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 departed on horseback with a bag of mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, United States. He headed west on the first leg 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 Pony Express.

The president of the National Pony Express Association, Les Bennington, compares the advent of the legendary Pony Express to a more recent advance in communication. "The Pony Express was the e-mail of 1860 and 1861, because it would make the trip in the summer months in 10 days," he says.

Before 1860, mail from the eastern United States sent to the West Coast traveled by stagecoach on the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, a 4,526-kilometer (2,812-mile) route through the present-day states of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The Butterfield Overland Mail Trail ended in San Francisco, California. From Missouri, the trail swung south to avoid regions of the west that were frequently covered in snow during the winter months. 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—by train, and 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 says.

Riding the Pony Express

Studded with 153 stations, the Pony Express trail utilized around 80 riders and between 400 to 500 horses to carry mail from the settled Midwest to the new state of California, which had experienced a surge in population after the 1849 gold rush.

In fact, the western end of the Pony Express was the B.F. Hastings Building in Sacramento, California, near where gold was found years earlier. In the large building, the Pony Express office shared space with the California Supreme Court and Theodore Judah, the engineer who is largely responsible for the planning of the first transcontinental railroad.

Riders for the Pony Express carried the mail in saddlebags along the trail for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles) before transferring the mail to another rider at a home station. Home stations could vary from a nice shelter, like a hotel, to a more primitive rest stop such as a dugout near a creek. The more elite home stations were usually located along the eastern route, which were located in stable urban areas. The West was still being settled with permanent residents, and western home stations were often spartan.

Along their section of trail, riders would stop every 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles) to hop onto a fresh horse at the four to six relay stations on their leg.

Jackie Lewin, the executive director of the St. Joseph Museums and the co-author of On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders, says that 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. There are some historians who dispute Cody's claim that he was employed by the Pony Express, however.

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

Even though riders from the Pony Express had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes, 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, who realized that the settlers would permanently disrupt their way of life, began attacking Pony Express stations in the area. The Pyramid Lake War caused the Pony Express 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 says. "It cost about $75,000. It really did hurt the company."

Bennington, president of the National Pony Express Association, says that the station keepers of the Pony Express, not its riders, were most susceptible to attacks by the Paiute. "We had quite a few station keepers killed," he says. "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 the Native Americans that caused the demise 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 sewing the west to the rest of the nation. This development had actually been expected by the owners of the Pony Express, who always viewed the service as a temporary one.

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 American West. Bennington, whose organization has conducted a re-ride over the Pony Express Trail every year since 1980, is still in awe of the Pony Express riders 150 years after Fry's first ride.

"It was no small undertaking when you start to look back and see what these people had," he says. "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."

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express, the city of St. Joseph, Missouri, hosted a Buffalo Bill Look-a-Like Contest, some Pony Express re-enactments and a parade with the Budweiser Clydesdales. In addition, the National Pony Express Association embarked on a special 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) re-ride of the 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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