Move, Shoot, Communicate

US Mail and the Pony Express

All civilizations share certain characteristics, which include large population centers where economic transactions take place, architecture that house social institutions (government offices, court rooms, religious centers),  where craftsman and artisans produce their masterpieces.  Civilizations also have well-defined divisions of labor and a system of writing and record keeping.  

Human civilizations began to form between 4,000-3,000 BC; it was a gradual process that was only possible when human societies stabilized, when the put down roots, made their farms productive, domesticated animals, and organized their homesteads and villages to guard against foreign depredations.  In time, small villages became towns, and the towns became sophisticated population centers where trade occurred between farmers and villagers, townsmen and passerby’s.  Craftsman produced wondrous things that people soon realized they could use to improve their lives.  There were wheelwrights, blacksmiths, potters, weavers, tanners, and oil merchants — all gainfully employed and able to barter for grain, meat, milk.

Human civilization, as a process, began rather simply and developed into a complex arrangement of societies and institutions, each one a bit different because of culture and folkways.  Some towns, particularly those along well traveled trade routes, grew into well-fortified cities where hundreds of people lived and plied their trade.  The city-states were where one could find the king or the prince, their advisors, administrators, tax collectors, priests, the libraries, and from which the aristocracy communicated with other city states.  One mark of an advanced civilization is its ability to establish and maintain a reliable postal service.  No nation did this better than ancient Rome, which established such a high standard in postal communications no country came close to rivaling it until the middle of the nineteenth century. 

Samuel Adams

Beginning in 1764, a year after the end of the French & Indian Wars, the city of Boston established the first Committee of Correspondence.  Its purpose was to encourage opposition to Great  Britain’s imposition of customs regulations and the homeland’s denial of the right of colonies to establish their own monetary system.  New York followed suit in 1765 in order to keep the other colonies informed for its resistance to the Stamp Act.  In 1773, Virginia’s House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee of correspondence to facilitate inter-colonial communications.  These efforts resulted in the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

In 1772, a new Boston Committee of Correspondence was organized — this time to communicate with Massachusetts towns — an expansion of the opposition’s efforts to keep citizens informed events that affected them directly.  One example of these was the announcement that Massachusetts’s colonial governor and the colony’s judges would no longer be accountable to the legislature.  They would, instead, answer directly to the Crown.  It was after this that more than half of the colony’s towns also formed committees of correspondence. 

Benjamin Franklin

As one might imagine, committees of correspondence exchange letters and notes.  The method of exchange is over the post roads and/or the sea packets.  It would have been possible for individuals to exchange letters through messengers, but it would not have been possible to do this in great volume through personal messengers.  It would not have been possible without the efforts of our old friend, Benjamin Franklin.  In 1737, Mr. Franklin served as Philadelphia’s first postmaster.  In 1753, he became deputy postmaster for British North America and shepherded many much-needed reforms to the American colonial postal system.

Among his many accomplishments in the area of postal affairs, Franklin developed a system of fast-sailing packet ships for transmitting mail to and from Great Britain.  While we may credit Mr. Franklin for his clever intelligence, he was a learned man known to have consulted with antiquity for its history and accomplishments [Note 1].

Benjamin Franklin no doubt read about and understood the postal mechanisms employed long before the Eighteenth Century when the institutions of vast empires were created and held together by rapid and reliable communications.  Among these, perhaps, the Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, and most certainly the Roman curses publicus, which in its own time was the most sophisticated of all the ancient communications systems — and in fact remained “the” example, with nothing to rival it until well into the Nineteenth Century  The Romans established mail drops, sorting stations, relay points, and en route protection.

Were it not for this system of rapid communications, none of Rome’s complex military and administrative systems could not have assured the Republic, much less the Empire — and were it not for Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of the importance of rapid communications, we may never have had an American Revolution.

But by the time of the birth of this new nation, people were already communicating with one another through the mail, from seacoast villages westward into the Appalachian settlements.  Families who could write often did, and exchanged letters to keep in touch with family members.    Many of these “letters home” inspired others to embark on westward journeys.

The westward expansion of the Americans simply meant a distention of postal services, strengthening the nation through sacks of letters, packages, business documents, financial instruments and newspapers as cargo on wagons, ships, and riverboats.  The postal service was also a key factor in expanding military control over vast western territories.  The widespread circulation of newspapers accomplished a coordination of state and territorial politicians and helped establish a spirit of nationalism — a sense of belonging to the great American institutions.

The United States Postal Department was created in 1792, as permitted by the Constitution, which empowered the Congress to establish post offices and post roads.  Federal law guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence and offered low-cost access to information.  Postmaster General Gideon Granger developed a “hub and spoke” system mail service, with the city of Washington as the hub and chief sorting center, and spokes (postal roads) going off in many directions.  By 1869, there were 27,000 post offices in the United States.  With the arrival of sophisticated rail systems came the development of Railway Post Offices, where mail was sorted en route in specialized railway cars.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 acted as a magnet to thousands of prospectors, investors, businessmen, and bankers and California went from territory to state within two years.  Close to 400,000 people lived in California by 1860 and there was a demand for a faster method of getting the mail to and from America’s western-most state.  The demand became even greater as war loomed on America’s horizon.  What was needed as a fast mail route to the Pacific Coast, and the men who devised such a system included William Russell [Note 2], Alexander Majors [Note 3], and William Waddell [Note 4].

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were already in the freighting and drayage business [Note 5] when they created the Pony Express Company.  At the peak of operations, Pony Express employed 6,000 men, owned 75,000 oxen, thousands of wagons and warehouses, a sawmill, a meatpacking plant, a bank, and an insurance company. 

By using horses rather than stagecoaches, Pony Express intended to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California.  They envisioned the delivery of letters within ten days, which many at the time argued was impossible.  The initial price of Pony Express mailings was $5.00 per ½ ounce, but the price fell to $2.50 and then $1.00 by July 1861.  It was the intent of Pony Express to obtain a government contract — which was never offered.

It took Russell, Majors, and Waddell two months to organize the Pony Express, which they did with 80 riders, 184 way stations, 400 horses, and several hundred support personnel.  Essentially, the way stations were set up about ten miles apart along the Pony Express route.  At each stop, the rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch and personal sidearms with him.

The mail sack or pouch could hold twenty pounds of mail and twenty pounds of additional material.  It took the form of a saddle bag, but was thrown over the saddle and sat upon by the rider.  Because of the weight of the mail pouch, no rider was hired who weighed more than 125 pounds.  Riders were changed every 75-100 miles; they rode day or night, in sun or storm.  The average horse stood 14-hands high (58 inches) and weighed around 900 pounds.

Pony Express riders were paid $100.00 monthly, which is good money when compared to a regular horseman who earned between $0.43 to $1.00 a day. 

The route of the Pony Express extended some 1,900 miles, from St. Joseph, Missouri roughly following the Oregon and California trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and then the Mormon Trail (also, Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah, the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada, and then over the Sierra into Sacramento, California.  The route was divided into five sections.  To maintain a rigid schedule, Pony Express established 157 relay stations located from 5 to 25 miles apart (depending on terrain).  At swing stations, riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones; home stations provided room and board for riders in between runs.  Riders averaged 75 miles per day.  In total, there were 190 stations en route, many located inside military forts, but most were either new structures or refurbished from already existing buildings and grounds.

The first westbound Pony Express trip commenced from St. Joseph on 3 April 1860, arriving in Sacramento on 14 April.  The first eastbound Pony Express trip departed Sacramento on 3 April and arrived in St. Joseph on 14 April.  At St. Joseph, the Pony Express mails were placed in the US Mail for delivery further eastward.

In May and June 1860, and Indian uprising among the Paiute tribe disrupted the Pony Express mail service, the one and only instance when the mail did not go through.  During this incident, the station located on the Carson River (near present-day Lake Lahontan) was attacked.  Five men were killed and Indians took the horses and set fire to the station.  Pony Express riders were a particular target for Paiute war parties.  In total, seven stations were burned, and 16 employees lost their lives, 150 horses were stolen or driven off, and the cost to the Pony Express Company was around $75,000 in livestock and real estate. 

Lightweight, but tough

Riding for Pony Express was difficult work; the men used as riders had to be lightweight but tough.  One Pony Express advertisement is said to have read: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen.  Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.  Orphans preferred.”  Writer Mark Twain described the Pony Express rider as, “Usually a little bit of a man.”  Despite their youth and size, the Pony Express Rider became a sort of Western hero.  One of these young riders was a man named William Frederick Cody, who most people remember as Buffalo Bill Cody [Note 6].

Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam is remembered as one of the more brave and most resourceful of the Pony Express riders.  He was born in England in 1840.  After working to construct way stations, Haslam was given the mail run from Lake Tahoe to Buckland’s station near Fort Churchill.  His greatest ride was 120 miles in 8 hours/20 minutes while wounded by an arrow into his jaw.  For all his brave accomplishments, though, Haslam died of a stroke while in deep poverty.  Bill Cody, a friend for many years, paid for Haslam’s tombstone.

Jack Keetley was one of the few riders who lasted as long as the Pony Express company, about 19 months.  Billy Tate, a 14-year old, didn’t last quite as long.  He carried the mail in Nevada near Ruby Valley.  During the Indian uprising, Billy was chased by a band of Paiute on horseback and was forced into the hills, where, behind rocks, he killed seven of his pursuers before being killed by the Indians.  When his body was discovered, it was riddled with arrows — but as a demonstration of respect, the Indians did not scalp him.

During its brief operations, the Pony Express delivered around 35,000 letters.  At the beginning, however, Alexander Majors publicly stated that Pony Express was “just a precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railroad.  Today, the National Pony Express Association is a national nonprofit, volunteer-led organization designed to preserve the original Pony Express trail in partnership with the National Park Service. 

Sources:

  1. Chapman, A.  The Pony Express: the record of a romantic adventure in business.  Putnam & Sons, 1932.
  2. Fike, R. E. & J. W. Headley.  The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective.  Bureau of Land Management, 1979.
  3. Gallagher, W.  How the Post Office Created America: A History.  Penguin Books, 2017.
  4. Gavin, A. M.  Hugh Finlay and the Postal System in Colonial America.  Prologue Magazine, 2009.
  5. Leonard, D.  Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service.  Grove Press, 2016.
  6. Rich, W. E.  The History of the United States Post Office to 1829.  Harvard University Press, 1924.
  7. Settle, R. W.  Saddles and Spurs.  University of Nebraska Press, 1955.
  8. Visscher, W. L.  A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express: Or, Blazing the Westward Way.  Rand McNally, 1908.

Endnotes:

[1]  Our founding fathers not only researched and studied antiquity, they did so by reading it, understanding it, and translating it to American English from Greek and Latin.  

[2]  William Hepburn Russell (1812-1872) was born in Vermont but moved west to Missouri with his family in the 1820s.  In 1837, Russel helped to organize the Lexington First Addition company with William Waddell.  In 1844, using borrowed money, Russell and James Bullard established a partnership to open a general store.  E. C. McCarty soon joined the enterprise and the firm expanded into shipping goods to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Afterward, Russell became a partner with Waddell, Ramsey & Company.  In 1850, with James Brown and John Jones, Russell entered the military freighting business.  When Brown died in 1850, Waddell took his place and by 1854, Russell, Jones, and Waddell had a well-established military freighting business into New Mexico.

[3]  Alexander Majors (1814-1900) was originally from Kentucky.  In 1848, he was a freight hauler on the overland trail to New Mexico and established a  new time record of 92 days for a 1,564 mile journey round trip.  Eventually, Majors employed 4,000 men and by 1853 he held contracts to haul supplies for the U. S. Army.  He also had a hand in establishing the Kansas City stockyards, which became the national center for shipping beef to east and west coast merchants.  Joining with Russell and Waddell in 1854, Majors assumed responsibility for shipping operations, Waddell ran the office, and Russell used his political connections to gain government contracts.

[4]  William Bradford Waddell (1807-1872) was born in Fauquier County, Virginia and over several years made his way to Kentucky, Illinois, and then St. Louis, Missouri where he clerked for a dry goods store.  In 1837, he joined with Russell in establishing the Lexington First Addition Company, the Lexington Fire and Marine Insurance Company, and the Lexington Female Collegiate Institute.  In 1853, Waddell and Russell formed the wholesale trading firm for hauling freight to Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Union, New Mexico.  Alexander Majors joined this firm in 1855 and was able to secure a contract with the War Department to resupply military forts west of the Missouri River.

[5]  This term originally meant “to transport by sideless cart” … or dray.  Such carts were used to move goods short distances, limited by the capability of the dray horse.  Drayage typically took place at ports, spreading to canal and rail terminals.  We know drayage today as “delivery truck.”

[6]  W. F. Cody (1846-1917) was born in the Iowa Territory, lived for several years in Canada, and settled in the Kansas Territory.  Cody began working after his father died and he was eleven-years old.  At the age of 15, he rode for Pony Express.  Later, during the Indian Wars, Cody served in the Army as a scout.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1872. 

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Old West Communications. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Move, Shoot, Communicate

  1. And today, the postal service is a subsidiary of Amazon.

    Liked by 1 person

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