(In picture Frank E. Webner, 1861)
(in picture pony Express rider Frank E. Webner 1861)
Origins of the Pony Express
Up to the time the Pony
Express started, other ways had been used for getting mail to California.
The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was formed in April 1848. The first
ship, California, made it around Cape Horn to San Francisco, California
on February 28, 1849, carrying the first 49ers. People were dissatisfied
with how slow this was. Pacific Steam would eventually build a railroad
across the Isthmus of Panama but that wouldn't be until 1855. In the meantime,
many others tried to satisfy the need for fast mail.
One entrepreneur, Alexander H. Todd started a one man express service
where he charged a fee in gold dust to take mail to and from the coastal
post offices to miners in the field. Sometimes he would bring back gold
to deposit in a bank for them. Express companies soon sprang up all over,
one of the most famous being Wells, Fargo & Company. On May 1, 1851,
George Corpenning left Sacramento on mule back with 70 or 75 pounds of
mail. He reached Salt Lake City in 53 days. In 1858, he carried the mail
via stage coach on a new route south of the Humboldt River to stations
at Rush Valley, Deep Creek, Ruby Valley, and maybe Smith Creek and Buckland's.
This route was later known as Egan's route, which became part of the Pony
The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was hired to carry mail along the
Central Route surveyed by the war department. John Butterfield would later
become one of the greatest figures in transportation history. Their first
trip left San Francisco and St. Louis simultaneously on September 15,
1858. It took 23 days and four hours to go east, 25 days to go west.
A new gold strike in Colorado brought up the same problems of slow mail.
Express runners like Jim Saunders did the same service as those on the
Enter the Russell, Majors, & Waddell company. They had acquired the
J.M. Hockaday & Company to transport mail. They used that company's
established route from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, via Ft. Kearney,
Julesburg, and Ft. Laramie. This route connected to the route from Leavenworth
to Kennekuk to the north, where it joined the Hockaday trail at Atchison
or St. Joseph. To get to Denver they'd go off that trail and up the South
Platte to St. Vrain's Fort,and then on to Denver. This stage was very
successful and greatly appreciated by Denver residents.
Russell, the majority shareholder in the enterprise, was consumed with
wining the entire overland mail route and beating the Butterfield Company
out. He needed something really spectacular to capture world-wide attention.
This was when he came up with the idea of fast horsemen running the route
from Kansas to Sacramento on the Central Route. They could carry only
letters, telegrams, and newspapers. They would ride day and night. Russell
is usually given all the credit for this, though he had help from some
of his other investors.
Alexander was born in Franklin,
Kentucky on October 4, 1814. He came to Missouri in October 1818. His
family settled at Ft. Osage Military Reservation where his dad built a
cabin. This was really the frontier and he learned the backbreaking physical
work it took.
On November 6, 1834, he married Catherine Stalcup. They moved to a farm
on the headwaters of Grand River. They supplemented their meager income
by trading with the Indians, the Pottawatomies. By 1846 were driving to
their reservation on the Kaw River to trade. In 1848, he got a contract
to transport merchandise to Santa Fe. He made the first tround trip in
92 days, a record. He made several more trips and a few military supply
runs. He was very successful at handling both his oxen and his men. In
1854, it was decided that the military needed one contract for supplies
so that resupply could be planned. Neither Majors or William Russell had
the money alone, but together they did. They joined forces in 1854 and
formed a partnership.
William H. Russell
William was born in Burlington,
Vermont on January 31, 1812. He moved to Missouri during the 1820s. As
a teenager he went to work for Ely and Curtis, pioneer merchants at Liberty.
Then he worked for James Aull and Samuel Ringo at Liberty. Aull had important
influence on the Santa Fe trail and the fur trade.
In 1830, Russell was sent to Lexington, where he learned the frontier
mercantile business. One June 9, 1835, he maried Harriet Elliot, daughter
of a preacher. This gave him social recognition. In 1837, he took his
first stab at his own busines and organized the Lexington First Addition
Company, a publicly traded company. Then he quit the aull store and formed
the Allen, Russell, and Company with James S. Allen and William Early.
In 1844, he opend another store with James H. Bullard called Bullard and
Russell. The first store failed in 1845, but he had been able to purchase
several lots in town and several thousand acres of farm land in the meanwhile.
In 1847, he joined with E.C. McCarty, who was sending a wagon train to
Santa Fe. They performed the same job in 1848. In 1849, he organized a
military supply train to Sante Fe. By this time he was 40, very successful
with his business, had a large house, and was socially active.
The Pony Express Organizes
The first run would be
made by the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company,
a firm owned by the Russell, Majors, and Waddell group. The route only
went as far as Salt Lake City at first. On May 11, 1860, the firm won
the contract from George Chorpenning for the rest of the route to Sacramento.
The headquarters for the company was at St. Joseph, Missouri.
The route was 1966 miles from St. Joseph to Sacramento, one of the longest
overland routes in the world. It went mostly through prairie, desert,
dry and barren country. The route was divided into give divisions with
a superintendent of each. They were:
* St. Joseph to Ft. Kearney, HQ at St. Joseph - A.E. Lewis, stationmaster
* Ft. Kearney to Horseshoe Station near Ft. Laramie, HQ at Horseshoe -
Joseph Slade, stationmaster
* Horseshoe Station to Salt Lake City, HQ at Weber Station - James E.
* Salt Lake City to Robert's Creek Station, HQ at Salt Lake City - Howard
Egan, stationmaster (Egan was already well known as an explorer, frontiersman,
and former bodyguard of Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, IL)
* Robert's Creek Station to Sacramento, HQ at Carson City - Bolivar Roberts,
Benjamin F. Ficklin was superintendent of the entire route. Relay stations
were built along the entire route. Everyone said lone riders would never
make it because they would be going through hostile Gosh Ute, Pah Ute,
and Shoshone territory, especially in Utah. There were about 120 stations
along the entire route. Every 75 - 100 miles was a home station for resting
before starting back. Each rider rode for two of these.
He changed horses six to eight times going both directions. They had to
keep strictly to the schedule and ride in all weather. They had to be
young men, with great stamina and know about horses. The riders were paid
an average of $50 per month plus room and board. There were 80 riders
at first. Only a few rode for the entire life of the express. They used
over 500 horses at a time.
A special heavy leather satchel (mochila) was made for the mail. Mail
was locked in a pouch on the mochila heading east from Sacramento. If
a rider picked up mail on the mail it was placed in a separate unlocked
pouch on the other side of the mochila. This satchel was a time saver
when it came to changing horses.
The First Ride and the
The first ride was April
3, 1860. The first rider is thought to be Johnson William Richardson.
The ride started at 7:15 p.m., 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. The rider
took the ferry to Elwood, Kansas. He changed horses at Troy, Kennekuk,
and Kickapoo. At 11:30 p.m. he rached the second station at Granada, where
the next rider, Don Rising, waited. During the ride he had made up 45
minutes of the delay. Rising reached Marysville at 8:15 a.m., where Jack
Keetley took over. Keetley rode to Big Sandy, where Henry Wallace took
over. At 5:15 a.m. the next day, April 5, Wallace arrived at Ft. Kearney
where Barney Wintle took over. By the time the mail got to Salt Lake City
it was April 9, 6:25 p.m., and already 18 hours and 45 minutes late. Richards
Erastus "Ras" Egan took over and went to Rush Valley where William
Dennis took it to Egan Canyon. From there William Frederick Fisher took
it to Ruby Valley.
At the same time, riders were leaving Sacramento and going east. Somewhere
east of Salt Lake City, the two riders met on April 8. The eastbound package
arrived at St. Joseph about 4:30 p.m. on April 13, 1860. The westbound
package arrived at Sacramento in the late evening of April 13, 1860. The
second riders were already under way by the time the packages arrived.
It is not known exactly how many riders and who they were, since many
records have been lost. Also, there were not many newspapers in the west
to report on the event. Most "hard" news was overshadowed by
Civil War news. About 120 are thought to have ridden, and there is information
known of only about one- third of them. One early rider was William F.
"Buffalo Bill" Cody. Another was William Campbell, the one that
carried a copy of Lincoln's first message to Congress in 1861 to California.
That was an especially important message since peace or war rode on it
so all haste was taken to get it out fast. They delivered it in seven
days, ten days being the average. Campbell died in 1932 at 90 years old,
the last living Pony Express rider.
"Uncle Nick" Wilson rode for the Pony Express and drove for
the Overland Stage. In 1854, as a 12-year-old, Wilson passed through Jackson
Hole, Wyoming, with the Shoshones. Later the tribe's chief adopted him.
In 1889, he drove the first covered wagons over Teton Pass at Jackson
Hole. The nearby town of Wilson is named after him. Today, Nick's great-great
grandson and his three sons operate the Bar-T-Five Covered Wagon Train
in the same area.
Samuel Gilson was one rider who became a Deputy U.S. Marshall afterwards.
He discovered a mineral later called gilsonite. David Robert Jay was only
13 years old when he was hired on the Pony Express.
John Brown, aka Kootenai Brown, was a Pony Express rider. He and his companion
were captured along the route by a band of Sioux led by Sitting Bull.
Fortunately the friend was part Indian and convinced the Sioux that the
white man was also half Indian. Instead of being scalped they were stripped
and held captive until Sitting Bull figured out what to do with them.
They escaped during the night and in bare feet, naked, and without mail
bag made their way to Fort Stevenson, Montana, in 1868. John got his nickname
from his dealings with the Kootenai Indians when panning for gold in British
Columbia. While there he had several jobs, buffalo hunting, trading whiskey,
etc. He lived off the land for years, selling to the Indians, running
a gambling operation, and guiding hunters. It was during this time that
he realized what had happened to the buffalo and began to be environmentally
conscious. He petitioned the Canadian government to set aside the Kootenai
Lakes area as a national park and to form an international peace park
with Glacier National Park in Montana. In 1895, a forest reserve was established
around the lakes. Brown was appointed fishery officer of the reserve in
1901 and game gaurdian in 1908. When the area became a park it changed
its name to Waterton Lakes, after a long dead English naturalist and explorer
named Charles Waterton who had never been to Canada. In 1914, the boundaries
were extended south to the Montana border, but it wasn't until 1932, 16
years after he died that the U.S. and Canadian governments created the
Glacier National Park/Waterton National Park International Peace Park,
fulfiling Brown's dream. A short trail leads to Brown's grave overlooking
Lower Waterton Lake.
Stations of the Pony Express
The Pony Express was successful
not only because of the riders, but also because of the stations and their
tenders. The location of stations were placed according to necessity not
comfort of occupants. This distance was an approximation of how far a
horse could flat out run, thought to be 10 - 15 miles. The station was
built no matter if there was no water or grass. Both things could be hauled
in or horses could be driven further away to get grass.
Home stations were the old stage stations, the integral ones since they
had more provisions, at least two riders, a station keeper, and 2 - 4
stock tenders. Stages still stopped at some of these stations. Others
were just relay stations that were just for switching horses. Many of
the stations were comfortable, but many were located in harsh desert.
Some were built of adobe, some of rocks, and others duginto a hillside
with a front built on. They had dirt floors, no window glass, and crude
furniture. They had plain food; probably the horses ate better. The stations
in western Utah and eastern Nevada were particularly dangerous since they
were the closest to hostile Indian territory.
The stations are in this order, approximate divisions of states shown,
going west from St. Joseph, Missouri:
* Kansas - Troy, Kennekuk, Log Chain Station, Seneca, Guittard Station,
Marysville, Hollenberg (original house and station still stands)
* Nebraska - Rock Creek Station (site of gunfight with 23-year-old Wild
Bill Hickock and David McCanles in which David and two others were killed),
Liberty Farm, Valley Station, Ft. Kearney, Seventeen Mile, Plum Creek,
Midway, Gilman's, Cottonwood, Fremont Spring, Julesburg, Lodge Pole Creek,
Mud Springs, Scottsbluff
* Wyoming - Spring Ranch, Badeau's Ranch, Ft. Laramie, Ward's, Horseshoe
Station, LaBonte Station, Box Elder, Dear Creek, Little Muddy, Platte
Bridge Station, Red Butte Station, Willow Springs, Split Rock, Three Crossings,
Rock Creek, Pacific Springs, Dry Sandy, Simpson's Hollow, Green River,
Ham's Fork, Millersville, Muddy Creek, Bear River Station, Needle Rocks
* Utah - Weber Station, Carson House, Dixie Creek Station, Big Canyon,
Salt Lake House, Traveler's Rest, Rockwell's, Joe's Dugout, Camp Floyd,
Pass Station, Faust, Point Lookout, Fish Springs, Boyd's Station, Willow
Creek, Deep Creek Station
* Nevada - Antelope Springs, Spring Valley, Egan's Station, Butte Station,
Ruby Valley, Diamond Spring, Robert's Creek, Dry Creek Station, Simpson's
Peak, Reese River Station, Smith's Creek Station, Cold Springs, Williams
Station, Buckland's Station, Carson City Station, Friday's Station, Strawberry.
Pah Ute War
The Pah Ute War disrupted
the Pony Express briefly. About 6,000 Pah Utes lived in the Carson district
of western Nevada. They were upset at the intrusion of the white man.
In January, 1860 they killed Dexter E. Deming on Willow Creek. The whites
demanded the Pah Utes surrender those who killed Deming. Old Winnemuca,
their leader, countered with a demand for $16,000 to pay for the loss
of their hunting grounds and the pinon nut trees that had been cut down.
While negotiations dragged on, a young half breed Bannock Indian named
Mogonnoga rallied some braves. On May 7, they attacked and killed the
station keepers and riders at the Williams Station. The war was one. They
went west and drove off W.H. Bloomfield's cattle. Young Winnemuca tried
to plead with his people for peace, but it was no use. The Indians attacked
and killed people at Honey lake and on the Truckee River. 105 volunteers
assembled to go after them.
Major William O. Ormsley was their leader, but nobody really listened
to him. This, plus the white's contempt for the Pah Ute's fighting ability,
ineffective weapons, and lack of military discipline spelled doom for
almost half of them they rode to Pyramind Lake looking for Indians. They
followed the Truckee River into an area covered with sagebrush with a
grove of cottonwoods beyond. Unwittingly, they had ridden into a trap.
Chaos erupted immediately. The whites tried to retreat up the trail. Their
leader was killed along with 46 others. The news alarmed everyone west
of the spot and people began to fortify homes and businesses.
Pony Express rider, Bob Haslam, set out on May 9 going east. When he arrived
at Carson City there were no relay horses. They had all been taken for
the war. So he rested a big and continued on to Buckland's Station, 75
miles away. There the rider refused to take the mail. So Haslam took $50
from the stationmaster to keep going east. He did it, not for the money,
but for duty. He went through three more stations, eventually going 190
miles without rest. Jay Kelley took the mochila from him at Smith's Creek,
along with news of the Pah Ute War.
On Haslam's return trip, he got to Cold Springs Station only to find it
had been burned down, the keeper killed, and the horses run off. He had
the same kind of news all the way back to Carson City. His total ride
that time was 380 miles in 36 hours.
After Pyramid Lake, 165 men came from Downieville. Volunteers came from
other California and Nevada towns. Army men came. There were eventually
over 800 men that came to fight the Indians. The government gave them
ten days to win. One battle resulted in 26 Indians killed, but the main
body got away. The Indians refused to engage after that. Negotiations
were finally successful between Indian agent Frederick Dodge and chiefs
Young Winnemuca, Oderkoo, and Truckee.
Full scale war was averted, but many small raids continued. The express
was disrupted about 30 days and harassed after that. Small raides continued
about a year. Men were sent out from Camp Floyd near Salt Lake City to
protect the route westward. Bolivar Robers of Carson City huriedly rebuilt
stations and restocked them. More men manned each station until the Indian
troubles were over. The regular schedule resumed on July 7.
Total lost was 150 horses, seven stations, 16 men killed. About $75,000
in replacement buildings and wages was spent. One good outcome of this
whole mess was that the extraordinary feats of the riders was much publicized
during this skirmish, turning them into national heroes.
Troubles on the Pony Express
For all its functional
success, the Pony Express had its problems. Almost from the start the
top executives were squabbling. They each had different visions of the
future and each had different notions of when to take risks. This constant
challenge to authority hurt operations.
The express company was deeply in debt even before it started and the
losses during the Pah Ute War did not help. The company might have remained
solvent if it had not been for the Mormon War of 1857. This started when
the army dispatched 2,500 men to Utah to bring Brigham Young and the Mormons
"in line." On June 19, the Russell, Majors, and Waddell firm
was contacted to supply this excursion. This was because by that time,
the firm had the exclusive military contract. Unfortunately, it was their
They had to transport three million points of supplies. This was bad for
the firm because it was too late in the year for such a journey, plus
all current stocks were already sold. They had to buy 1,000 wagons and
equipment, 8,000-10,000 oxen, and pay 1,200 - 1,500 men. It cost over
$500,000 of their own money.
When Brigham Young heard of the troops coming west, he declared martial
law in the state, and sent out the militia. He told them to stampede stock,
block roads, burn grass, destroy fords, and harass the army in any way
short of killing them. Several wagon trains and over 300,000 pounds of
goods were destroyed, a loss of $72,000 to Russell, Majors, and Waddell.
On November 2, the army gave up the chase for the time being and headed
to Ft. Bridger for the winter. But the Mormons had already burnt it and
there were no supplies.
In the spring of 1858, they presented a bill for $493,553.01 in losses
to the government. None of this was ever paid. The War Department had
exceeded its appropriation and couldn't pay. On January 11, 1858, the
army announced it was sending 3,018 more men to Utah. The firm had to
supply this contingent too since it had the exclusive military contract.
Ten million more pounds of goods had to go, plus wagons and stock had
to be rebought since the most of the previous year's supplies had been
destroyed. This time various loans were given to the Russell firm as calateral
against the sale of the goods to the government. Over $5 million was secured
as loans. In September 1860, they finally received $160,943.84 from the
War Department but it was far from what they owed. A panic in Wall Street
in November when Lincoln was elected didn't help finances either. By 1862,
they owed $1.73 million.
The bid for the Pony Express was to try to recoup some of their losses
from this venture. They would get $470,000 the first year. They also bought
the stage route so they would have a monopoly on all mail, express, and
passenger service west of the Missouri River. Wells Fargo & Company
contracted with them to handle express going west from any pont west of
Salt Lake City until the Overland Mail Company got the contract for the
rest of the route from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. Eventually they dissolved
the exclusive military contract but it was after the Pony Express had
The End of the Pony Express
What finally put it out
of business, was not its dire financial straits, or lack of success, but
the completion of the cross country telegraph. Many short wires had been
built all over California. The line went as far as Carson City, Nevada.
By 1860, progress stopped for awhile because of the broad expanse of desert
to get past at that point. Western Union formed in 1854 and its president
Hiram Sibley wanted very much to expand west, but his associates didn't
agree. So the rival Missouri and Western Telegraph Company (also known
as the Stebbins Line) stepped in and built a wire from the Missouri River
to Ft. Kearney in 1860. The Pony Express riders would pick up telegraphs
at either end and take them to the wire ends at the other side of the
In fact, the Pony Express helped create its own demise becasue it made
the public clamour for the wire to be connected for even faster service.
Sibley won that contract. He formed and consolidated several independent
telegraph companies, and started building at both ends. They started building
on May 27, 1861 going east. They started building July 4, 1861 going west.
The lines would meet at Salt Lake City and there was a rivalry to get
there first. As the wires got closer, the ponies still carried the mail
the whole way, not just to the wire ends. They did only carry the telegrams
that far though.
The line was finished October 24, 1861, with the west bound wire arriving
on October 20 and the eastbound wire arriving on October 24. The last
pony express package was delivered in November, since everything in transit
had to be delivered. In all there were 380 runs each way, over 616,000
miles ridden, and over 34,753 pieces of mail delivered.
-Copyright 2000 by Beth