During the 1850’s, people in California wanted the U.S. government to provided faster mail service from the east to the west. Current means of mail service were far too slow. Mail by boat could take up to six months and mail by stagecoach along the southern Butterfield Route could take up to 25 days.
Gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill and the population exploded over the next several years. California achieved statehood in 1850. Half a million people migrated to that part of the country by the mid 1850’s. At that time, Benjamin Ficklin, an employee of the freighting firm Russell, Majors and Waddell, suggested to senior U.S. Senator William Gwin of California the idea o a pony express along the central route. Ficklin said such a service could delver mail within 10-12 days. Gwin proposed a bill in congress for the government to fund such a project, but it never made it past committee.
December 1859, Gwin suggested to William Russell to try a demonstration of a Pony Express along the central route. In return, he would try and get the government to subsidize the operation. Russell embraced the idea and convinced his partners, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, to go along with the venture.
Within three months, the firm had built or rented 190 stations along the route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, bought over 400 horses, hired riders, station keepers and stock tenders. St. Joseph was chosen as the eastern terminus because the railroad and telegraph from the east stopped there.
On April 3, 1860, with much fanfare, the first rider, 19-year-old Johnny Fry, left St. Joseph with the westbound mail. The eastbound mail left Sacramento on the same day. The mail was put into the cantinas of a specially made mochila saddle which was placed on top of the regular saddle. Riders would switch out horses at relay stations 10-15 miles apart. Fresh riders would take over at home stations 75-120 miles apart. Riders were chosen based on their riding skills, age, and weight. Mustangs, Morgans, Pintos, and Thoroughbred horses were used because of their speed. Russell advertised that the mail would arrive from the east in 10 days. On April 13, the mail was delivered both to Sacramento and St. Joseph amidst great celebration.
Riders endured harsh terrain, Indian attacks, severe weather, and buffalo stampedes. Despite these hardships, their motto was “The mail must go through!” Besides Johnny Fry, other noted names associated with the Pony Express included Buffalo Bill Cody, Pony Bob Haslam, Bronco Charlie Miller, and Wild Bill Hickock. Hickock was not a rider and worked as a stock tender at the Rock Creek station in Nebraska. Hickock was in a shootout there leaving three men dead which started his career as a gunfighter, lawman, and gambler. Cody went on to run his Wild West show around the world and glorified the Pony Express as part of his act. Pony Bob Haslam became famous after completing the longest run by one rider. Haslam rode 380 miles and endured Indian attacks because another rider was afraid to ride his route.
The Pony Express played a major role during the Civil War in keeping open communication between Washington, D.C. and California. It was feared that California might join the Confederacy. The Pony Express also delivered news of Lincoln’s election and Inaugural address in record time. The Pony Express operated for only 19 months.
After completion of the Trans-American telegraph on October 24, 1861, the Pony Express was shut down but not forgotten.