Monday, October 26, 2015

This Day in History: The End of the Pony Express

George M. Ottinger, The Last Ride of the Pony Express, 1874; courtesy of Denver Art Museum
In Ottinger’s painting, a Pony Express rider passes a work crew installing lines for the transcontinental telegraph, which initiated the demise of an icon of the Western frontier.
Like today, in 1860 communications mattered. California’s population had reached about 380,000, and with this growth came the demand for faster ways to get news and letters to and from the state. From April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861, the Pony Express was the West’s fastest means of communication. And as with today’s advances in technology, it soon became obsolete.

As the Bay Area poet and one-time Pony Express rider Joaquin Miller noted, “The pony express between San Francisco and the gold mines of California existed long before it became a reality across the plains.” But once it did, the Pony Express required significant organization: over 100 way stations about 10–15 miles apart, station tenders, about 80 riders at any one time, and between 400 to 500 horses to carry them from station to station.


To find suitable and willing riders, on March 19, 1860, the Sacramento Union ran an ad for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express (COC&PPE), a subsidiary of the freighting company Russell, Majors, and Waddell, who were the early founders of the Pony Express: 
"Men Wanted"—The undersigned wishes to hire ten or a dozen men, familiar with the management of horses, as hostlers, or riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City. Wages $50 per month . .

(Left) Publisher James M. Hutchings featured the Pony Express in the July 1860 issue of his illustrated magazine. “We are not about to insist that the Pony Express is the greatest of all the great enterprises of modern times,” he noted, “. . . but we shall show that in speed of transmitting news and letters nothing has ever equaled it on this continent.” California Historical Society

(Right) The image of the Pony Express horse and rider appeared on this medal, made by the artist Alexander Proctor circa 1930 and mounted as a commemorative plaque. The plaque was given to the California Historical Society in the late 1940s by Colonel Waddell F. Smith, whose great-grandfather was once a partner of the Pony Express founder William H. Russell. California Historical Society
William Henry Jackson, Pony Express Route, April 3, 1860–October 24, 1861; Library of Congress
This reproduction of Jackson’s map illustrates the approximately 1,900-mile-long route from St. Joseph, Missouri, across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, to Sacramento, California. 
For $5 per half-ounce, the Pony Express delivered mail between the East and West in only ten days—about half the time required by stagecoach. Riders carried more than 30,000 letters in saddle bags for an average of 75 miles in nine hours, changing horses up to five times at relay stations along the way.

A religious man, founder Alexander Majors commissioned a special edition bible for his riders and all employees. He required each rider to sign an 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. 
The Holy Bible, 1858; California Historical Society
This rare leather-bound, gold-lettered copy of the bible given to Pony Express riders is one of 300
granted Alexander Majors and William H. Russell by the American Bible Society. 
No sooner had Russell, Majors, and Waddell launched the Pony Express than its longevity was threatened. Passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act in June 1860 promised to “Facilitate Communication between the Atlantic and Pacific States by Electric Telegraph.” The promise was fulfilled on October 24, 1861, when the telegraph lines of Nebraska’s Pacific Telegraph Company joined those of California’s Overland Telegraph Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, completing the final link—between Omaha and Sacramento—of the transcontinental lines.
Six months earlier, on April 15, 1861, the freight and stagecoach company Wells Fargo took temporary control of the western route until July. The company lowered the rates to $2 per half-ounce and introduced postage stamps. From 1886 to 1890, Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo in its services.

(Left) Wells Fargo issued five Pony Express “Horse and Rider” stamps in different colors and denominations. The stamps were used only on eastbound mail originating in California
 Smithsonian National Postal Museum

(Right) The Horse and Rider stamp was featured on the cover of the March 1961 edition of The Pony Express newspaper commemorating the 100th anniversary of Wells Fargo’s stewardship.
California Historical Society
On October 26, 1861, only two days after the transcontinental telegraph lines connected, the Pony Express officially closed. The Pony Express route has been designated a National Historic Trail.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Sources

Ralph W. Bayless, “The Pony Express Rider and His Bible,” Bible Society Record (February 1838).
Glenn Danford Bradley, The Story of the Pony Express (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., (1913).
Christopher Corbett, “The Pony Express: Riders of Destiny,” Wild West (April 2006).
Gems of American Philately: Pony Express Mail, http://postalmuseum.si.edu/stampgallery/ponyexpress.html.
Pony Express Historical Timeline, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-historical-timeline/
Raymond W. Settle and Mary Lund Settle, Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955).
Wells Fargo and the Pony Express; wellsfargohistory.com/Pony Express.
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