Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter One:
BY OCEAN OR BY LAND: ROOTS OF THE PONY EXPRESS

INTRODUCTION

The roots of the Pony Express lie deep in the history of Americans living in far off Oregon, California, and Utah. By 1846, many American citizens willingly crossed the Great Plains for a variety of reasons. In 1842, frontier folk from Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky caught the Oregon "fever" and a sizeable number of them had migrated into Oregon country by 1845 to seek their fortunes there and to the south in California. Facing religious persecution at Nauvoo, Illinois, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons, abandoned their homes there to seek a new life in the "promised land" of the basin of the Great Salt Lake. Americans living in these far off places wished to communicate with their family, friends, and business associates living back home. Recognizing this need to keep connected in some way to the United States, President James Knox Polk stated: "It is important that mail facilities, so indispensable for the diffusion of information, and for the binding together [of] the different portions of our extended Confederacy, should be afforded to our citizens west of the Rocky Mountains." [1] Thereafter, the need for regular and direct communication between the west and the east coasts was manifested time and time again.

In 1848, demand for an east-west mail service in the United States rose proportionately with the acquisition of California territory after the Mexican-American War, and more importantly with the subsequent discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on the south fork of the American River. The thousands of miners and other people who flocked to California during the gold rush wanted and called for mail service with the rest of the nation. Also in 1848, the continued migration of Mormons to the Great Salt Lake added to this explosive enjoinment for mail transportation beyond the Rocky Mountains. Continued population increase and settlement of Oregon, California, and Utah sustained a growing necessity for an east-west mail service. In response to these migrations and population increases, post offices were officially established in San Francisco (1848) and Salt Lake City (1849). Thereafter, the federal government let contracts to companies to provide east-west mail service. [2]

For the next decade or so, vital questions regarding delivery routes (ocean versus overland), frequency of service (monthly or semi-monthly), speed of delivery (number of days for delivery), and costs were answered through pragmatic means—trial and error.


OCEAN ROUTE MAIL SERVICE

The ocean route was the first choice for an east-west mail service. In 1847, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Department of the Navy to contract for the transportation of mail to the Pacific Coast from the Eastern Seaboard via the Isthmus of Panama. Ten-year contracts were let for monthly service to Oregon, one for each leg of the trip. In addition, special steamship vessels were built and commissioned by the United States Navy to provide suitable transportation for mail and passengers. The Atlantic—to—Panama leg of the trip was initially contracted to A.G. Sloo, who promptly transferred his contract to the partnership of George Law, Marshall O. Roberts, and Bowers McIlvaine of New York, who then formed the United States Mail Steamship Company. The Panama—to—Oregon service segment went to William H. Aspinwall of New York, who incorporated as the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Eventually, this later company built three steamships for the service, the California, Oregon, and Panama. The cost for ocean mail service started at $199,000 per annum. [3]

Except for the desertion of the California by its crew who caught the "gold fever" when it entered San Francisco Bay, the ocean mail route provided regular, reliable service with few problems. In 1851, the mail delivery schedule was increased to a semi-monthly service with a compensation of approximately $350,000 per annum. For almost a decade, ocean transportation of mail between New York and San Francisco became the most significant east-west mail route, taking approximately four weeks in transit. In 1855, this route was improved with the completion of the Panama railroad across the Isthmus. Thereafter, the trip took little more than three weeks in good weather. In 1858, a record—setting twenty-one days, two hours, and thirteen minutes was accomplished from a New York departure point to the wharfs of San Francisco Bay. With time and population growth, the amount of transported mail grew as well, from approximately 6,000 letters in 1849 to 2,000,662 letters in 1859, not to mention the large newspaper mail carried back and forth. During most of these years, the rate of postage varied from 6¢ per single letter in 1851 to 10¢ a letter after 1855. [4]

Mail service was the only connecting link between the past and present lives of the people living in California and Oregon. The arrival of the mail steamer into San Francisco Bay was an important part of life and it became a celebrated event by all who sought news from their loved ones, friends, and business associates back in the "States." Upon its arrival in the bay, a signal was made on Telegraph Hill to alert citizens to begin lining up at the post office to receive their precious letters and other communications. Journalists greeted and clambered upon the ship even before it reached its mooring. They vied with one another to get the latest news quickly, so they could publish the month-old news in "extras," which they sold for a dollar a piece. The departure of the mail steamship, known as steamer day, mirrored the importance of its arrival. Citizens and merchants, alike, hurriedly prepared letters to relatives, and dispatches and bills for business partners. Local newspapers also summarized recent news events in "steamer papers for communication with their eastern newspaper counterparts. [5]

From the beginning, the ocean route service had its critics. First, many Californians and Oregonians thought the service was too slow by sea. Having travelled overland, many people firmly argued that overland mail service had to be far more efficient than the then current ocean route via Panama. [6] Some critics, who advocated a land route, also condemned the monopoly held by the United States Mail Steamship Company, the Panama Railroad Company, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. They wished to break this profitable monopoly by establishing a competitive overland route. [7] These objections eventually became the basis for the formation of the overland mail route arguments.


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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008