Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Three:


Home and Relay Stations

The Pony Express operation was divided into five operating divisions. The first division ran from St. Joseph to Fort Kearney; the second division from Fort Kearney to Horseshoe Station (above Fort Laramie); the third division from Horseshoe Station to Salt Lake City; the fourth division from Salt Lake City to Roberts Creek; and the fifth Division from Roberts Creek to Sacramento. For the final segment, the stretch from Sacramento to San Francisco, the mail was at first transported by horse relays, but thereafter normally transported by steamer unless there was some problem.

Each division of the Pony Express route had an established number of "home" stations with various "relay rider" or "swing" stations between them. The character of the country determined the numbers and distances between home stations and relay stations. During its nineteen-month history, the distances and particular stations on Pony Express route changed with time and varying circumstances. A brief history and names and locations of individual stations within each division are discussed in separate chapters presented later.

Generally, the distance between larger home stations and smaller relay rider stations varied. There were no systematic predetermined distances between stations. In his memoirs, Alexander Majors stated that home stations were located approximately sixty-five to one hundred miles apart. [1] Home stations were usually associated with a previously established stagecoach station. At these home stations, the "employees of the stage company were required to take care of the ponies and have them in readiness at the proper moment." [2] Normally, home stations had an agent or stationkeeper in charge of five or six boys. [3] Some stagecoach stations were constructed under either the Hockaday & Company and/or the Chorpenning Company lines, and then absorbed by either the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company or its successor company, the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company when these firms acquired the mail contracts for these particular lines.

Between home stations, there were several relay rider or swing stations. At the beginning of the Pony Express, the relay rider stations were set approximately twenty to twenty-five miles apart, but afterward more relay rider stations were established at shorter intervals, with some twelve to fifteen miles apart. [4] Relay rider stations normally had a single caretaker for the horses. [5]

Life at both the home and relay stations was very hard. According to the Englishman Richard F. Burton, a traveller on the C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co. stage route in 1860 who passed through each station and witness to the arrival and departure of Pony Express riders, "setting aside the chance of death . . . the work [is] severe; the diet is sometimes reduced to wolf-mutton, or a little boiled wheat and rye, and the drink to brackish water; a pound of tea comes occasionally, but the droughty souls are always out of whisky and tobacco." [6] Ironically, the cost of maintaining even this hard living at each Pony Express station was high. "Feed had to be hauled in some cases, hundreds of miles, all at a heavy expense . . . and, as the country produced nothing then, provisions were hauled by wagons from the Missouri River, Utah and California." [7]


It took approximately seventy-five horses to make a one-way trip from Missouri to California, so at each station, relays of horses were kept in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of the enterprise. [8] Descriptions of the numbers and types of horses used by the Pony Express vary widely throughout the historical accounts. Evidently, the types of horses used in the operation depended upon the region of the country the route traversed.

From the west coast, half-breed California mustangs, "alert and energetic as their riders," were ridden by Pony Express riders, according to Alexander Majors. [9] Company agent William W. Finney distributed these horses from Sacramento to Carson City. Western or "Indian" ponies were distributed across most of the central part of the route from Carson City to Fort Laramie. They were purchased in Carson City, Salt Lake City, and perhaps Fort Laramie and then distributed from these points. [10] These steeds were the "small, fleet, hardy Indian horses" and "active and lithe Indian nags,' that the Englishman Burton and other travellers noted the express riders mounting. [11] It is likely that large grey mares purchased in the Leavenworth area by Russell were used along the eastern division of the route. [12]

Pony Riders

The "heroes" of the Pony Express were the eighty or so riders hired by Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Over time, their role in the Pony Express and their image of force, energy, steeliness, and concentration has been romanticized to extraordinary proportions, starting with Mark Twain's famous description while riding a stagecoach in Nevada Territory. Himself a believer of the heroic myth, Mark Twain furthered the image of the glorious rider with the following passage from his book Roughing It (1872).

HERE HE COMES! Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so. In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—sweeping towards us, nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs come faintly to the ear—another instant, a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but not reply, a man and a horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm! [13]

Twain was not the only one to romanticize the Pony Express rider. For instance, Alexander Majors described the riders as "faithful, daring fellows," stating that their service was "full of novelty and adventure," and further commenting that the "facility and energy with which they journeyed was a marvel." [14] Another writer called them "modern Centaurs," [15] while yet another writer described them as "sui generis—brave young fellows, whose love of adventure principally led them away from the haunts of civilization, and whose wild, untamed nature found keen zest and enjoyment in the danger and excitement of their personal exploits." [16]

Romantic images aside, there were certain physical and other characteristics sought in each rider. According to Alexander Majors, "the services of over two hundred competent men were secured. Eighty of these men were selected for express riders. Light-weights were deemed the most eligible for the purpose; the lighter the man the better for the horse . . ." [17]

Though one newspaper advertisement stated that the C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co. wanted "young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen" and "expert riders, willing to risk death daily," and "orphans preferred," in reality, Pony Express riders probably came in all ages and from all segments of life. Several lists of men and boys that reportedly worked for the Pony Express as riders or substitute riders exist, but none are definitive. [18] Riders included men and boys from several ethnic backgrounds, including French, Germans, and at least one Mexican-American who died in the Pyramid Lake War. [19]

Each man was reportedly given a calf-bound Bible because Alexander Majors was a God-fearing, religious, and temperate man who was careful to employ only those who met his standards of morality. [20] It is not quite clear how much money each rider received beyond their board and room. One source stated that each rider received approximately $120 to $125 per month, [21] while another source stated that riders received $50 to $150 per month. [22]

Whatever the pay rate for riders, carrying the mail was highly dangerous work. They worked in a hard unsafe environment, where many of them suffered and/or were even killed by accidental occurrences along the route. One Pony Express rider that left San Francisco for St. Joseph on April 18, 1860, met such a fatal accident. Traveling at a great speed at night, the rider's horse "stumbled over an ox lying in the road, throwing the rider, and the horse fell upon him, so badly crushing him that it was feared he would soon die," which unfortunately he did. [23] In July 1860, another rider was thrown from his horse and killed while crossing the Platte River. The mailbags he carried were never recovered. [24] A month later, in August 1860, east of Carson City, another rider was thrown from his horse and presumed dead when his horse arrived at the station riderless. [25] In addition to these accidents, there were other misfortunes. In December 1860, an inexperienced rider of German ancestry lost his way near Ft. Kearney and froze to death. [26] Other less serious accidents occurred as well. For instance, in November 1860, five miles west of Camp Floyd, a Pony rider's horse fell and broke its neck. The rider escaped serious injury in the incident, but he had to pack the express to Camp Floyd on foot. [27]


The backbone of the Pony Express were the stationkeepers. Though they did not receive as much notoriety as Pony Express riders in the historical literature on the Pony Express, they nevertheless were very important to the organization of the operation. While, a good majority of the Pony Express riders are known by name, the identities of two-thirds or more of the stationkeepers are still unknown. [28]

Most of the stationkeepers, according to one historian, lived in reasonable comfort, especially those located in Kansas and eastern Nebraska and California in the west. For instance, at the Seneca Station in Kansas, the stationkeeper Levi Hensel and his wife lived in a two-story house, where they "set a splendid table" and held many dances. [29] But for those men and their families that worked in the home and relay rider stations located in the Wyoming-Utah-Nevada deserts, life was not so splendid. They endured unbelievably difficult conditions in relative isolation. Primitive and stark, the stations in these parts of the country were:

. . .constructed of adobe bricks in the middle of endless, dreary wastes, and others of loose stones isolated, treeless canyons and unnamed hills. Still others were mere holes dug in the hillside with crude additions in front. All of them, except those most favorably located, had dirt floors; window glass was unknown; the beds were pole bunks built against the walls, and the furniture consisted of boxes, benches, or anything else the ingenuity of the occupants could contrive. Most of them had water nearby, such as it was, and the stable for horses was only a few feet distant from the quarters of the men. [30]

Weekly Mail Delivery

The intention of the Pony Express was to carry light-weight mail between St. Joseph and Sacramento, first on a weekly, then on a semi-weekly basis, and each mail not to weigh more than twelve or fifteen pounds. [31] Russell, Majors, and Waddell planned to cross the country on a fixed schedule of ten days. The first run from St. Joseph and San Francisco on April 3rd started on a Tuesday. However, the regular time for starting the express from St. Joseph soon changed to Friday mornings at nine o'clock. The run from San Francisco to St. Joseph continued to depart at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays. Consequently, the second express did not start until April 13th. The announced time schedule for the Pony Express nationwide was as follows: [32]

 12 hours
Ft. Kearney
 34 hours
Ft. Laramie
 80 hours
Ft. Bridger
108 hours
Great Salt Lake
124 hours
Camp Floyd
128 hours
Carson City
188 hours
226 hours
232 hours
San Francisco
240 hours

The C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co. carried business letters and other important communications. The charge for transporting a letter was $5.00 in gold per ounce or fractional part thereof, [33]— an expensive fee for the time period. This cost was reduced when a special kind of paper was manufactured that was very light in weight. This "Pony Express" paper made it possible to send an eight or ten page letter for approximately $2.50. [34]

In addition to letters, the Pony Express also carried press dispatches. The principal papers in New York and throughout the East, as well as papers in San Francisco, had their newspapers specially printed on light-weight paper for delivery across the country. According to one source, the "California press depended entirely upon the Pony Express for Eastern news, while western news was telegraphed east from St. Joseph upon the arrival of the Pony Express. Eastern papers sent correspondents to St. Joseph and Denver to collect news, and the Pony Express was a valuable service to them. Correspondents included Henry Villard (New York Tribune), Albert D. Richardson (New York Tribune), and Thomas W. Knox (Boston Statesman)." [35]

For protection against the weather, the business letters, personal correspondence, and newspapers were securely wrapped in oil silk. But even this precaution was often insufficient because riders had to cross swollen streams. [36] The mail was reportedly then placed in the pockets of the mochillas or specially designed mail pouch system. A mochilla was:

made of heavy leather, with a hole for the horn and a slit for the cantle. When it was in place it covered the entire saddle and reached half way to the stirrups on both sides. It was not attached anywhere and could be put on or taken off with a sweep of the arm in a matter of seconds.

Upon each of the four corners of the mochilla a weather proof cantina or box of sole leather was stitched. Three of these, equipped with small padlocks, were for the "through mail" from terminus to terminus. Only the station keepers at St. Joseph and Sacramento had keys for them. The other was for the mail picked up along the way and was not locked. When the mochilla was in place, the rider sat upon it, with a leg on each side between the cantinas. So, as long as he remained upon his horse, there was no danger whatever of losing his precious cargo. [37]

The mochilla system "covered the entire route between St. Joseph and Sacramento, without stopping, while the saddles shuttled back and forth between relay stations." [38] The mochilla system developed out of necessity—an adaptation made to problems encountered in the daily operation of the Pony Express. There is no indication that these special pouches were ordered and used before the first run of the Pony Express in April 1860. Evidently, they were not put in use until after late 1860, for when the English traveller Richard Burton passed along the route at that time, he mentioned that letters were carried in leathern bags, and that they were "thrown about carelessly" when the saddle was changed between horses. [39] Given the Spanish nomenclature, it may have been adapted from similar pouches in use in California.

The passing of the mail between stations has been described by many authors, each with a different view. In theory, one pony was ridden from one station to another, and one rider, using three horses, made three stations, [40] or approximately seventy-five miles. [41] The average travelling time night and day for each rider was about nine miles an hour. Presumably only two minutes were allowed for changing horses and the mail at each station. [42]

The mail exchange was explained by "Broncho Charlie" Miller, who in 1861 rode between the stations along the Sacramento and Placerville route, and reputedly was the "last" of the Pony Express riders. According to Charlie Miller, these stations were ten to fifteen miles apart.

At each of 'em there were three horses, and two men to care for 'em. . . . Each rider had to ride from thirty-five to seventy-five miles a day . . . that is, in the twenty-four hours, for the boys had to ride at night too. A rider would start out from a station, do his fifteen miles, and come on the run into the next station. When he was some distance from the station, he would blow a horn to let the horse wranglers know that a Pony Express rider was comin' in. The change would have to be made as quickly as possible, so they'd have a fresh horse waitin', and a snack of food, and then the mail would go speedin' on. [43]

Miller's description differed markedly from other descriptions. For instance, according to the Englishman Burton, the riders rode "100 miles at a time—eight miles per hour—with four changes of horses, and returned to their stations the next day . . ." [44] Albert D. Richardson, a New York Tribune correspondent at the time, described the system and operation a different way. According to Richardson: "The posts were twenty-five miles apart, and the steeds small, fleet, hardy Indian horses. The rider kept his pony on the full run, and when he reached a new station—whatever the hour of day or night—another messenger, already mounted and waiting, took the small mail-sack, struck spurs into his steed, and was off like the wind." [45]

The previous few pages described how the "ideal" operation of the Pony Express worked. The remaining sections of this chapter will compare that ideal to actual reality during the years 1860-1861.

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008