The Pony Express:
The Union's Legendary Savior


Brendan Robert Moriarty

"Wanted— young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week" (Biggs 15). In early 1860, these words could be found on posters plastered across the young cities of San Francisco, California and St. Joseph, Missouri. This was the calling cry to riders throughout the American West to join in the effort of the newly formed Pony Express. It was originally conceived as a money making venture that was to serve the demand for a superior communication system for the growing population of the western frontier. However, in retrospect it was much more than that. Without the short existence of the Pony Express, the Union might have fallen by the hands of the Confederates in the Civil War. With this in mind and considering the service's embodiment of respected American tenets, it is apparent why the Pony Express has been so glorified in our modern age of instant communication and silver screen idolism. The Pony Express provided communication to a freshly populated western frontier and by playing a vital role in the preservation of the Union and romantically representing traditional American ideals, established itself as an American legend.

In the mid-nineteenth century the growing population of the isolated western frontier began to demand a means of communication with the east. California represented the United States expansionism into western North America at the discovery of gold, sending many settlers west into an unknown and isolated territory (Smith 34-35). When gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 in the Sacramento Valley, hundreds of thousands of ambitious Americans were drawn westward (Kroll 5). Commonly called '49ers because the major influx of citizens came in 1849, these people either struck it rich or died trying. This came at a time when America was already stretching its legs and expanding from its focus point, the East. Americans believed that it was their God given right to expand across the continent, an ideology called Manifest Destiny (Norton 259-262). While the possibilities for wealth were enormous, the gamble had a major drawback. Most of the '49ers were forced to separate from their families and friends in this pursuit of wealth. In return they required some level of communication with their abandoned East.

With thousands of miles between the two sides of North America, transcontinental communication was not only exceeding difficult but increasingly important, a fact that did not go unnoticed by either the federal government or ambitious businessmen. The need for stronger communication become politically important when in 1850, California joined the Union as the thirty first state. A senator and state representatives in the House could not do their jobs adequately if they were isolated by poor communications (Floyd 34). Therefore, the federal government stepped in by setting up a dependable yet extremely slow system of postal delivery that sent ships south down the eastern coastline, around the southernmost tip of South America and back up the opposite coast to California (Kroll 5). Entrepreneurial businessmen, sensing the demand for faster service established stage coach lines that ran from the Missouri River to the Pacific coastline (Nevin 7). These services were indeed faster but much less dependable. The people and the state of California still needed a better service. By 1860 the rest of America was in disarray and the political significance of California grew. To each side of the brewing civil strife, a connection with the West became increasingly vital to their future success.

Tensions between the northern and southern states of the Union were building to a boiling point over the issue of slavery and while these tensions grew, the importance of the new state of California became clearer. The economies of the southern states were so heavily dependent on slavery that they were willing to forego their membership in the Union to protect the oppressive institution. Much of the trouble arose over the issues of the fugitive slave law, the Dread Scott decision and similar disagreements (Smith 2). By 1860, the southern states had lost hope for reconciliation and began to break off from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. With the precedent of succession established and California feeling isolated and forgotten, Californians were left wondering, "Are we still part of the United States?" (Floyd 23). At this point, California was like a young child. It was still in a very impressionable stage of its development and whichever way it was to shift would direct its loyalty throughout its inevitably massive growth. Prudently, the southern states courted California and attempted to lure it towards the Confederacy (Smith 33-35). They realized that if California was won, it would be a base from which to spread Confederate ideals and fight off the opposition (Smith 3). It didn't take long for the Union to grasp just how important the western state really was. If the Union lost California, it would not only lose a land of vast natural resources, but it ran the risk of losing the state of Oregon and the territory of Washington as a result (Smith 80). To each side, it boiled down to one thing: if they lose California, they lose the West; if they win California, they win the war.

At this crucial point in the exacerbation of Civil War tensions, the private Pony Express venture provided exactly what was needed for the Union to connect with California. The entrepreneurial firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, sensing that wealth could be found by satiating the demand for faster mail service to and from the isolated citizens of California, established their private venture, labeled The Pony Express (Kroll 6-7). Proposed by William Russell and supported by his alliance with Alexander Majors and William Waddell, the Pony Express was a privately funded communication service that promised to deliver mail across a strictly northern route. The firm promised postal delivery on horseback between St. Joseph, MO and San Francisco, CA within an astonishing ten days (DiCerto 15). Telegraphs and railroads covered the Eastern United States as far as the Missouri River and did likewise inside the California borders (Kroll 32), but the link between these regions until now had not been provided with an adequate balance between speed and reliability. The Pony Express was the vital link between the East and the West that the Union needed and exploited in order to ultimately win over California (Smith 7).

The Union skillfully utilized the services of the Pony Express to efficiently organize their efforts and accomplish their goals in the West. The Pony Express was used by the federal government to coordinate Union operations in California and also used to send up to date news and information on the status of the war to the West (Smith ix). Says A. R. Mortensen, Chairman of the Historical Research Committee, "By keeping the people in the Far West informed on national issues, [the Pony Express] played an important part in bolstering loyalty to the Union" (Smith ix). The service "made a close cooperation between the California loyalists and Federal Government possible," without which Confederate sympathizers, of which California had many, could have shifted the state towards the Confederacy (Smith 7). This was entirely feasible, for California, due to its young alliance with the Union did not yet have the strong loyalty that was present in the northern states. The Union, however, made no mistakes in utilizing the fastest transcontinental communication system available to synchronize its efforts in both coastal regions and promote Union loyalty.

By September 4, 1861, near the end of the Pony Express' short eighteen month life span, Union loyalty in the "Golden State" was strong enough so that the loyalists were able to win the California state elections (Smith 34). California was now, due to the brilliant execution and exploitation of the Pony Express, truly safe from the Confederate States. Consequently, with such an enormous and valuable region secured for the Union, the Confederate States could not ultimately win the fight against the North. However, by the time the Pony Express met its death in the closing months of 1861, it had been thoroughly idolized and romanticized by contemporary Americans, a trend that has continued to the present day. It achieved this by displaying traditional American ideals to a nation that was still discovering its heroes. In addition to their critical role in preserving the Union, Americans looked up to the riders of the Pony Express and the service itself because they embodied conventional American ideals. Arthur E. Summerfield, Postmaster General in 1960, said in retrospect that the service, "[was] one of the best known symbols of the qualities which made this country great— courage, enterprise and the conviction of free men that anything is possible when it is for the common good" (Smith xi). The riders of the Pony Express were something the common American could look up to as role models. "They were the heroes of our young nation" (DiCerto 43). They exhibited dignified qualities, such as perseverance, courage and the triumph of the individual that were held in high regard by many Americans.

Stories of fortitude in the face of adversity only served to further the romanticism of an event that lasted a mere eighteen months, establishing the riders as both idols and heroes. Before each rider began his service with the Pony Express, he was advised by Russell, Majors & Waddell to, "think first of the mail— next of [his] mount— and last of [his] own skin" (Floyd 48). Despite five foot snow drifts or sub-zero temperatures, for example, Pony Express riders were expected to carry the mail onward. Many other examples of this selflessness exist. There is a classic story about one rider who rode on through his entire route with a jaw broken by an arrow and an arm shattered by a bullet after an encounter with the hostile Paiutes Native American tribe (Nevin 102). It is not hyperbole to say that working with the Pony Express was extremely dangerous. Rest stations were often attacked and destroyed along with the station handlers by these Native Americans (C 46-51). Historian William H. Floyd once remarked, "For each heroic rider, an equally heroic martyr" (Floyd 73). In the eyes of Americans, such courage and determination elevated these riders to the status of heroes and idols.

This idolism is clearly portrayed in a passage from Mark Twain's Roughing It, in which he recalls a chance encounter with a steadfast and determined Pony Express rider: In a second [the black speck in the distance] becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling— sweeping toward us nearer and nearer growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined— nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of hoofs comes faintly to the ear— another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hands but no reply and man and horse burst past our excited faces and winging away like the belated fragment of a storm! (DiCerto 45)

Twain describes the interaction in exaggerated and drawn out transcription, however the scene is apparently over almost before it begins, as if to elevate the rider to an almost mythical level. This idolism of the riders of the Pony Express and the resulting romanticism of the service itself was not at all uncommon amongst the collective populace of a young America that was still discovering its heroes.

The termination of the Pony Express in October of 1861 was greeted with a considerable level of melancholy, proving the service's value in the hearts and minds of the American public. Americans had marveled at the attributes of the riders and in turn viewed the Pony Express service as an almost human entity. In the closing days of the service, the Sacramento Daily Bee lamented:

Nothing that has blood and sinews was able to overcome your energy and ardor; but a senseless, soulless thing that eats not, sleeps not, tires not— a thing that cannot distinguish space... has encompassed, overthrown and rooted you. This is no disgrace, for flesh and blood cannot always war against the elements. (DiCerto 59-60)

The author spoke for America in general when he bid goodbye to a "friend" that had done his "duty" by winning the West for the Union but was now being overcome by the transcontinental telegraph line (DiCerto 59-60). This source clearly shows the extreme to which the service was romanticized and marks the point in history when the legend was born.

The Pony Express had started as simply a quick solution to a major problem. Its creators had envisioned nothing more from their service than a rapid influx of profit. In retrospect, it was a significant tool used by the Union in preserving the western frontier from the corruption of the disloyal Confederate States. Little did William Russell known the significant impact it would have in the world's bloodiest civil war. Little did he know that its heroic riders would forever be the object of romantic reminiscence and idolism for generations of Americans. Little does he know that it survives as a legend today.

Works Consulted:

Biggs, Donald C. The Pony Express: Creation of the Legend. San Francisco: privately published, 1956.

Crews, Tom. The Pony Express Home Station. Online. Internet. 2 April 1999. Available:

DiCerto, Joseph J. The Pony Express: Hoofbeats in the Wilderness. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.

Floyd, William H. Phantom Riders of the Pony Express. Philadelphia: Dorance and Company, 1958.

Garst, Shannon. Buffalo Bill. New York: Julian Messner, 1948.

Kroll, Steven. Pony Express! New York: Scholastic, 1996.

Lindeblad, Bengt. American West - Pony Express Information. Online. Internet. 7 April 1999. Available:

Nevin, David. The Old West: The Expressmen. NewYork: Time Life Books, 1974.

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Vol. B. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Smith, Waddell F. The Story of the Pony Express. San Rafael, California: The Pony Express History and Art Gallery, 1964.

American History, Junior Paper
St. Paul Academy
St. Paul, MN

Ms. Joanna Victor
29 April 1999