|Pony Express stable, St. Joseph, Missouri. The original wooden structure, built in 1858, was replaced by a brick building in 1888, but some of the original posts and beams were reused. U.S. National Park Service|
The Pony Express holds a favored position in the history of the United States, evoking images of brave young men racing across dangerous territory for the sole purpose of delivering the mail from one end of the country to the other. However, the idea for a horse relay over a great distance is attributed to the Mongolian conqueror, Genghis Khan, more than 600 years before that established in 1860. In addition, newspapers in New York and Boston also used horse relays to carry news beginning around 1825. However, nothing compared to the distances and treacherous trails of the Pony Express.
While no doubt many discussions were held in America regarding the feasibility of a horse relay to connect the established eastern half of the country with the newly-explored western territories, none of these conversations bore fruit until three men sat together. Some allege that B.F. Ficklin, the general superintendent of the Russell, Majors, and Waddell freight company. However, it wasn’t until January 1860 that Russell began planning in earnest, supported by Gwin and a government contract for mail service to begin in April. This meant the company had less than three months to prepare.
First, Russell, Majors, and Waddell set up a separate corporation, the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, for liability purposes. They bought equipment; built, bought, or leased facilities for way stations and home stations; lured experienced freight men and stationmasters from other companies; and hired riders.
The Pony Express Trail followed the Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, west through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and into Utah. West of Salt Lake City, it left the trail and went southerly through Nevada, ending in San Francisco.
Because the mail had to travel quickly in order to meet the 10-day delivery time, almost 200 relay stations were established along the route. Each rider left a home station, where he lived, traveled at top speed to the next station, traded out his mount and taking only the mail pouch with him. Depending on the weather and terrain, a rider might do this three to ten times a day. Then, he would rest up at the home station, and return the opposite direction when the next rider came through.
|Map of the Pony Express route|
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. tr000221)
Hundreds of top quality horses were purchased. In the east, thoroughbreds from Missouri through Kansas, but then cow ponies and Indian ponies were used after that. Half breed California mustangs, well-fed with the best grain, were ideal.
While modern-day posters show a plea for young men who were also orphans, preference was given to fit, slightly-built men who could ride well. Candidates pledged to refrain from drinking and cussing while employed with the Pony Express, and each was sworn in and issued a Bible. Guns were optional, and most riders refused to carry them because of the extra weight. Knowing the trail and the area was a plus, since a horse could easily wander from the path in heavy rain or a snowstorm. Stories abound of riders falling asleep in the saddle and simply letting the horse carry them to the next station.
|Hollenberg Station, Hanover, Kansas|
U.S. National Park Service
Once stations were established, staff hired, and the route finalized, the company set up collection points for mail and channeled it to St. Joseph and San Francisco. A schedule was set, which had to be adhered to or, better yet, beaten. Getting the mail through was the motivating force, since the company founders knew two things: the Express would end in 18 months once the telegraph came through, and the company would never have a chance at its main goal—the US Mail contract—if it didn’t deliver the mail on time for the next year and a half.
Next month, come back and learn about the end of the Pony Express.
Win a free copy of Hollenberg Hearts: Leave a comment to the following question, and remember to cleverly disguise your email address so I can contact you if you win.
Question: What’s your favorite horseback riding story? Share a quick story, and leave your email address in this format: donna AT livebytheword DOT com
Here’s mine: Hubby took me horseback riding for my birthday. We rode for 4 hours with no trouble. Less than a hundred feet from the barn, my mare decides she’s had enough. She reared then bucked. I dug in my heels, gripped the reins, and brought her back under control. The trail rider employee behind me said, “Nice job”. I was just glad not to end up on the ground.
About Hollenberg Hearts:
Catherine Malloy escapes a poor past in response to a mail order bride ad her best friend answered. However, Margaret dies before meeting the man who owns horses and property in Kansas.
Benjamin Troudt works for the Hollenberg family at their way station in Kansas, and owns nothing but the clothes on his back. Unbeknownst to him, his pastor is corresponding with a potential wife from back East for him.
When Catherine, now calling herself Maggie, arrives, Benjamin knows nothing of the pastor's match-making, and rejects her. However, a seriously ill pregnant woman needs tending. Perhaps Maggie can prove herself useful.
Not only does she do just that, but she finds herself attracted to the very man who is looking for ways to send her away.
Buy link: https://www.amazon.com/Hollenberg-Hearts-Pony-Express-Book-ebook/dp/B098VZ38XY
A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.
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