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The Pony Express was a short-lived mail service that emerged in the 19th Century just before the Civil War as a way to unify a growing nation that now included California. The original name — The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company — was founded by three businessmen, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, with 120 riders, 187 stations along the 1,900-mile route, and 400 horses. The country needed a way to communicate between coasts in fast and efficiently, but in the late 1850s there were no telephones and the populace communicated with each other via newspapers and letter writing. In order to send messages from New York to California, one had to wait weeks for the arrival of the stagecoach carrying bundles of mail.
The Pony Express was organized in two months during the winter of 1860. When it began there were 187 stations located approximately every five to 25 miles apart in eight states from St Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif. There were swing stations, just for horse changing, and home stations, where riders could sleep and eat, along the meandering route. The trail first crossed the Missouri River into Kansas, then to Fort Kearney in Nebraska, along the Great Platte River Road toward the corner of Colorado, then to Fort Laramie in Wyoming, and down along the Sweetwater River to Fort Casper. Eventually the route led to Salt Lake City through the Nevada-Utah desert and then across the Sierra-Nevada near Lake Tahoe to its final destination at Sacramento. From there steamer ships took the mail to San Francisco.
Riders needed to be small and strong, and not weigh more than 125 pounds, which is why most riders were teenagers as young as 14 years old. The advertisements of the day asked for those who “did not fear death on a daily basis” and “orphans preferred.” On the trail, riders would quickly dismount at each station, grab the “mochila” and lay it over the saddle on the fresh horse, hop on, and take off to the next station. The mochilas were a large rectangle of leather cut to fit over the horn and cantle of the cavalry-style saddle. On each corner was a cantina (or pouch) that would hold letters totaling 20 pounds. The mochila was invented to help with the speed of the transfer of rider to a new horse, as traditionally mail bags or pouches would be tied onto the saddle fittings. To untie and tie up bags of mail with strings would just slow things down. While the horses would go at a fast pace through a trot, canter, and even gallop for long stretches, the riders would ride day and night for 75 to 100 miles before they could rest at one of the station stops. Riders used from eight to ten horses for each stretch.
The horses used were of uniform height, roughly 14.2 hands, which is the cut-off size between what is a horse and a pony. Thus the “pony” express. The ponies used were a mix of former Cavalry horses and private purchases. Folk lore states that those used on the Eastern side of the trail were Morgans and Thoroughbreds, while those used out in the rugged Western section were Mustangs. But these ponies were quick, enabling the mail to go from Missouri to California in just ten days.
The Pony Express only lasted 19 months, from April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861, when a new spreading technology came along and put an end to carrying messages in person. That technology was the telegraph, which spread quickly. Eventually, all the assets of the Pony Express, the horses and stations, were purchased by Wells Fargo & Co. for its stagecoach business. But the legend of the Pony Express lived on, most notably in the traveling Wild West Show of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who claimed to be one of the first riders at age 15. He also gain famed as making the longest ride ever of 322 miles with 21 horses, including an Indian encounter, when he had to fill in for another rider who had been killed.
National Pony Express Association
The legend lives on thanks to the National Pony Express Association, founded in the 1970s. Fans of the ponies held the first reride of the trail in 1923, followed in 1935 by another. And in 1960 a huge Pony Express Centennial celebration was held. But since 1980, there have been annual rerides across the various states. And each participant must not only wear official Pony Express gear of blue jeans, long-sleeved red Western shirt, brown vest, yellow kerchief, and a Western hat, but must take the Pony Express Oath, which was only modified to swap employee language to association language from the original oath:
“I,______, do hereby swear, before the great and living God, that during my engagement as a member of the National Pony Express Association Re-Ride, I will under no circumstances use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other member of the Association, and that in every respect, I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my associates. So help me God.”
So if you want to feed your inner cowboy or cowgirl and join a Pony Express reride visit nationalponyexpress.org to find a state organization. Giddy Up!