Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter One:


By the end of 1858, United States mail was transmitted from the East to West by six different routes. The four overland lines in operation were:

  • Central route by 'joint venture' of Chorpenning/Hockaday Company. They provided weekly mail/passenger service from Missouri to California, via Salt Lake City.

  • South-central route by Jacob Hall, who provided monthly mail and limited passenger service from Kansas City to Stockton, California, via Santa Fe.

  • Southern route by the famous Butterfield line, which provided semi weekly mail/passenger service from St. Louis to San Francisco, via El Paso, Texas.

  • Southern extreme route operated by James E. Birch, who provided semi weekly mail/passenger service from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California, via El Paso and Fort Yuma.

In addition to these overland routes, in 1858, there were two ocean mail/passenger routes. They were:

  • Atlantic route from New York City to San Francisco operated by three companies, the United States Mail Steamship Company, the Panama Railroad Company, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. This line ran a semi-monthly mail/passenger service via the Isthmus of Panama.

  • Gulf of Mexico route from New Orleans to San Francisco via Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This route was operated by the Louisiana Tehuantepec Company, which ran a semi-monthly mail/passenger service.

That there were now options to overland and ocean routes undoubtedly pleased the people living in the Far West. They enjoyed better communication with the East than they ever had before. The federal government also subsidized the expense of delivery because the gross annual disbursements for mail services far exceeded the annual receipts for these services. In 1859, for instance, the annual cost of the Butterfield line was $600,000, and the annual cost of the central route was $320,000. However, the annual receipts for these two lines in 1859 respectively amounted to $27,229.94 and $5,412.03. With all the routes taken together, the postal outlay for the six different routes amounted to $4.14 for each person, whereas elsewhere in the nation, the postal expenses reached only $.41 for each person. [46]

In spite of this exorbitant compensation to deliver mail to the Pacific coast, some Northerners and Westerners were highly displeased with the communication system as it stood. On one hand, Northern sectionalists considered the majority of the mail/passenger routes as favoring the South. They argued that because a war between the North and the South seemed imminent, speedy communication between the East and California was an obvious need of federal authorities. If all the mail/passenger routes went by way of a southern route, then the North would be at a disadvantage in maintaining a direct communication link with California, and it might lose California to the South. California's valuable minerals, excellent climate and soils, and its strategic location on the western frontier were prized and desired by sectionalists from both the North and the South. On the other hand, Sacramento and Salt Lake City boosters wished that the economic and communication windfall from an improved central route would pass through their communities. [47]

Given the economic circumstances, Northern and Western friends of the central overland route attempted to make the central route more competitive by improving its schedule. They realized that if they could pass legislation mandating increased speed of service to California, then the central overland route would have the competitive edge over Butterfield's southern route. As a result, they introduced a joint resolution in Congress directing the postmaster general to increase the central route service from thirty-eight days to thirty days with a pro rata increase in compensation. Despite stiff opposition by Southern legislators, this resolution passed Congress. Nevertheless, President Buchanan vetoed the legislation. Critics of the president condemned his action accusing him of favoring his friend John Butterfield. They also believed that the president refused to sign because it would again demonstrate the feasibility and economy of the central route over its lengthy rival, the southern Butterfield route. [48]


In March 1859, postmaster general Brown, the architect of most of the six overland and ocean lines, died suddenly. His death had far reaching consequences because his successor, Joseph Holt of Kentucky, sought to remedy the deficit spending on the mail service to California through better management. Unlike his predecessor, Holt did not think of the post office as a pioneering agency seeking to open communication lines to the West regardless of the cost. Instead, Holt envisioned the department as a self-supporting agency run on sound business principles. Following this philosophy, Holt set out to correct the so-called "abuses" of the previous postmaster general. [49]

While Congress was out of session, according to one historian, Holt "slashed through Butterfield's competition like a reaper with a sharp scythe." First, Holt reduced the service on the San Antonio to San Diego line from weekly to semi monthly service because it had produced only $601 of revenues for the $196,000 annual expenditure. Holt then cut back the central route from Missouri to California from weekly to semi-monthly service. The weekly service had been implemented during the Utah War, and now the secretary of war felt that this additional service was unwarranted. This reduction produced a savings of $115,000 to the post office. These cuts were enough to bankrupt these firms and/or put them out of business. For instance, Hockaday and Company had borrowed heavily for stock, equipment, and for improving station facilities. The reduction of compensation for their St. Joseph to Salt Lake City route from $190,000 per annum to $130,000 did not begin to cover the cost of these improvements. The firm was soon bankrupt. [50]

Next, the new postmaster general dismissed the Kansas City to Stockton, California route altogether as a failure, and discontinued it. Holt then did not renew the contract for the New Orleans to San Francisco line, known as the Tehuantepec Route. [51] At the same time, Holt also refused to pick up and renew the ten-year Navy contract for the New York City to San Francisco ocean mail service via Panama with the previous contractors, which expired on September 30, 1859. Instead, the new postmaster general let a new nine-month contract to Cornelius Vanderbilt for $351,000 per annum. [52]

The only route left untouched by Holt was the Butterfield line, but only because certain contract stipulations prevented Holt from curtailing their service. Postmaster General Holt recommended a reduction of the semi-weekly service to a weekly service, which would have resulted in an annual savings of $150,000. But for some inexplicable reason, the customary clause giving the postmaster general revisory power over the mail contract was omitted in the contract. According to the attorney general, Holt's action would have been illegal. Only an act of Congress could change the contract terms before its expiration date. [53]


By the spring of 1859, the matters of delivery route, frequency of service, speed of delivery, and cost of mail service to California were still in question. Clearly the southern route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Service, favored by President Buchanan and Southerners in general, dominated and controlled the mail service to the West Coast. This dominance was not grounded in efficiency and cost of the route, but instead rested on a legal technicality. Nevertheless, the overland central route mapped out by Chorpenning/Hockaday, their predecessors, and their Northerner sympathizers seriously challenged the preeminence of the Butterfield line. This situation, along with other developments (e.g., Pike's Peak gold rush), set the stage for the birth of the Pony Express.

William B. Waddell
William B. Waddell. Courtesy of Pony Express National Memorial, St. Joseph, MO

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008