The Pony Express

The Pony Express is a mail service delivering messages, newspapers, and mail.

Officially operating as the "Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company," most people simply just call it "The Pony Express," due to its use of short, horse-bound routes to get things going West and fast.

From April 3, 1860 to October 1861, it became the West's most direct means of east–west communication before the telegraph was established and was vital for tying the new state of California with the rest of the United States. While it has waned in prominence—with the advent of the telegraph and the Great Rail Wars—it is still a viable entity, despite its troubled history.


The idea for a fast mail route to the Pacific was prompted primarily by the increasing population of California and the Gold Rush of 1849. By 1850, California entered the US as a free state. As war loomed, the demand for fast communication grew more frantic.

In the late 1850s, prominent businessmen in the express business, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell came together and formed the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Company for the purpose of establishing a route between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. They had the idea that the route could move faster by employing teams of riders instead of stagecoaches and by using a shorter route. They proposed that they could deliver letters along the route in 10 days—a feat many thought impossible.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell organized and put together the Pony Express in two months in the winter of 1860. The undertaking assembled 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and several hundred personnel during January and February 1861. 

Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved "by the help of God" to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a special edition Bible and required this oath, which they were also required to sign.

"I, , do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am 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."

On April 10, 1860, the Pony Express began operations. Both the westbound (St. Joseph to San Francisco) and eastbound (San Francisco to St. Joseph) inaugural rides were successful—delivering their mochilas to their destinations in 10 days.

William Russell, senior partner of 'Russell, Majors, and Waddell' and one of the biggest investors in the Pony Express, used the 1860 presidential election as a way to promote the Pony Express and how fast it could deliver the U.S. Mail. Prior to the election, Russell hired extra riders to ensure that fresh riders and relay horses were available along the route. On November 7, 1860, a Pony Express rider departed Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory (the end of the eastern telegraph line) with the election results. Riders sped along the route, over snow-covered trails and into Fort Churchill, Nevada Territory (the end of the western telegraph line). California's newspapers received word of Lincoln's election only seven days and 17 hours after the East Coast papers, an unrivaled feat at the time.

The Paiute War

The Paiute War was a minor series of raids and ambushes initiated by the Paiute Indian tribe in Nevada, which resulted in the disruption of mail services of the Pony Express. It took place from May through June 1860, though sporadic violence continued for a period afterward. In the brief history that the Pony Express operated only once did the mail not go through. After completing eight weekly trips from both Sacramento and Saint Joseph, the Pony Express was forced to suspend mail services because of the outbreak of the Paiute Indian War in May 1860.

Approximately 6,000 Paiutes in Nevada had suffered during a winter of fierce blizzards that year. By spring, the whole tribe was ready to embark on a war, except for the Paiute chief named Numaga. For three days Numaga fasted and argued for peace. Meanwhile, a raiding party attacked Williams Station, a Pony Express station located on the Carson River near present-day Lake Lahontan. One account says the raid was a deliberate attempt to provoke war. Another says the raiders had heard that men at the station had kidnapped two Paiute women, and fighting broke out when they went to investigate and free the women. Either way, the war party killed five men and the station was burned.

During the following weeks, other isolated incidents occurred when whites in Paiute country were ambushed and killed. The Pony Express was a special target. Seven other express stations were also attacked; some 16 employees were killed and approximately 150 express horses were either stolen or driven off. The Paiute war cost the Pony Express company about $75,000 in livestock and station equipment, not to mention the loss of life. In June of that year, the Paiute uprising had been ended through the intervention of U.S. government troops, after which four delayed mail shipments from the East were finally brought to San Francisco on June 25, 1860.

During this brief war, one Pony Express mailing, which left San Francisco on July 21, 1860, did not immediately reach its destination. That mail pouch (mochila) did not reach St. Joseph and subsequently New York until almost two years later.

Troubled Times

Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern mail route was viable, Russell, Majors and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded in March 1861, to the southern Congressionally favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line. Then the so-called 'Stagecoach King', Ben Holladay, acquired the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches.

Having lost their mail contract and their stations, the company began to sputter. With the outbreak of war, the company reduced service to delivering mail between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. In October 1861, the first intercontinental telegraph line was erected, further cementing the Pony Express' seeming obsolescence.

Despite their initial subsidy from the US government, the enterprise lost money. It had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000.

While hugely popular in the imaginations of the people, it just wasn't viable financially to keep on. The Pony Express ceased all operations in October 1861. In 1866, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.


For some reason, after 1863, the telegraph has become an increasingly unreliable form of communication. Messages get scrambled, or just come outright wrong—if they get sent at all. Some people say there are "gremlins" in the works, but no body has clue as to why the technology seems to be failing.

Further, the grind of the ongoing War Between the States has made stagecoach travel increasingly treacherous. Now the Great Rail Wars have even made the rails vulnerable to violence.

Wells Fargo revitalized the service in April 1875. The division is run by Dale Tate, brother of former Pony Express rider Billy Tate. Wanting to honor his brothers memory, he jumped at the chance to raise the Pony from the dead.


In 1860, there were about 157 Pony Express stations that were about 10 miles (16 km) apart along the Pony Express route. At each station stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him.

The employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds (9 kg) of mail along with the 20 pounds (9 kg) of material carried on the horse. Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds (75 kg) on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds (57 kg), changed about every 75–100 miles (120–160 km), and rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a quickly moving horse.

The riders received $100 a month as pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $0.43–$1 per day.

Alexander Majors, one of the founders of the Pony Express, had acquired more than 400 horses for the project. He selected horses from around the west, paying an average of $200. These averaged about 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) high and averaged 900 pounds (410 kg) each; thus, the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct in all cases.

Deliverable Price
Mail or Message $1.00 stamp
Small parcel $1.00 per ounce

The Route

The approximately 1,900-mile-long (3,100 km) route roughly followed the Oregon and California Trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and then the Mormon Trail (known as the Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierra into Sacramento, California.

There were 184 stations along the long and arduous route used by the Pony Express. The stations and station keepers were essential to the successful, timely and smooth operation of the Pony Express mail system. The stations were often fashioned out of existing structures, several of them located in military forts, while others were built anew in remote areas where living conditions were very basic. The route was divided up into five divisions. To maintain the rigid schedule, 157 relay stations were located from 5 to 25 miles (8 to 40 km) apart as the terrain would allow for. At each swing station, riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones, while "home stations" provided room and board for the riders between runs. This technique allowed the mail to be whisked across the continent in record time. Each rider rode about 75 miles (120 km) per day.

Today, the route has changed slightly, with the War still raging and all. It now starts in Des Moines, Iowa. From there it skirts the Sioux Nation, heads through Concordia, Kansas, and then on to Denver, Colorado. From Denver the trail heads to Salt Lake City, Utah, Virginia City, Nevada, and then to Sacramento, California. This is known as the main trail. Velocipedes cover more than 90 percent of it. Dale was able to purchase only two ornithopters and only one of these runs on the main trail. It is used for the very dangerous legs into and out of Salt Lake City. The other ornithopter flies the route between the main line and Dodge, more for braggin' rights than anything else. The fact that two of the rail barons go right through Dodge (and a third is headquartered out of Salt Lake City) is just a coincidence. The side trails shoot out to Portland, Shan Fan, Boise, Billings, Cheyenne, and Dodge. With the exception of the Dodge run, the spurs are all run by horses. As can be seen, the route does not run through Confederate territories.

The Express Today

"Wanted-expert riders of all types for the Pony Express who are willing to risk their lives for the job. Orphans preferred. Wages thirty-five dollars a week. Bonus wages if you are good with machines or an honorably-discharged veteran of the Union."

This is the ad Dale ran to recruit his riders. He wanted it to be close to the original ad to remind people about the original Pony Express. When the riders showed up, they went through a couple of weeks of familiarization on a velocipede, including some basic maintenance procedures. With the manpower shortage from the war, Dale wrote the ad with an eye toward hiring anyone but was surprised by the number of young women signing on. Fully two thirds of his riders are women.

To keep the delivery times down, the running schedule is set so the mail never sits at a spur for more then half a day. If a delivery is more then half a day late, the waiting station sends out a velocipede to investigate. Each major station along the main route is built with defense in mind with clear lanes of fire around the building, sturdy one foot thick walls and a fireproof roof. Each station also has a Gatling gun assigned to it for mounting on a velocipede in case of trouble. The Gatling gun is also used to defend the station, providing that it's not out on a trouble call.

Last but not least, the Board of Directors felt that even these precautions were not enough and they forced Dale to take a contract with the Pinkertons to investigate any robberies of the Pony Express, a contract that Dale is paying a premium price for due to the nature of his cool relationship with Mr. Pinkerton.

A Bright Future

Dale has many plans for future expansion of the Pony. First and foremost he would like to move away from velocipedes and use more of the fuel-less ornithopters. Right now he is hampered by a real lack of pilots and the slow production times for the flying machines. But each ornithopter that comes in makes the main line that much cheaper to run and allows him to move velocipedes out to the spurs and replace the slower horses.

He is still looking to take over Smith and Robards delivery services, which would help solve his pilot shortage and give him a guaranteed customer even in the face of the continental railroad. A deal that Sir Clifton Robards is unlikely to go for as he does not want to let go of the lucrative delivery fees from the current system. Dale is also looking at increasing the number of trips the Pony rides each week once he has enough ornithopters to make this a feasible goal.

One interesting plan Dale has is to put a spur to Deadwood to be manned only by the Sioux and to be run only by horses. His initial advances have been rebuffed. Dale has also sent agents to scout a line towards Tombstone, "just in case."

Famous Riders

It doesn't take long for a Pony Express rider to make a reputation. It's tough work in tough conditions and you're often asked to test your mettle.

William Cody

At the age of 15 Cody was on his way west to California when he met Pony Express agents along the way and signed on with the company. Cody helped in the construction of several way-stations. Thereafter, he was employed as a rider and was given a short 45-mile (72 km) delivery run from the township of Julesburg which lay to the west. After some months he was transferred to Slade's Division in Wyoming where he made the longest non-stop ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back when he found that his relief rider had been killed. The distance of 322 miles (518 km) over one of the most dangerous sections of the entire trail was completed in 21 hours and 40 minutes, and 21 horses were required to complete this section. On one occasion when carrying mail he unintentionally ran into an Indian war party but managed to escape. Cody's gone on to become an Indian fighter, scout, and buffalo hunter. Ned Buntline has written a whole slew of dime novels about his adventures. Now he tours the world with his Weird West show.

Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam

Robert Haslam (Pony Bob) is among the most brave, resourceful, and best-known riders of the Pony Express. He was born January 1840 in London, England, and came to the United States as a teenager. Haslam was hired by Bolivar Roberts, helped build the stations, and was given the mail run from Friday's Station at Lake Tahoe to Buckland's Station near Fort Churchill, 75 miles (121 km) to the east.

His greatest ride, 120 miles (190 km) in 8 hours and 20 minutes while wounded, was an important contribution to the fastest trip ever made by the Pony Express. The mail carried Lincoln's inaugural address. Indian problems in 1860 led to Pony Bob Haslam's record-breaking ride. He had received the eastbound mail (probably the May 10 mail from San Francisco) at Friday's Station. When he reached Buckland's Station his relief rider was so badly frightened over the Indian threat that he refused to take the mail. Haslam agreed to take the mail all the way to Smith's Creek for a total distance of 190 miles (310 km) without a rest. After a rest of nine hours, he retraced his route with the westbound mail where, at Cold Springs, he found that Indians had raided the place, killing the station keeper and running off all of the stock. On the ride he was shot through the jaw with an Indian arrow, losing three teeth. Finally, he reached Buckland's Station, making the 380-mile (610 km) round trip the longest on record.

Pony Bob now rides shotgun for "Peddlin Rosie" in the revitalized Express.

Jack Keetley

Jack Keetley was hired by at the age of nineteen, and put on the run from Marysville to Big Sandy. He was a member of the first Pony Express throughout its operations.

Jack Keetley's longest ride, upon which he doubled back for another rider, ended at Seneca where he was taken from the saddle sound asleep. He had ridden 340 miles (550 km) in thirty-one hours without stopping to rest or eat. After the Pony Express folded in 1861,  Keetley went to Salt Lake City where he engaged in mining.

Billy Tate

Billy Tate was a 14-year-old Pony Express rider who rode the express trail in Nevada near Ruby Valley. During the Paiute uprising of 1860 he was chased by a band of Paiute Indians on horseback and was forced to retreat into the hills behind some big rocks where he killed seven of his assailants in a shoot-out before being killed himself. His body was found riddled with arrows but was not scalped, a sign that the Paiutes honored their enemy.

Rose "Peddlin' Rosie" Dixon

Rose has the honor of being the first rider of the revitalized Pony Express. She is a capable rider and mechanic and crack shot with her Peacemaker. She made the westward run on April 5, 1875. The run took two and half days.

Rose has even had a dime novel written about her, but she doesn't let the fame get to her head. She's fiercely loyal to Dale and Pony Bob, her shotgun man. She says the Pony saved her life." Rose doesn't talk about what she means by that.

Will Vernon

Will was born a slave in Missouri, but the hell out of there once the War broke out and joined the Union cause. In the course of his service, he managed to lose his legs. Since then, he's been bouncing around doing odd jobs and begging—even in the Union it's hard to acknowledge a black man's service.

When Will saw Dale's ad for the new Pony Express, he jumped at the chance to be useful again. He's proven to be one of the bravest and most sought-after "shotguns" in the Pony.

Inspiration taken from:

The Pony Express

Deadlands: Riders on the Storm pencilneckgeek pencilneckgeek