April 19, 2006

The Pony Express by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Last night I finished reading The Pony Express by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Spencer Press, 1950). I found the book interesting, fun, and educational. The Pony Express was a cross-country mail-delivery route that went from St. Louis, Missouri to Sacramento, California in 1860 and 1861. The book relates the background, equipment, men, finances, politics, scandals, and heroic stories of the Pony Express.

The sparsely-populated California of the 1840s became a bustling country with hundreds of thousands of new arrivals during the 1850s as a result of the California gold rush. Easterners who had moved to California were desperate for news and letters from relatives back east. Likewise, people in the east were eager for news and letters from the west. The standard route mail followed from New York to California took three to six weeks. It travelled by steamship from New York to Panama, went overland through the Panama jungle, and travelled by steamship from Panama to San Francisco. Everyone hated the delay. News was scarce and out-of-date. The cost of a three-month-old New York Tribune in Sacramento was $8. (p. 48) Several companies tried to develop overland mail services, but they all failed due to bad terrain, bad weather, starvation, insufficient funds, and hostile Indians. Snow in the plains and mountains was the greatest obstacle. In 1857 Congress awarded John Butterfield a $600,000 contract to deliver mail by his "slow but safe" southern overland route that went from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California by way of Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona.

Russell, Majors, & Waddell was a successful and respected freight business that used oxen-drawn wagons to carry supplies to towns, forts, and mining settlements in the west. The three owners -- William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell -- wanted to develop a faster and more reliable mail-delivery system that would serve the west until the east-west telegraph line was completed. They founded the "Central Overland & Pike's Peak Express Company" to run their new "Pony Express" mail service. They envisioned a well-maintained overland trail on which fast horsemen would deliver mail between St. Louis and Sacramento in ten days. The trail was almost 2,000 miles and went through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. The company built the trail, built and supplied the relay stations, bought fast horses, and hired riders. According to one newspaper ad the riders had to be 19 to 25 years old, less than 130 pounds, of good moral character, able to read and write, and experienced with horses. (p. 28) The pay was $100 a month and included food and lodging. Company men carefully handpicked riders at both ends of the trail. There were dozens of applicants for every opening, so the company could be very selective. Each rider had to swear an oath that he would conduct himself honestly, be faithful to his duties, act so as to win the confidence of his employers, and that he would not use profane language, quarrel or fight with fellow employees, or drink liquor. (p. 38) In their training the men were taught to protect the mail first, their horses second, and their lives last. For the system to work the mail had to always go through.

The Pony Express started on April 3, 1860, and it worked. The mail rate was $5 an ounce, so letters were written on thin tissue paper. (p. 58) The mail was carried in hard leather boxes called "mochilas". The mochilas were delivered like batons in a relay race. Each rider got a fresh horse every 10 to 20 miles and rode about 75 miles before handing his mochila to the next rider. When another rider came from the other direction, the first rider would take the mail and ride back to his starting point, where another rider would take the mail and ride on. No delay in the schedule was ever considered. If the next rider was sick or not at a station, the rider to be relieved had to keep riding for another 75 miles or so until he could hand off the mail to the next rider. Riders rode day and night, and mail was delivered twice a week in both directions. The whole country loved the fast new mail service. Pony Express riders were treated like heroes. Crowds cheered the riders like sports fans cheer their favorite teams. Every good citizen wanted the Pony Express to succeed, and it did. (p. 111-112) In its nineteen months of operation before the east-west telegraph line was completed, the Pony Express only lost one mail delivery. (p. 86) Pony Express riders were known to be the best of the best. Former Pony Express riders were highly sought after by employers. Although the Pony Express succeeded at delivering the mail, it was a financial failure. The three owners spent $700,000 of their own money and received only $200,000 in payment. (p. 146) Congress never subsidized the Pony Express.

Several individual stories are worth relating. After proving he could shoot and ride, a persistent underage boy was hired at a Colorado station as an extra rider. One day he was needed for a special run. He was to carry a box of money along with the mail that day, but two bandits who had tried to rob a stagecoach were reported to be on the trail. The boy thought about the problem, put a blanket over the mail and money boxes, and then added decoy mail boxes filled paper over the second blanket. At a narrow spot in the trail he was stopped at gunpoint by the two bandits. The men said he would be filled with holes if he didn't give them the goods. He whined, "Oh, go on, take it then!" He threw the decoy mochila at the man, quickly drew his gun, and shot the man who was catching the mochila. He then rode down the second man with his horse and made good his escape, saving both the mail and the money. The boy was William F. Cody, later to become famous worldwide as Buffalo Bill. (p. 110) Wild Bill Hickock was another famous Pony Express employee. He was too tall and too heavy to be a rider, so he was hired as a stock tender at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska. (p. 160)

One of the most famous riders was Pony Bill Haslam. When he first met a horse he would flip it on the nose. If it didn't try to bite him he passed it up because it didn't have enough spirit. During the Pah-Ute Indian war in Nevada, he arrived at Reese River Station to change horses after riding 75 miles. The station was empty. All the horses and mules had been taken to fight the Indians. At Buckland Station 15 miles farther, the next rider refused to ride. No reason is known. Haslam switched horses and continued for 35 miles, switched horses, rode 37 miles, switched horses, and rode the final 30 miles to the next station where Jack Kelley took his mail. After riding hard for 190 miles Haslam fell immediately into a deep sleep on a cot at the station. Then he was awakened by the station man who said the eastbound rider had arrived crippled from a fall and couldn't continue. Haslam asked how long he had slept. The man told him an hour and a half. Haslam took the mochila and started his return trip. There were five dead men and no horses at a station where he had switched horses a few hours before. The warring Indians had been there. At the next station the superintendent forbade him to continue until dark because of the Indians. Haslam slept. He rode on at dusk, spotted Indians twice, and had to outrun Indians once. When he finally made it back to his starting point, he had ridden 380 miles on less than eleven hours sleep. (p. 115-118)

The rider who probably held the speed record was Bob Moore. In June 1860 government messages were sent to California with the instruction to "Rush". Moore rode his route but refused to let the less-experienced rider take the mochila at the hand-off station. He rode both routes; 140 miles. As soon as he handed off the mochila another rider came in from the west with special orders to "Rush", but the scheduled rider wasn't there (probably killed by outlaws or Indians). Moore took the mochila, rested for ten minutes, and took off back the way he had come. Moore made the whole run of 275 miles in 14¾ hours, for an average speed over 18 mph. (p. 118-119)

Jack Keetly held the record for the longest time in the saddle. When there was a shortage of riders he rode for 31 hours straight and covered 340 miles. (p. 120) Once in Utah a Mormon rider's horse stumbled and went over a cliff. The rider was saved by a scrub juniper pine at the top of the cliff. He climbed down the cliff to the dead horse, got the mochila, climbed up the cliff back to the trail, and carried the mail the last eight miles to the next station on foot. His name is not known. Twice mail arrived at stations on riderless horses. Once the rider had been ambushed and was dead on the prairie. (p. 86) Another time the rider was laying by the trail wounded. (p. 120) Once Tony King and Henry Worley were scheduled to pass each other on the trail in Colorado. King arrived at the station and said he hadn't seen Worley. Worley arrived at his station and told them they'd better send a search party after King. Searchers left from both stations. It turned out the riders had passed one another on the trail while asleep in their saddles. (p. 121-122)

1 comment:

  1. Amazing stories. What an exciting time to have been alive.