As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express, I can only imagine what riders endured to deliver the mail over 1,840 miles of harsh conditions, difficult terrain, and unwelcome situations. Who were these Pony Express riders, and what was their experience like along the Pony Express route?
To help me answer those questions, I turned to Jacqueline Lewin and Marilyn Taylor’s On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders. Their book lists 195 Pony Express riders, based on evidence from eyewitness accounts, newspapers, census records, and other primary sources. Lewin and Taylor also describe 61 Pony Express riders, many of whom came from Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania — and even Ireland and England.
What was common among most riders was their youth: about three-quarters were under 25. (Wells Fargo has teaching activities on the Pony Express, including some photos that capture the youth of the riders [PDF].)
The ideal rider was under 125 pounds because the lighter the person, the lighter the load for the horse. One of the youngest who claimed to be a Pony Express rider was 11-year old Charlie Miller. One of the oldest was 45-year old Major Howard Egan, who also worked as a station keeper.
The Pony Express ran year-round and ’round the clock, along a route that connected California and Missouri, through Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas. While horse and rider could cover nearly 20 miles per hour on the Great Plains, it took one full day to cover just 100 mountainous miles between Carson City and Placerville (insert photo). The average speed along the Pony Express route was about 10 miles per hour….
The riders covered an average of 75 miles in nine hours, changing horses up to five times. Stations provided fresh horses every ten to fifteen miles. On occasion, riders rode extra distances, even a double- or triple-shift. Rider William Campbell recalled:
Once I spent 24 hours in the saddle carrying the mail 120 miles to Fairfield (Nebraska) with snow two or three feet deep and the mercury around zero. I could tell where the trail lay only by watching the tall weeds on either side and often had to get off and lead my horse. There was no rider to go on at Fort Kearny, so I went on to Fairfield 20 miles away.
If a horse were injured on the trail, its rider still had to carry the mail through. Campbell recounted, “Once my horse, Ragged Jim, stepped in a buffalo wallow in the dark, and I went over his head, dragging the mail with me. I could not find the horse so set off with the mail on foot for the next station.”
Then there was the issue of the weather — from blizzards to scorching heat to flash floods. Rider Ras Egan rode west from Salt Lake City:
I started at sundown for Rush Valley in a very heavy snowstorm, and the snow kneed deep to my horse. I could see no road, so that, as soon as darkness came on, I had to depend entirely on the wind. It was striking on my right cheek, so I kept it there, but unfortunately for me, the wind changed and led me off my course, and instead of going westward, I went southward and rode all night on a high trot, and arrived at the place I had left at sundown the evening before with both myself and horse very tired.
Across the Great Plains, Pony Express riders rode past vast herds of buffalo and pronghorn antelope. Campbell recalled one encounter with a pack of buffalo wolves he’d rather have not remembered:
They refused to move when I rode at them, and my horse shied at the smell of blood and the animals. I blew my horn, but it had no effect. There was nothing to do but try to flank and outrun them. I gave my scared horse his head and the wolves finally fell back when the lights of the next station showed in the distance.
For its final six months, Wells Fargo ran the Pony Express. During its brief nineteen-month history, its riders carried 35,000 letters.
Who were these Pony Express riders? They, and their horses, were the heart and soul of a relay system that linked the East and West during a pivotal moment in the history of the United States, when regional differences escalated into national conflict.