Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter One:


The development of a central overland mail service between California and the rest of the nation began soon after the California gold rush. Initially, some innovators envisioned a transcontinental passenger/mail service. For instance, in 1849, several businessmen attempted to establish an overland line from St. Louis to California, and actually made such a trip carrying 120 passengers. But the physical difficulties and cost they encountered prevented a second trip. [8] Clearly, conveying mail and passengers across the continent was too costly an endeavor for any one firm to undertake without some form of a federal subsidy. Despite a lack of funding, arduous entrepreneurs persisted in this objective. Instead of one transcontinental line, they broke the overland route into two distinct segments: California to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake City to Missouri. They hoped for success in carrying the mails over these shorter routes.

California to Salt Lake City, 1851-1856

Inadequate, irregular, and erratic best describes mail service between California and Salt Lake City in the early 1850s. Harsh weather conditions, long distances over difficult and treacherous terrain, and problems with Indians along the route thwarted the effort to provide regular mail service.

In 1851, the United States advertised for bids to carry mail and/or passengers monthly from California across the Sierra Nevada range and the Great Basin on to Salt Lake City. The open-ended contract did not specify a designated route or point of departure. Thirty-seven bids were received, ranging from single horseback delivery to two-horse coach service at $200,000 per annum. Despite several elaborate and well-thought-out proposals, the federal government selected the lowest bidder—the firm of Woodward and Chorpenning. For a mere $14,000 per annum, Absalom Woodward and George Chorpenning contracted to provide thirty-day mail service each way, starting in May 1851. [9]

For their passage, Woodward and Chorpenning chose the old emigrant route from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. The length of the route was approximately 750 miles, and ran via Folsom, Placerville, and

thence over the Sierra by the old emigrant road, through Strawberry and Hope Valleys into Carson Valley, through Genoa, Carson City, Dayton, Ragtown, and then across the Forty-Mile Desert to the Humboldt River, near the Humboldt Sink; then following the old emigrant route east along the Humboldt River to what is now Stone house Station, on the Central Pacific Railroad near which it left the river and turning to the southeast, took the Hasting's Cutoff to Salt Lake City. [10]

During the initial year, Woodward and Chorpenning encountered every imaginable difficulty. Service was delayed by heavy snow in the Sierras, which caused the trip an extra sixteen days to reach Carson Valley from Placerville; then they met June snow in the Grouse Creek Mountains west of the Great Salt Lake. The trip took not the required thirty days, but fifty-four days. To add to matters, during the November mail delivery, Absalom Woodward was killed by Shoshone Indians near Stone-House station, just west of the Malad River. To worsen affairs, deep snow in the Sierras prevented the December 1851 and January 1852 mails from ever crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Placerville. [11]

In 1852, during the second contract year, Chorpenning continued to use the northern Nevada route to Salt Lake City in the summer months. However, he obtained permission to send the mail during the winter months down the California coast to San Pedro and then via Cajon Pass along the Mormon "corridor" trail to Salt Lake City. This trail was first traversed by fur trader and mountainman, Jedediah Smith. Later, in the 1850s, Mormons established a string of settlements all the way from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, California. The Mormon corridor ran from San Bernardino to Cajon Pass, then to the Mohave River, on eastward to Las Vegas and over to the Virgin River, and then northward through a series of Mormon settlements (Parowan, Beaver, Fillmore, Nephi, Payson, and Provo) to Salt Lake City. Despite setbacks, George Chorpenning continued to carry the mail until 1853 when his contract expired. In 1854, Chorpenning renewed his contract for more four years. This time Chorpenning eliminated the northern Nevada route altogether; instead he ran the monthly mail service by horse and pack-mule from San Diego over the Mormon trail to Salt Lake City, where it was carried with "fair regularity, and often in less than schedule time." [12]

Salt Lake City to Missouri, 1851-1856

Mail service from Salt Lake City to Independence, Missouri in the early 1850s was comparable to California-Utah mail service. Starting in 1850, following the heavy migration of Mormons to the Great Salt Lake region, the United States entered into a contract with Samuel H. Woodson for $19,500 to transport mail from the Mississippi River to Salt Lake City on a monthly basis each way. From Missouri, this pioneer mail route traced the "Oregon Trail" all the way to South Pass, then headed westward to Fort Bridger, and then proceeded to Salt Lake City. Like the Chorpenning service from California to Utah, Woodson used pack animals to carry the mail with no established mail stations along the way. Predictably, the mail was seldom on schedule, and it was very unreliable during the winter months. [13]

In 1854, with the expiration of Woodson's contract, W.M.F. Magraw and his partner John M. Hockaday took over the Independence to Salt Lake City mail route. Their bid of $14,440 promised monthly mail service by horse drawn coaches. But in the two years Magraw held the contract, he suffered considerable losses due to Indian depredations. In 1856, the United States annulled the contract with Magraw because of poor, undependable service. [14]

The Mormons living in Salt Lake City desired more regular and reliable service. Given the poor service provided by previous contractors, they believed they could carry the mail more efficiently and effectively than it was being done. So, in 1856, Hiram Kimball of Utah, acting as an agent for the Mormon leaders, acquired the next mail contract for $23,000. This four—year contract was the first step toward launching a Mormon—owned—and—run "express line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast." Unable to comply with the contract terms during the winter of 1856-1857, Kimball subcontracted the service to Feramorz Little and Ephraim Hanks who made one trip east. In the meantime, Kimball and his Mormon associates worked on organizing a new operation, unofficially called the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company (i.e., the B.Y.X. Company). It started in February 1857 and its first run arrived in Independence in twenty-six days. The return run to Salt Lake City spanned a twenty-eight day period. John Murdock and William Hickman supervised the Independence—to—Fort Laramie segment, while Porter Rockwell managed the Fort Laramie—to—Salt Lake City segment. [15]

The Mormons also planned a "swift pony express" to carry the mail between Independence and Salt Lake City in twenty days. Stations existed at Fort Supply, and Fort Bridger, and they hoped to establish additional stations at the "head of the Sweetwater River, near Rocky Ridge; at Devil's Gate, east of South Pass; at Deer Creek in the Black Hills; at Horseshoe Creek, thirty miles west of Fort Laramie; and at Beaver Creek (Genoa) 100 miles west of Florence, Nebraska Ultimately, Brigham Young planned to build stations with settlements, mills, storehouses, and plant cropland approximately every fifty miles or the equivalent of a day's travel by a team of horses. [16]

Young's plans never fully materialized. Service was interrupted during the summer of 1857, when the government suddenly cancelled Kimball's contract without explanation, and the so-called "Utah War" with the Mormons began. The Utah War cut off communication with Salt Lake City during the fall and winter of 1857-1858, although service between Independence and Fort Bridger continued. Following the war, mail service resumed but under a new contractor. Thereafter, S.B. Miles contracted to carry the mail monthly on pack horses in the winter, and four-horse coaches during the months of April to December for $32,000 per annum. [17]


Clearly by 1857-1858, Oregonians, Californians, and Utahans desired, needed, and expected better overland mail service in terms of delivery route, frequency of service, speed of delivery, and federal subsidies. Time and time again, they agitated for cheaper and faster service. For example, in 1856, a petition signed by 75,000 Californians demanding better overland mail was delivered to Congress. [18] Unfortunately, determination of these important factors became clouded with sectional national politics between the Northern and Southern states.

The South's narrow Democratic victory in the 1856 election indicated to political prophets that a Republican victory in 1860 was inevitable. The stakes of power and the threat of sectionalism increased and naturally extended to policy debates regarding overland transportation and communications issues. Until 1857, Northern and Southern congressmen could neither agree on a route, nor a subsidy for transcontinental mail and passenger service. In that year, Congress broke the deadlock by passing an amendment to the 1857 Post Office Appropriation Bill. This important amendment authorized a transcontinental mail and passenger service in direct competition with ocean mail and passenger service. [19]

The 1857 post office appropriation bill approved a contract for the conveyance of letter mail and passengers from a specified point on the Mississippi River to San Francisco, California. The contract duration was for six years at a cost not to exceed $300,000 per annum for semi-monthly service, $450,000 for weekly service, or $600,000 for semi-weekly service. The contract also stipulated that this service was to be performed with "good four-horse coaches or spring wagons, suitable for the conveyance of passengers, as well as the safety and security of the mails." Finally, the contract provided land for stations and stipulated that the mail/passenger service be performed within a twenty-five day time frame for each trip. [20]

With the passage of the appropriation bill, the Post Office Department advertised for bidders, specifying only that the starting point for the route be located on the Mississippi River and be selected by the contractor. Nine bids were received. The routes they proposed ranged widely. One bid proposed a northern line from "St. Paul by way of Fort Ridgely, South Pass, Humboldt River, and Noble's Pass, to San Francisco." Two bids proposed central routes via Salt Lake City, one with a detour north to Soda Springs, Idaho. Four plans preferred a southern route through New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California, and then north to San Francisco starting either from St. Louis or Memphis. Finally, two bidders failed to propose a specific route whatsoever. [21]

With the passage of the post office appropriation bill, Northerners supporting the amendment "generally expected that the regular emigrant route by way of Salt Lake City would be chosen." This expectation went unfulfilled. The choice of the final route lay in the hands of postmaster general Aaron V. Brown from Tennessee, who was notably "strong in his Southern sympathies." [22]

In late 1857, Brown announced the selection of a southern route that no proposal had outlined. Brown selected the following route:

from St. Louis, Missouri, and from Memphis, Tennessee, converging at Little Rock, Arkansas; Thence, via Preston, Texas, or as nearly so as may be found advisable, to the best point of crossing the Rio Grande, above El Paso, and not far from Fort Fillmore; thence, along the new road being opened and constructed under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, to Fort Yuma, California; thence, through the best passes and along the best valley for safe and expeditious staging, to San Francisco. [23]

Brown accepted the proposal submitted by John Butterfield for semi-weekly mail delivery at $600,000 per year along a similar southern route. Butterfield was one of the founders of the American Express Company, and his investors included executives from the principal express companies in the nation: Adams Express, National Express, and Wells Fargo. Brown justified his choice to his northern critics by stating that repeated failures to carry the mail along the central route on a regular basis because of impassable snow conditions swayed his decision. Brown argued that the southern route was superior to the central overland route for winter travel, that the government was constructing a wagon road between the Rio Grande and Fort Yuma, and finally, that a southern route would serve our national interests in dealing with Mexico. [24]

Though Brown and others did not mention this issue, the central route was also not chosen because the United States was technically at war with the Mormon church for resisting the authority of the federal government. [25] During the "Utah War" of 1857, it was clear that the United States could not control the central trail without great military effort, which was another reason to avoid selecting the overland route at this time. [26]

Critics of Brown's choice vociferously objected to the southern route. They cried out "partisanship," especially since the new route selected by Brown was forty percent longer than the central route, and the new route was not even one promulgated by any of the bidders. They thought his selection was entirely biased by southern sectional considerations, as well as Butterfield's friendship with President James Buchanan. [27] Naturally northerners, midwesterners, and even some Californians rankled over the decision. Several newspaper editorials from these regions voiced their condemnation of it. For instance, the New York Press called the southern route an "ox-bow route," while the Chicago Tribune denounced it as "one of the greatest swindles ever perpetrated upon the country by the slave-holders." Because the route bypassed Sacramento, the Sacramento Union condemned Brown's decision most vehemently, calling it "a Panama route by land, an overland route to Mexico, a military route to Texas, and an immigrant route to Arizona." [28]

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008