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The Post Office Role in United States Development
Pony Express

In the meantime, in the first half of the 19th century, the population of the United States began to flow steadily into the newly acquired territories of Louisiana, Oregon, and California. Wagon trains inched along the old Santa Fe, Mormon, and Oregon Trails, their passengers often ravaged by ambushes, hunger, disease, and pestilence.

pony expressWhen gold was discovered in California in 1848, the pioneer movement quickened, and in that year the Post Office Department awarded a contract to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to carry mail to California. Under this contract, mail traveled by ship from New York to Panama, moved across Panama by rail, then went on to San Francisco by ship. It was supposed to take three to four weeks to receive a letter from the East, but this goal was seldom achieved.

Some overland mail reached California as early as 1848, if erratically, via the military through Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. Scheduled overland service for semi-weekly trips began on September 15, 1858, after the Post Office issued a contract to the Overland Mail Company stage line of John Butterfield, whose stages used the 2,800-mile southern route between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. Although the specified running time was 24 days, cross-country mail often took months.

Californians felt their isolation keenly. Los Angeles, for example, learned that California had been admitted to the Union fully six weeks after the fact. Three years later, in 1853, the Los Angeles Star somewhat plaintively asked its readers: "Can somebody tell us what has become of the U. S. mail for this section of the world? Some four weeks since it has arrived here. The mail rider comes and goes regularly enough but the mail bags do not. One time he says the mail is not landed in San Diego; another time there was so much of it the donkey could not bring it, and he sent it to San Pedro on the steamer -- which carried it up to San Francisco. Thus it goes wandering up and down the ocean . . . ." It was abundantly clear that faster transportation was needed to the Pacific.

In March 1860, William H. Russell, an American transportation pioneer, advertised in newspapers as follows: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert pony riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

Russell had failed repeatedly to get backing from the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee for an express route to carry mail between St. Joseph, Missouri -- the westernmost point reached by the railroad and telegraph -- and California. St. Joseph was the strategic starting point for the direct 2,000-mile central route to the West. Except for a few forts and settlements, however, the route beyond St. Joseph was a vast, unknown land, inhabited primarily by Native Americans.

Many people believed transportation across this area on a year-round basis was impossible because of the extreme weather conditions. Russell, however, thought a route was feasible and was ready to organize his own express, with or without a mail contract, to prove it.

As a first step, Russell and his two partners, Majors and Waddell, formed the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company. They built new relay stations and readied existing ones for use. The country was combed for good horses, animals hardy enough to challenge deserts and mountains and to withstand thirst in summer and ice in winter. Riders were recruited hastily but, before being hired, had to swear on a Bible not to cuss, fight, or abuse their animals and to conduct themselves honestly.

Starting on April 3, 1860, the Pony Express ran through parts of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. On an average day, a rider covered 75 to 100 miles. He changed horses at relay stations, set about 10 or 15 miles apart, transferring himself and his mochila (a saddle cover with four pockets or cantinas for mail) to the new mount, all in one leap.

The first mail by Pony Express via the central route from St. Joseph to Sacramento took 10 1/2 days, cutting the Overland Stage time via the southern route by more than half. The fastest delivery was in March 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address was carried in 7 days and 17 hours.

From April 1860 through June 1861, the Pony Express operated as a private enterprise. From July 1, 1861, it operated under contract as a mail route until October 24, 1861, when the transcontinental telegraph line was completed, and the Pony Express became a legend.

Pony Express and San Francisco

History of the United States Post Office - Table of Contents

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