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, carrying a bag of mail. He headed west on the first stretch of a 3,219-kilometer (2,000-mile) route across the North American continent. The mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. This was the first ride of the United States' Pony Express.

The president of the National Pony Express Association, Les Bennington, compared the beginning of the legendary Pony Express to a more recent advance in communication. "The Pony Express was the e-mail of 1860 and 1861," he said. Rather than taking weeks or months as with previous mail methods, the Pony Express took only 10 days.

Before 1860, mail from the eastern United States sent to the West Coast traveled by stagecoach on the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail. The trail was 4,526 kilometers (2,812 miles) long, and passed through the present-day states of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending in San Francisco, California. 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 America and South America. From there it continued on its journey by train, and then 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 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 settled Midwest to the new state of California, which had been growing rapidly since the gold rush of 1849. The western end of the Pony Express was the B.F. Hastings Building in Sacramento, California.

Riders for the Pony Express carried the mail in saddlebags along the trail for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles). They then transferred the mail to another rider at a home station. Home stations could vary from a nice hotel to a simple rest stop, such as a dugout near a creek. The fancier home stations were usually located along the eastern route, where there were established cities.

Along their section of trail, riders would stop every 10 to 15 miles. They would then hop onto a fresh horse at the four to six relay stations on their stretch of the route.

Jackie Lewin is the co-author of On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders. She said 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.

Pony Express riders rode over rugged territory that included passes high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. However, 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 said. "That's the area where the Paiute Indians attacked the line."

Riders from the Pony Express had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes. However, 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. The Paiute tribe quickly realized the new settlers would permanently destroy their way of life. They began attacking Pony Express stations, causing the company 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 said. "It cost about $75,000. It really did hurt the company."

According to Bennington, the station keepers of the Pony Express, not its riders, were most at risk of being attacked by the Paiute. "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 just 18 months after it first began delivering mail. Rather, it was a technological development: the construction of telegraph lines that ended up connecting the west to the rest of the nation.

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 U.S. West. Bennington's organization has conducted a re-ride over the Pony Express Trail every year since 1980.

Bennington said he remains in awe of the Pony Express riders. "It was no small undertaking when you start to look back and see what these people had," 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.

Media Credits

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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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