Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Pony Express Rider, 1861

The Pony Express was founded by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors.

Plans for the Pony Express were spurred by the threat of the Civil War and the need for faster communication with the West.

It had been established to provide a speedy method of delivering mail over a two thousand mile route that stretched between St. Joseph Missouri and Sacramento, California.

Pony Express Riders were paid $100 a month. This is equivalent to approximately $2,570.00 today.

Later ads for riders called for: "Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

The Pony Express consisted of relays of men riding horses carrying saddlebags of mail across a 2000-mile trail.

The service opened officially on April 3, 1860, when riders left simultaneously from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

Eventually, the Pony Express had more than 100 stations, 80 riders, and between 400 and 500 horses.

The express route was extremely hazardous, but only one mail delivery was ever lost.

The first westbound trip was made in 9 days and 23 hours and the eastbound journey in 11 days and 12 hours. And yes, upon its first run and immediately captured the imagination of the nation.

The pony riders covered 250 miles in a 24-hour day.

The distance was divided into a series of relays 75 to 100 miles in length over which a lone rider would race, changing his horse every 10 to 15 miles before handing his cargo off to the next rider.

He would then wait for a rider from the opposite direction to arrive, take his mail, and return to his starting point.

Speed of delivery was paramount. Any weight other than the mail the horse carried was kept to a minimum.

A specialized, light-weight saddle was developed that had built-in pouches to carry the mail. Hazards abounded, including weather, terrain, hostile Indians and bandits.

It typically took a week for mail to reach its destination at a cost of $5.00 per ½ ounce.

Travelers on the trial would keep an expectant eye out for the appearance of the Pony Express rider.

Suddenly, a speck would appear in the distance, rapidly grow larger and a cheer would arise as the rider sped by and gave a wave of acknowledgement.

The service lasted only 19 months until October 24, 1861, when the completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for its existence.

Although California relied upon news from the Pony Express during the early days of the Civil War, the horse line was never a financial success, leading its founders to bankruptcy.

Though the Pony Express was a financial failure for the company that operated it, the romantic drama surrounding the Pony Express has made it a part of the legend of the American West. 

The imagery of a lone rider making a perilous journey against all odds made an indelible impression on the nation's collective memory.

"A party of fifteen Indians jumped me. . ."

Buffalo Bill Cody, who later became famous for his Wild West Show, was a rider for the Pony Express and wrote of his experiences. We join Bill's story as he is hired - at the age of 15 - to ride a section of the trail that lies in modern-day Wyoming:

". . .The next day he [Mr Slade,the manger of Cody's Pony Express station] assigned me to duty on the road from Red Buttes on the North Platte, to the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater - a distance of seventy-six miles - and I began riding at once.

One day when I galloped into Three Crossings, my home station, I found that the rider who was expected to take the trip out on my arrival had got into a drunken row the night before and had been killed; and that there was no one to fill his place.

I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of eighty-five miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time.

I then turned back and rode to Red Buttes, my starting place, accomplishing on the round trip a distance of 322 miles.

Slade heard of this feat of mine, and one day as he was passing on a coach he sang out to me, 'My boy, you're a brick, and no mistake.

That was a good run you made when you rode your own and Miller's routes, and I'll see that you get extra pay for it.'

Slade, although rough at times and always a dangerous character - having killed many a man - was always kind to me.

During the two years that I worked for him as pony-express-rider and stage-driver, he never spoke an angry word to me.

As I was leaving Horse Creek one day, a party of fifteen Indians 'jumped me' in a sand ravine about a mile west of the station.

They fired at me repeatedly, but missed their mark. I was mounted on a roan California horse - the fleetest steed I had. Putting spurs and whip to him, and lying flat on his back, I kept straight on for Sweetwater Bridge - eleven miles distant - instead of trying to turn back to Horse Creek.

The Indians came on in hot pursuit, but my horse soon got away from them, and ran into the station two miles ahead of them.

The stock-tender had been killed there that morning, and all the stock had been driven off by the Indians, and as I was therefore unable to change horses, I continued on to Ploutz's Station - twelve miles further - thus making twenty-four miles straight run with one horse.

I told the people at Ploutz's what had happened at Sweetwater Bridge, and with a fresh horse went on and finished the trip without any further adventure.

About the middle of September the Indians became very troublesome on the line of the stage road along the Sweetwater.

Between Split Rock and Three Crossings they robbed a stage, killed the driver and two passengers, and badly wounded Lieut. Flowers, the assistant division agent.

The red-skinned thieves also drove off the stock from the different stations, and were continually lying in wait for the passing stages and pony express-riders, so that we had to take many desperate chances in running the gauntlet.

The Indians had now become so bad and had stolen so much stock that it was decided to stop the pony express for at least six weeks, and to run the stages but occasionally during that period; in fact, it would have been almost impossible to have run the enterprise much longer without restocking the line."

This eyewitness account appears in Cody William F., The Life of Buffalo Bill (1879, republished 1994).

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to the Pony Express, I always tell people, "Just think of Little Caesars but on horseback". The more you know, the more you grow.


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