Henry Avis, the Pony Express

­­­­­­­Henry Avis – Pony Express[1]
Angela Reiniche

Henry Avis got his start with “the horses” at an early age. Throughout his teenage years in the 1850s, Avis regularly travelled from his parents’ home in Kansas City to work in Atchison and Leavenworth, where he had developed a reputation as an expert breaker of wild horses.[2] Major Andrew Dripps, a mountain man turned U.S. Indian agent, took notice of Avis’s talents and hired the eighteen-year-old to accompany him on a supply train to Fort Laramie, where Dripps operated a post for the Pierre Chouteau, Jr. & Company. Shortly after arriving in Wyoming in 1858, Avis started to carry the tri-weekly postal service (via four-mule wagons) to Salt Lake City from Fort Laramie for J.M. Hockaday & Company. When daily service started, he drove the mail wagon from Mud Springs through Fort Laramie to Horseshoe Creek—a ninety-mile trip.[3] His horsemanship, youthful vigor, and endurance (as well as his small stature) made Avis an ideal rider for the newly-minted Pony Express when it started running weekly mails service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, in April 1860.

Avis would become legendary for his fearlessness. When division superintendents for the Pony Express recruited drivers, they applied the same criteria they used when buying horses—fast, young, and reliable. Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s model rider was under eighteen years old, highly skilled, and dauntless in the face of danger.[4] Avis more than fit the bill. He famously covered 220 miles of dangerous terrain in a single ride at a time when other riders refused to do their runs out of fear of conflicts with Native Americans. For this celebrated feat, Russell, Majors, and Waddell rewarded him with a bonus of $300—roughly six months’ pay. [5]

Several iterations of the long ride have been published, but the basic story is as follows: on one of his trips, Avis finished the western end of his route at Horseshoe Station (in present-day Wyoming). It was nighttime when he arrived and the replacement rider refused to carry the mail to the next station because he had heard that the Sioux were “on the warpath.” His fears were not entirely unfounded; although no Pony Express riders had been killed in Wyoming during conflicts between the U.S. and the Plains Indians, at least three riders had been killed by American Indians in western Utah and Nevada. Undaunted, Avis changed mounts and took the mochila (mail pouch) onto Deer Creek Station, a “home station” where riders expected to pass the mail to the relief rider, enjoy a meal, and get some much-needed rest.[6] But, when he arrived, the station had been abandoned, the horses stolen, and the keeper was nowhere to be found. When the eastbound rider at Deer Creek refused to take the mochila—for the same reasons as the other rider—the stalwart Avis fastened the pouch onto a fresh mount and rode back to Horseshoe Station. All told, the round trip added up to at least two hundred miles of hard riding.[7]

With the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in late October 1861, the Pony Express ended its services and Henry Avis’s employment as a rider. After an evidently successful stint prospecting for gold in the Far West, Avis returned to Kansas City.[8] Over the next two decades, the former Pony Express rider parlayed his horsemanship into employment as a horse trainer and stable manager. By 1885 he was working for William Mulkey, a wealthy Kansas City resident who owned a stable of racing horses; the Kansas City Times reported that Avis’s skills had earned his employer more than $13,000 in winnings that season.[9] That same year, he married a woman from Virginia named Mollie and began serving as a judge for horse races.[10]

For the rest of his life, Avis appears only sporadically in the historical record. In 1892 he and several fellow horseman met at Chicago’s Palmer House to organize a “protective association for [the] mutual benefit” of men that owned or trained thoroughbred horses.[11] By 1900 Avis had become a horse dealer, and he and Mollie lived in a rented home in St. Louis’ 19th Ward.[12] Sometime in the following decade, the couple moved back to Kansas City and bought a house; by this point, Henry had risen to become an “employer” in the horse business.[13]

In 1917, the seventy-six-year-old Avis talked to the Kansas City Star about his forty-year career as a horse trainer, particularly the “famous string of horses owned by William Mulkey.” Avis described himself as “spry as a colt, barring a little rheumatism.” Mollie, who had accompanied Avis “to every track in the country,” sat in her rocking chair while Avis and his fellow horseman, “Johnnie” Martin, recalled the “good old days” of racing in Kansas City. Avis expressed a strong desire to return to the racetrack: “If I could just live long enough . . . I’d get back in the game yet. I’ve got my eye now on two or three as likely three-year-olds as a man could pick up anywhere . . . the horses ain’t gone yet.”[14]

It is difficult to know whether Henry Avis “got back in the game” after that interview. The 1920 federal census showed that Henry had retired and that he and Molly lived in the same home on Prospect Avenue; they had taken in several boarders, most of them younger men.[15] During the Missouri State Fair of 1921, Henry Avis rode through the streets of Kansas City in a parade to celebrate the state’s centennial and represent the “last of the living Pony Express riders.”[16] He died on 20 March 1927 in Kansas City following a bout of “lobar pneumonia,” an infection of the lungs. Avis was interred next to Mollie (who passed away in the winter of 1922–1923) at Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.[17]

[1] Part of a 2016–2018 collaborative project of the National Trails- National Park Service and the University of New Mexico’s Department of History, “Student Experience in National Trails Historic Research: Vignettes Project” [Colorado Plateau Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (CPCESU), Task Agreement P16AC00957]. This project was formulated to provide trail partners and the general public with useful biographies of less-studied trail figures—particularly African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, women, and children.

[2] Settle, Saddles and Spurs, 77. Joseph and Ellen Avis, along with their two young daughters, Elizabeth and Matilda, left Liverpool, England on the ship “Bombay” and arrived at the Port of New Orleans, Louisiana on 18 May 1839 and Henry was born the next year on 11 September 1840, most likely in St. Louis. At some point prior to 1850, the family may have moved to and lived in a boarding house in New Orleans 8th Ward. See The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1820-1902; NAI Number: 2824927; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; Record Group Number: 85, “New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813–1963”; the 1840 federal census records the Avis family, the parents and two daughters, as residing in St. Louis, Missouri. The date of the census recording is illegible on the original document, but Henry must not have been born yet. Later census record his birthplace sometimes in Louisiana and, other times, in Missouri. The 1840 census provided only the name of the head of household while the rest of the household was counted according to their gender, age, and whether or not they were free or enslaved. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. NARA microfilm publication M704, roll 580, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; and 1850 U.S. Census, population schedule. NARA, microfilm publication M653, roll 1438, Washington, D.C., National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.

[3] Raymond W. Settle and Mary Lund Settle, Saddles & Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955), 77.

[4] Joseph J. Di Certo, The Saga of the Pony Express (Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 2002), 45. For a discussion of Russell’s, Majors’s, and Waddell’s interest – out of necessity – to advertise for adventure-seeking young men as riders for the Pony Express, and of the myths surrounding those advertisements, see Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (New York: Broadway Books, 2003).

[5] National Park Service, National Trails System—Intermountain Region, “National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide: Across Wyoming,” Department of the Interior, National Park Service, July 2007, p. 34–35,; for additional iterations of Avis’s famous round trip ride, see Fred Reinfield, Pony Express (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 93–94; William E. Hill, The Pony Express Trail: Yesterday and Today (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 2010), 141–142; Di Certo, The Saga of the Pony Express, 187; and Settle, Saddles & Spurs, 77.

[6] In the 1850s, Deer Creek Station had been established as a trading post/settlement and became a home station for the Pony Express when the service started in 1860. The Deer Creek Station Monument is located on North Third Street in Glenrock, Wyoming. “History – Deer Creek Station,” Glenrock Area Chamber of Commerce, n.d., accessed 12 July 2017,

[7] This author’s iteration of Avis’s long ride is a composite sketch of those listed in footnote 4. Some writers have put the number of miles at 220 (Reinfeld, Hill, di Certo, and Settle) while the National Park Service has the number recorded as 199 miles, see “National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide: Across Wyoming,” 35.

[8] Settle, Saddles and Spurs, 77; and In 1870, the twenty-eight-year-old Henry lived in Kansas City with several other people, most of them male boarders, in the household of a real estate dealer and his wife, see 1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 1761. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d

[9] “Short Horses Win,” Kansas City Times, November 7, 1885.

[10] “They are Off,” Kansas City Times, November 6, 1887.

[11] “Horse Owners Combine: Prominent Race-horse Men Organize a Protective Association for Mutual Benefit,” Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), July 23, 1892.

[12] 1900 U.S. Census, St. Louis Ward 19, St. Louis (Independent City), Missouri, p.6, Enumeration district 0297; Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900. T623, roll 1854.

[13] Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (NARA microfilm publication T624, 1,178 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C

[14] “When the ‘Ponies’ Ran in Kansas City,” Kansas City Star, February 4, 1917.

[15] Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[16] Lucile Tappan Moreland, “Missouri’s Centennial Celebration in Kansas City,” Missouri Historical Review 16 (October 1921–July 1922), p. 318. . A man named Frank Gould wrote to the editor of the Star to say that he, too, had been an Express rider, was still living, and wanted to hear from any other living riders; see “A Pony Express Rider Writes from Raytown,” Kansas City Star, May 3, 1921. Because Russell, Majors, and Waddell left little evidence behind to document the business activities of the Pony Express, there is no comprehensive list of the people they employed. Thus, it was not unusual in the early 1920s to see reporters (and perhaps the riders themselves) claim knowledge of the last living rider of the Pony Express.

[17] Missouri State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death,; and Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed 12 June 2017), memorial page for Mollie Avis (26 Jul 1847–11 Jan 1923), Find A Grave Memorial no. 70574007, citing Mount Washington Cemetery, Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, USA ; Maintained by Ron Mac (contributor 46931715) .

Part of a series of articles titled People of the Pony Express.

Pony Express National Historic Trail

Last updated: March 7, 2023