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 more, then passed the bag to another, and so on. The mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. It had traveled 3,319 kilometers (2,000 miles) across the whole continent of North America.

This was the first ride of the Pony Express. Never before had mail been delivered so quickly over such a great distance.

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 was carried by stagecoach from the East Coast to the West Coast. It could also be sent by ship and train. The stagecoach took around three weeks. Routes that used boats could take months, Bennington said. Whatever mail and news carried over those routes was old, he said. Now, with the Pony Express, mail could be delivered in just 10 days.

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. Altogether, there were around 80 riders and between 400 to 500 horses. They carried mail from the Midwest to the new state of California. The western end of the Pony Express was Sacramento, California.

Riders for the Pony Express carried the mail in saddlebags. Each rider traveled for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles). They then passed the mail to another rider at a home station. Some home stations were nice hotels. Others were nothing but a simple shack.

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 four to six stations on their section of the route.

Most of the riders were small, lightweight men around 20 years old. The most popular rider was William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He later became famous for his Wild West stage show.

Pony Express riders traveled over mountains and through deserts. They had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes. However, the greatest challenge came in May of 1860. In that month, the Pyramid Lake War broke out.

The war began after many white settlers arrived in Nevada to look for silver. The Paiute tribe which lived in the region felt their land was being invaded. They decided to fight back. They began attacking and destroying Pony Express stations. The company had to end travel through Nevada and Utah for a month.

It wasn't the Pony Express riders who were most in danger, Bennington said. It was the station keepers. Quite a few of them were killed. Only a few riders were killed as they were delivering the mail. Several more were killed defending the stations, Bennington said. Station keepers were people who ran the stations.

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

Legacy of the Pony Express

The Pony Express had a short run. It has never been forgotten, though. It played an important role in the history of the U.S. West. Every year since 1980, the National Pony Express Association has organized a ride along the Pony Express Trail.

Bennington said the Pony Express riders had a tough job. When it's cold out, "there's no place colder than on the back of a horse," he said. The riders didn't have the kind of warm clothes we have today. "You gotta keep in mind they didn't have down-filled jackets or hats made for snowy conditions," Bennington said.

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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