. The most popular rider was William Frederick Cody. He became famous under the name "Buffalo Bill."

Pony Express riders traveled over mountains and through deserts. They faced tornadoes, and bison stampedes, which could trample them. The toughest challenge came in May of 1860. In that month, the Pyramid Lake War broke out.

The war started after white settlers poured into Nevada. They came looking for silver. The Paiute tribe that lived in the area felt their land was being invaded. They decided to fight back. They attacked Pony Express stations, and destroyed many of them. Some riders were killed when delivering mail. But, station keepers were in greater danger. Station keepers were people who ran the stations. Quite a few of them were killed.

The Pony Express ended after just 18 months. War with the Paiute wasn't the reason, though. Instead, it was a new invention, the telegraph machine. The machine could send messages instantly from one end of the country to the other.

Legacy of the Pony Express

The Pony Express did not last long. It has never been forgotten, though. It played an important part in the history of the U.S. West. The National Pony Express Association still organizes rides along the Pony Express Trail.

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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

Fast Fact

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.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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