From the dime novels of the late 19th century to movies and television today, the Pony Express has supplied drama, excitement, and a good deal of make-believe.
The riders’ constant struggles along the route did not need to be exaggerated. They rode through ghastly weather and over rough territory in a constant race against time.
The Pony Express was founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, partners in a freight-shipping business. To start the Pony Express, Majors had to buy more than 400 ponies, build or purchase more than 150 stations, and hire stationmasters and riders—all in less than three months. It was a bold business venture, but one that rapidly ate up the partners’ investment.
Among those mentioned as famous riders was Buffalo Bill (William Cody), whose Wild West shows toured the U.S. and Europe for 30 years. Cody was such an accomplished showman and genius at self-promotion that even today it is difficult to separate the reality of his life from the romance he created in his shows. His claims of life as a Pony Express rider made for great theater, but little accuracy.
The name of the first rider galloping out of St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1860, has been lost to history. Fewer than 100 men rode for the Pony Express in its 18 months of existence. Later, many men claimed to have been Pony Express riders, with tall tales of reckless adventure growing taller with each telling.
Alexander Majors gave a Bible to each Pony Express employee, including riders, and made each man pledge not to swear, drink, or fight. Because every extra ounce slowed their progress, riders did not carry their Bibles with them. Some did not even carry guns. They relied on the speed of their horses to whisk them out of trouble.
Alexander Majors required each man in his employ to take the following oath:
"I, ......, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, 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 employee of the firm, 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 employers, so help me God."
An observation on the oath:
“Mr. Alexander Majors . . . forbade his drivers and employees to drink, gamble, curse, and travel on Sundays; he desired them to peruse Bibles . . . . Results: I scarcely ever saw a sober rider; as for the profanity . . . they are not to be deterred from evil talking even by the dread presence of a ‘lady.’”
– Sir Richard Burton, City of the Saints, 1862
Fastest with the News
William Russell used the 1860 presidential election as a showcase for what the Pony Express could do. Before the election, he hired extra men and ensured that fresh relay horses were available along the entire route. On November 7, 1860, a rider dashed out of Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory (the eastern end of the telegraph line) with the election results. Riders sped along the route, over snow-covered trails and into Fort Churchill, Nevada Territory (the western end of the telegraph line). California’s newspapers received word of Lincoln’s election only seven days and 17 hours after the East Coast papers, an unrivaled feat at the time.
The End of the Pony Express
The Pony Express was created to bridge the gap between the eastern and western ends of the transcontinental telegraph lines. While the line between Missouri and California was under construction, riders carried letters across the entire route. They also carried telegraphed messages across the gap between telegraph lines.
When the telegraph line was completed, there was no further need for the Pony Express. The first telegraph message from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., was transmitted October 24, 1861. Two days later, the Pony Express came to an end.
Wells Fargo and the Pony Express
The Pony Express was a rousing success in speeding mail across the country, cutting delivery time in half, but it was unbearably expensive to operate. Unable to win a government mail contract, Russell, Majors, and Waddell lost $30 on every letter carried and were forced to sell the Pony Express.
In 1861 the Wells Fargo freighting company took over the route through its Overland Mail Company and, in what must have seemed a final blow to Russell and his partners, won a government mail contract on the condition they continue the operation of a semiweekly pony express service.