Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

5. The Pony Express

In the early evening of April 3, 1860, an express rider carrying mail sped west from St. Joseph, Missouri. Later that night another express rider left Sacramento, California, heading in the opposite direction. The mail these riders carried was relayed to other riders—forty traveled in each direction—until ten days later it reached its destination, 1,966 miles away. This event marked the birth of the Pony Express, which has been described as “a meteor, blazing through the skies of history.” A blazing meteor or not, the Pony Express has been enshrouded in historical myth and in actuality was a short-lived publicity stunt, lasting a mere nineteen months before bankrupting its owners.

Express riding was nothing new. In ancient times Darius the Great had used a courier system in the Persian Empire, and other rulers in antiquity imitated his example. In thirteenth-century China Genghis Khan probably developed the most efficient system. During the era of the American Revolution, skilled riders like Paul Revere had often ridden express, sometimes changing horses along the way. But never before had anyone conceived of a privately financed express system that would carry messages two thousand miles over rugged and dangerous terrain on a regular basis.

By the mid-1850s there were almost five hundred thousand people living on the West Coast, and yet the railroad and the telegraph extended only to the Missouri River. In 1857 the federal government issued a six hundred thousand dollar mail contract to John Butterfield to organize a stage line between St. Louis and San Francisco that would take a southern route to avoid the Rockies and bad weather. It took twenty-five days for passengers and mail to be carried by the Butterfield Overland Mail stages en route from Missouri via Texas to reach California; or,

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