On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began delivering mail across the overland route to California. Young men riding horses at breakneck speed carried the mail utilizing rest stations along the way where fresh riders and horses could relieve tired ones. The Pony Express enabled mail to travel faster than ever before – nearly 2,000 miles in 10 days.
A series of events in the mid-1800s including the Mormon pioneers westward trek to Utah, the California Gold Rush of 1849, and thousands of travelers heading west on the Oregon Trail created a need for faster communication between east and west.
In 1859, California Senator William Gwin persuaded the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddle to develop a service to quickly deliver mail to the Pacific Coast. They agreed and selected the city of St. Joseph, Missouri as the eastern terminus for the route. St. Joseph connected to eastern cities with railroad lines and telegraphs allowing messages and mail to quickly transfer to the Pony Express where they were loaded into special leather saddlebags called mochilas, and carried in one of the twice-weekly Pony Express runs to Sacramento, California.
The evening of April 3, 1860, a crowd gathered at the Pony Express station in St. Joseph. They were anxiously awaiting a delayed train that was bringing mail for the Pony Express. As soon as it arrived, the mail was quickly transferred to the Pony Express station. A cannon sounded and the crowd cheered as 20-year-old Johnny Fry spurred his horse to a gallop. This high-speed mail service did not come cheap! Initially, it cost $5 per half-ounce to send a letter (the equivalent of roughly $150 today). Later the price was later lowered to $1 per half-ounce.
In order to minimize the weight, riders were often small and lean. They took a loyalty oath requiring them to refrain from profanity, drinking and fighting as they rode at top speed in between relay stations built about 15 miles apart, where they mounted a fresh horse; and home stations, 75-100 miles apart, where fresh riders would take over. During the journey, riders were vulnerable to extreme weather, bandits, and hostilities with Native Americans. The risks did not go unrewarded. Riders’ made around $100/month – about triple the average monthly salary for the time.
Newspapers relied on the Pony Express to deliver the latest headlines like when Abraham Lincoln was elected president or when the City of San Francisco opened its first railway that ferried passengers around the city on horse-drawn streetcars. The Pony Express also helped deliver international news. Headlines that traveled over the ocean by ship could reach the opposite coast in just 18 days!
‘Bronco Charlie’ Miller was only 11-years-old when he filled in one day for a missing rider. He was later hired and became the youngest regular rider. He also lived longer than other riders, dying at age 105 in 1955.
In October 1861, the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made the Pony Express obsolete after just 18 months. If you would like to learn more about the Pony Express and see fun clippings from this historic time, search Newspapers.com today!
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25 thoughts on “The Pony Express Begins: April 3, 1860”
I am looking for a list of riders but have not been able to find such a compilation. If available, please advise me.
Lots of books on the Pony Express and riders
My father rode for the Pony Express in Bulloch County, Georgia. Not sure what year it was but he was born in 1915 and his name was Thomas Cheatham Smith.
Note the speed of change. In 1858 the first transatlatic cable was completed, and reduced the time to deliver a message to the time it took messengers to get to and from the correspondents in their cities. It failed almost immediately but showed what could be done. During the pony Express period the ship time remained 10-15 days. But in 1866 the transatlantic cable was rebuilt, and Europe to San Francisco communication time was reduced to mostly the speed of the local messenger service.
We are used to near instant communications, but in the past, battles have been fought and many soldiers killed weeks after the war officially ended. The Battle of New Orleans is the best known example.
The major characteristic of the 19th century was the speed with whiich things could be done. At the start, there were no wagon trains, with the Lewis and Clark Expedition taking a over year to get to the West Coast. In the middle, established wagon routes took months, and the pony Express took days. By the end of the 19th century, the whole country was covered by telegraph, telephones were spreading allowing live two way conversations instead of exchanged messages, railroads cut travel to days, and reliable steam ship service was running at nearly 6 days across the Atlantic. Today, properly equipped, you can have two way video conversations to anywhere in the world, including at sea with short satellite lag on extreme ranges, you can fly coast to coast in 4 hours, or to the Middle East in a day and a half. However, good luck with railroads.
I still love railroad travel. It just doesnt necessarily go from where i am to where i want to visit.
Thank you for your comment.
Considering the dangers and mode of travel, I’m left to scratch my head. If I mail a letter to go 25-30 miles, it will take a week because of today’s postal service ineptitude. I could walk there faster! And yet to send a letter from my home in northern Wisconsin to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it only takes 3 days. I wonder if the local mail service has drunks and lame horses?
We featured your story on our Facebook page today! Even though the Pony Express didn’t go through our part of Kansas, we are a horse-crazy community because of our Swedish dala horses scattered throughout Main Street and the rest of the town. Thanks for a great story!
Johnny Frye or Fry is my 2nd cousin 5 times removed on my Dad’s Mother side of the family. He was a Pony Express rider from St. Joseph Missouri.
We have a man, George Dibert, buried in our cemetery. His obituary said he was one of the last Pony Express Riders. He was born in 1841
I wonder if anyone thought to interview Johnny Fry before he passed away in 1955? Would have been a scoop, in my “humble” opinion….
Miller the youngest rider died at 1955…at 105
Fry was the first rider someone said died in t he civil war 1865
but i know what you mean would be interesting
Fry joined the Union Army and was killed by Quantrill’s Raiders in the Battle of Baxter Springs. October 6, 1863.
Fry joined the Union Army and was killed by Quantrill’s Raiders in the Battle of Baxter Springs. October 6, 1863
“Bronco Charlie” never needed interviewing because he sought out fame. He was an entertainer with the Buffalo Bill Wild West show who claimed to have been a rider with the pony Express. He tells all in the following book, “Broncho Charlie: A Saga of the Saddle. Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 1934. The life story of Broncho Charlie Miller, the last of the Pony Express riders.” Good reading..hard to separate the fact from the fiction at this point.
http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-riders/ This isn’t an official list because my great grandfather rode for them. But this list has been compiled from newspapers and family histories.
You can still get a letter delivered by the National Pony Express Association which travels the route every year with volunteer riders: https://nationalponyexpress.org/
The Pony Express has been a long-time personal fascination for me as it has been part of a family legend for many years. That legend is part of the history of my great grand-father, Martin Adams, of Marion County, Ohio. The legend is best summarized in his obituary, published in the Marion Star following his death on March 4, 1939, at the supposed age of 94 (another legend for another time).
Headline: Marion County Pony Express Rider and Friend of “Buffalo Bill” Dies. Sub-headline: With Pony Express 4 Years. “For four years after the Civil War, Mr. Adams was a Pony Express rider between Fort Dodge, Kansas and Hays City, covering the 100 miles before dawn of each day to escape the onslaughts of Apaches, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas and other marauding Indians.
It was during the time that he came to know William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and established a friendship which was renewed a number of years ago when the famed hero of the west brought his traveling show here.” (note: an article on that reunion appeared in the Marion Star in May 1936.)
Growing up, The Pony Express story about my great-grandfather was always a fascinating one and in my elementary school-level American History class I was happy to share that I had an ancestor who rode THE Pony Express, never realizing until my later years how erroneous this was. Of course the real story seems to be that while my great-grandfather served four years in the regular US Army from 1867-1871, he was posted at Ft Dodge, and having been a wagoner during the Civil War, he was very comfortable with horses, even an accomplished rider. So being a rider on a Pony Express-like system for the Army, to run the mail between Ft Dodge and Hays City seems reasonable, but the timing for this bit of history clearly makes its running nearly a decade later for my great-grandfather than our celebrated Pony Express of St. Joe-to-Sacramento fame.
The pony Express ended in Folsom not Sacramento. The mail was taken from the pony express rider the mail was loaded on to a train at the Sutter Street terminate and taken to Sacramento by train.
As a writer I have generally found that the best source is old newspapers articles from the day of the event, not relating a past event. The people mentioned can usually be considered factual , especially if backed up with a second source (not a reprint of the article.) Yours is a prime example of why. Corporate memory is another. My father had wonderful memories of my uncle Buster who I was named for, his brother William. He died eating red berries off the bushes by the front walk at age 5. I heard stories of Buster all the time I was growing up and after. I still carry have his Opinel pocket knife. In 2003, my cousin Ginny, then 104 told me a very interesting story. She was quite senile old Ginny. Couldn’t remember what she had done in the last 10 years or where she lived, but she could tell you every then that was said and done on a day in 1904 at a birthday party. This one was for by uncle Buster and she had been invited. He was going to be 5 years old and she was just 5 herself. She rode over to Garden Road, to the farm on the Nickel Plate railroad…had a note pinned to her jacket and a sack with some cookies, just in case she got hungry. She shared those with the conductor who made sure she got off and stopped the train right at the farm. She told me all the things that happened that day, including how Buster had seen the Cardinals eating the red berries and showing off had eaten a handful. Then they ran off and he said his face was numb, they got water from the well and he just layed down. just laid down and died right there and then. She ran and got Grandpa. She went home that night by herself on the Nickel Plate a whole lot older. My dad was born in 1914. He remembered growing up with Buster and I never said otherwise after I heard this tory and went to the cemetery and checked the marker. She had the date right. My dad was simply a victim of hearing stories so often as a small child that they entered his conscience and he actually knew Buster.
Good story thanks
About 10 years ago, ~2009, I ran into a woman at work and we got to talking about our grandmothers. I said that my grandmother had been a nun, but not forever obviously. She said her grandmother had been a Pony Express Rider! “Wow”, I replied. “My grandmother would have wanted to be your grandmother!” Anyway, she my colleague was no older than 50 at the time, so I don’t see any way her grandmother could have been at least 18 years old in 1861 or thereabouts, but maybe she meant some other ancestor. Is there any record of women riding for the Pony Express?
ReadRead J.V. Frederick’s book: Ben Holladay Stagecoach King.
This website has a compiled, partial list of 228 Pony Express riders. The list is alphabetized for quick look-up.
What great family history, Thank You for sharing.
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