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The Pony Express: America's First Express Mail

Written By: Christine Dantz

August 2016


Before FedEx, America had the Pony Express; a mail service born after James W. Marshall discovered gold in California. The Gold Rush followed the discovery of the precious metal in 1848. The "rush" was more of a trickle the first year. Getting information to and from the West Coast was so bad that news of the Gold Rush took close to a year for the U.S. government to confirm and announce. In fact, it would be a private government contractor in 1854 that would develop the transport system for the Pony Express.

The Pony Express America's First Express Mail

An employee at Waddell & Russell, a military supply delivery firm contracted to service the western territories, made the suggestion for what would later be the Pony Express. While traveling with California Senator William Gwin in 1854, Benjamin Ficklin suggested the use of fast horses, skilled riders, and relay stations to deliver mail, faster than the stage coach, to the far western state. The idea is proposed to Congress by the senator, but similar to today's transportation bills, it died in the committee.

The Pony Express America's First Express Mail

Fast-forward four years and many struggles for Waddell & Russell, as well as for the state and local government in the West. Gwin introduces the idea again for fast mail delivery by a pony express and this time he's successful in getting the support of Congress. The route started in St. Joseph, Missouri and ended in San Francisco, California. Waddell & Russell take on the concept and make it a reality, and on April 3, 1860, the first successful run of the Pony Express started and finished, as promised, in a record 10 days.

The Pony Express America's First Express Mail

(The first four riders from left to right, "Billy" Richardson, Johnny Fry, Charles and Gus Cliff)

The horses got a break at each Pony Express Transfer Station; riders would switch to a fresh horse and continue on through the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains, in the rain, snow, heat, and cold conditions. Along with the terrain and weather, the riders endured attacks by angry Native Americans and enterprising criminals looking for something valuable heading west.

Pony Express Oath: "I, (rider's name) do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while 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 Pony Express America's First Express Mail

(The first U.S. postage stamp issued by the United States Post Office in 1869. The stamp wasn't used by the riders. Instead, the stamp is one of the first commemorative stamps issued to honor a historical event by the post office.)

The conditions endured by the riders of the Pony Express make today's mail carriers work look like a cake walk! Stick around Back in the USA for more harrowing stories of real, American heroes!

Bureau of Engraving and Pringing; Imagin by Gwillickers. (1960, July 19). File: Pony Express centennial stamp 4c 1960 issue.jpg. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Ernest and Elaine Hartnagle. (1860). File: Riders Pony Express.jpg. Retrieved from Wikimedia commons.
File: Pony Express Poster.jpg. (1860). Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
File: Pony Express'60 West bound 1860.jpg. (1860). Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Jackson, W. H. (1951). File: Pony Express Map William Henry Jackson.jpg. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Pony Express Historical Timeline. (n.d.). Retrieved from Pony Express National Museum.



Other Articles of Interest:

American Innovations: The new Deal and Putting America to Work

American Innovation: The New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps

Elizabeth Jennings Graham: The Rosa Parks of 1855

A Patent for Sarah E. Goode: A Space Saving Folding Bed That Transforms into a Desk


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