By Barbara Ellin Fox
I loved westerns as a kid. If it had a horse in I watched it. Those old movies really glorified the cowboy way and I think the Pony Express must be one one the most romanticized pieces of American West history. It ranks right up there with the story of Jesse James. But romantic or not, the Pony Express rider is an image of the American rider and American grit.
The truth about the Pony Express is that it lasted only 19 months from April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861, used between 400-500 horses, 80 men and had more than 100 stations. The total distance traveled, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California was almost 2000 miles and was traveled in heats from station to station. Horses normally covered about 15 miles between stations where the rider would change horses and travel on. 2 minutes was allowed for changes so it was important that the rider blow his horn on the way into the station so his next mount could be prepared to go. The mail was carried in a “mochila” that the rider sat on. This left his hands free for riding and the mochila was easy to grab and move to the next mount in a hurry. The riders themselves covered about 250 miles in 24 hours.
While the movies would like us to believe that the biggest dangers was from Indians, more frequent hazards were from weather and bad footing. In the 19 months of the Pony Express only 1 mail delivery was lost. A pretty amazing accomplishment.
In the heat of concern about Texas’ possible succession prior to the Civil war the Pony Express used an alternate northern route. to the southern route used by the Butterfield Express. Founder William H. Russell believed that not only was his route better but that he could deliver the mail in 10 days as opposed to Butterfield’s 30. Russell’s assertion was proved true with the very first ride when rider’s left at the same time from both the St. Joseph depot and the Sacramento station covering the distance in 9 days and 23 hours for the trip from St. Joseph.
Russell and his partners were unable to get any help or contract form the government for his project and with the purchase of horses and establishment of stations, the Pony Express started out in debt. Even charging $5 an ounce for a letter they could not make headway on the debt and when the Pacific telegraph was established in 1861 Pony Express was not needed anymore and it’s founders went bankrupt.
2010 is the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express. The National Pony Express Association is holding an annual re-ride over the Pony Express National Historic Trail June 6-26. To learn more about it visit http://www.xphomestation.com/150th-Anniversary.html .
You can also learn more about the Pony Express at the national museum at http://www.ponyexpress.org/index.php . And Equus magazine has a terrific article in the June 2010 issue titled, Remembering the Pony Express.
Barbara Ellin Fox
Would you like to receive interesting articles from U.S. Horsemanship right in your inbox? Find out about the advantages of signing up to receive the U.S. Horseman Updates by clicking on the subscribe page. Or you can sign up directly by filling out the form on this page.
And if you’re interested in riding or teaching riding, please visit my other blog, The Riding Instructor at http://theridinginstructor.net/