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 named Johnny Fry set out on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, United States. He carried a bag of mail with him. Fry headed west on the first stretch of a 3,319-kilometer (2,000-mile) route across the North American continent. Then, he passed his bag on to another rider. This rider traveled some more, then passed the bag to another rider, and so on. The mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. This was the first ride of the Pony Express.

Les Bennington is the president of the National Pony Express Association. He compared the beginning of the legendary Pony Express to a more recent invention. "The Pony Express was the e-mail of 1860 and 1861," he said. Rather than taking weeks or months like previous mail service, the Pony Express took only 10 days.

Before 1860, mail from the eastern United States sent to the West Coast traveled by stagecoach. The route took around three weeks. Mail could also be sent by ship and train. This could take months. "The mail was old—and the news was old—by the time it got there," Bennington said.

Riding the Pony Express

The Pony Express had 153 stations along its route. Around 80 riders and between 400 to 500 horses 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 for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles). They then transferred the mail to another rider at a home station. Home stations ranged from nice hotels to simple shacks.

Riders would stop every 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles). They would then hop onto a fresh horse at the four to six home 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 through rugged territory, including mountain ranges. The most difficult parts of the trail were its desert regions, though. As they traveled, riders had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes. The greatest difficulty came in May of 1860 with the outbreak of the Pyramid Lake War.

The war began after a flood of white settlers seeking silver in Nevada came into conflict with the region's native inhabitants, the Paiute. The Paiute tribe quickly realized that the new settlers could bring an end to their way of life. They began attacking Pony Express stations, and destroyed many of them. The company had to end travel through Nevada and Utah for a month.

According to Bennington, it wasn't the Pony Express riders who were most at risk of being attacked by the Paiute. It was the station keepers.

"We had quite a few station keepers killed," he said. "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 Native Americans that caused the end of the Pony Express after just 18 months. Rather, it was a new invention, the telegraph machine. The machine allowed messages to be sent 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. Bennington's group has organized a ride along the Pony Express Trail every year since 1980.

Today, Bennington remains deeply impressed by the Pony Express riders. "It was no small undertaking," he said. "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."

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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