The Pony Express

The Pony Express “ponies” were actually mules

The image of the Pony Express is very strong in the American consciousness. Here’s what we “remember” — a rider galloping as fast as the wind through the wild west, ignoring the elements, dodging hostile Native Americans, and delivering the mail. But that image owes more to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and later Hollywood movies than to the history of the actual Pony Express. According to the US Department of the Interior, “Few events in U.S. western history have generated more myths and half truths than the Pony Express.”

The Pony Express (whose official title was the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express) was founded in April 1860 by the freight shipping company of Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Their idea was to speed up mail deliveries between St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California, which could take months. The Express was able to cut it down to ten days, which was very fast considering the distance traveled.

Speed was the most important thing for the Pony Express. The 10-day schedule was met through dogged persistence, not by a relay of thoroughbreds flying across the plains, however. A great many Pony Express “ponies” were mules because they could travel farther on less water than ponies and horses. So the key to the “express” part of the Pony Express was not stopping. It wasn’t due to riding the horses flat out until they dropped from exhaustion at the relay point. After all, horses couldn’t run at full speed for 20 miles, the average distance for each leg of the Express.

The Pony Express didn’t normally carry ordinary, personal mail. Only very important business correspondence and newspapers were worth sending at the cost of $5 an ounce. So a love letter from your sweetheart in St. Jo out to you in the mines of Colorado went by wagon train.

Other myths include the Pony Express company advertising for young men with no family attachments. One “ad” supposedly read: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.” But no such ad was ever placed by the Pony Express company. It appears to have been part of hype of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which included highly dramatized and fictional depictions and of “Pony Express riders.”

The Pony Express lasted only 18 months before the new transcontinental telegraph put it out of business in October 1861. Alas, the image of a telegraph clerk, tapping away like the wind on his telegraph key, and the receiving clerk on the other end dashing out the message in longhand, and running across town to deliver it just isn’t as thrilling, Buzzkillers. So the “Pony Express rider” got revived by Buffalo Bill in 1872. Hollywood moguls then took up the story and amplified it whenever they could.

Further Reading:

Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (2004).

National Public Radio, The Pony Express (2003)

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