Before we had the telegraph, mail was delivered by Pony Express. Deliveries were made on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, clear across the Great Plains, up through the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express operated reliably from 1860 to 1861 delivering mail, newspapers, messages and small packages.
First Mail Pouch
On April 14, 1860 around midnight the very first mail pouch arrived by Pony Express in San Francisco, California. Included in the pouch was a congratulatory letter from President James Buchanan to John Downey, Governor of California, as well as mail to the government, commercial businesses and banks in San Francisco.
The route was very dangerous and riding for the Pony Express was difficult, even hazardous work. The company hired mostly strong young men. A well-known job posting supposedly read:
“Wanted for work: Young, skinny, tough fellows under eighteen years old. Must be very experienced riders, willing to face death on the job. Orphans favored.”
Buffalo Bill, whose real name was William Cody, worked for the Pony Express and later found fame with his Wild West Show. When he was just 15 years old Cody was riding out west when he encountered agents from the Pony Express, who hired him on the spot. His dare devil ways garnered a lot of attention and added to the folklore of the Pony Express, which became legend, whether it was true or not.
The Pony Express was in operation for 19 months and during that time it was able to speed up the delivery mail and messages from the Atlantic to the Pacific in as little as 10 days. During the time from April 1860 through October 1861, the Pony Express was the most direct method of communication between the east and the west, and crucial for connecting California to the rest of the country. This was prior to the telegraph being invented and put into practice.
As you can imagine the Pony Express was quickly romanticised, becoming a big part of the lore surrounding the American West, with it’s reliance on the strength and ability of strong young men riding fast horses through the night in rugged terrain. This was all glamorized as proof of rugged American men and their endurance and fortitude during the times of the old frontier.
In the first year there were approximately 157 Pony Express Stations, each about 10 miles from the other. This was the distance a single pony could go at a gallop before getting tired. The rider would stop at each station and switch to a fresh horse, picking up the mail pouch they referred to as a “mochila,” which is Spanish for backpack.
The route followed roughly what we know as today’s US Highway 50 from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. The mail was then sent on to San Francisco by steamer train.
End of an Era
Throughout its operation the Pony Express reliably delivered about 35,000 letters between the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.
As the service was winding down in March 1861, it started only making deliveries between Salt Lake City, Utah and Sacramento, California. The Pony Express finally ended its service in October 1861, once the Pacific Telegraph line had been completed.
The Pony Express captured the hearts and imagination of an entire country and is remembered as an integral part of the romanticism of the old American West.
The Telegram Clerk