On April 3, 1860, a rider set out on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, United States. The man's name was Johnny Fry. He carried a bag of mail with him. Fry traveled west for many kilometers (miles). Then, he passed his bag on to another rider. This rider traveled more, then passed the bag to another, and so on. The mail arrived in California in nine days and 23 hours. It had traveled 3,319 kilometers (2,000 miles) across the whole continent of North America.

This was the first ride of the Pony Express. Never before had mail been delivered so quickly over such a great distance.

Les Bennington is the president of the National Pony Express Association. This group helps keep the memory of the Pony Express alive. Before 1860, mail was carried by stagecoach from the East Coast to the West Coast. It could also be sent by ship and train. The stagecoach took around three weeks. Routes that used boats could take months, Bennington said. Whatever mail and news carried over those routes was old, he said. Now, with the Pony Express, mail could be delivered in just 10 days.

Riding the Pony Express

The Pony Express had 153 stations along its route. Riders used the stations to rest, switch horses, and pass off the mail. Altogether, there were around 80 riders and between 400 to 500 horses. They carried mail from the Midwest to the new state of California. The western end of the Pony Express was Sacramento, California.

Riders for the Pony Express carried the mail in saddlebags. Each rider traveled for about 120 to 160 kilometers (75 to 100 miles). They then passed the mail to another rider at a home station. Some home stations were nice hotels. Others were nothing but a simple shack.

Riders would stop every 16 to 24 kilometers (10 to 15 miles). They would then hop onto a fresh horse. The horses were waiting for them at one of the four to six stations on their section of the route.

Most of the riders were small, lightweight men around 20 years old. The most popular rider was William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He later became famous for his Wild West stage show.

Pony Express riders traveled over mountains and through deserts. They had to deal with everything from tornadoes to bison stampedes. However, the greatest challenge came in May of 1860. In that month, the Pyramid Lake War broke out.

The war began after many white settlers arrived in Nevada to look for silver. The Paiute tribe which lived in the region felt their land was being invaded. They decided to fight back. They began attacking and destroying Pony Express stations. The company had to end travel through Nevada and Utah for a month.

It wasn't the Pony Express riders who were most in danger, Bennington said. It was the station keepers. Quite a few of them were killed. Only a few riders were killed as they were delivering the mail. Several more were killed defending the stations, Bennington said. Station keepers were people who ran the stations.

The Pony Express ended after just 18 months. War with the Paiute wasn't the reason. It was a new invention, the telegraph machine. The machine allowed people to send messages instantly from one end of the country to the other.

Legacy of the Pony Express

The Pony Express had a short run. It has never been forgotten, though. It played an important role in the history of the U.S. West. Every year since 1980, the National Pony Express Association has organized a ride along the Pony Express Trail.

Bennington said the Pony Express riders had a tough job. When it's cold out, "there's no place colder than on the back of a horse," he said. The riders didn't have the kind of warm clothes we have today. "You gotta keep in mind they didn't have down-filled jackets or hats made for snowy conditions," Bennington said.

 

Pony Power
The Pony Express sought employees with this advertisement: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
advent
Noun

start or beginning of something.

American West
Noun

U.S. states west of the Missisippi River.

awe
Noun

great respect or amazement.

bison
Noun

large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.

breed
Verb

to produce offspring.

brutally
Adverb

roughly or not gently.

Butterfield Overland Mail Trail
Noun

(1857-1861) mail route from Missouri to California.

cavalry
Noun

military unit that serves on horseback.

Clydesdale
Noun

large, powerful horse originally bred in Scotland.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

communication
Noun

sharing of information and ideas.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

demise
Noun

death or end.

depart
Verb

to leave.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Noun

growth, or changing from one condition to another.

dispute
Noun

debate or argument.

down
Noun

soft, fuzzy feathers of young birds.

dugout
Noun

temporary shelter dug out from the earth around a river or hill.

eastern seaboard
Noun

eastern coast of a continent, usually referring to the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida.

elite
Adjective

exclusive or the best.

embark
Verb

to leave or set off on a journey.

frequent
Adjective

often.

gallop
Verb

to ride a horse at full speed.

Global Positioning System (GPS)
Noun

system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

historian
Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

home station
Noun

stop on the Pony Express where riders would rest and transfer mail to another rider.

horseback
Adverb

riding on the back of a horse.

hotel
Noun

business offering shelter to guests.

isolate
Verb

to set one thing or organism apart from others.

Noun

narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses.

Midwest
Noun

area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Native American
Noun

person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

operations
Noun

work or work processes.

Paiute
Noun

people and culture native to the Great Basin.

pony
Noun

small breed of horse.

Pony Express
Noun

(1860-1861) mail route between Missouri and California.

primitive
Adjective

simple or crude.

prominent
Adjective

important or standing out.

Pyramid Lake War
Noun

(1860) violent dispute between settlers and Paiute, centered around Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Also called the Paiute War or the Washoe Indian War.

relatively
Adverb

in comparison to something else.

reliable
Adjective

dependable or consistent.

route
Noun

path or way.

rugged
Adjective

having an irregular or jagged surface.

saddlebag
Noun

large bag laid over the back of a horse, behind the saddle.

sesquicentennial
Noun

150th anniversary.

settler
Noun

person who migrates and establishes a residence in a largely unpopulated area.

Spartan
Adjective

simple and lacking in any luxury.

stable
Noun

building where horses or other animals are kept.

stagecoach
Noun

covered vehicle pulled by horses, used to transport people and cargo.

stampede
Noun

sudden, violent movement of a crowd.

surge
noun, verb

sudden, strong movement forward.

susceptible
Adjective

able to be influenced to behave a certain way.

suspend
Verb

to temporarily stop an activity.

telegraph
Noun

system of communication involving devices connected through electrical wires.

temporary
Adjective

not lasting or permanent.

terrain
Noun

topographic features of an area.

tornado
Noun

a violently rotating column of air that forms at the bottom of a cloud and touches the ground.

transfer
Verb

to pass or switch from one to another.

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Utah Territory
Noun

(1850-1896) administrative area of the United States, including all or part of the modern states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.

vary
Verb

to change.

Wild West
Noun

(1850-1900) western part of the United States, before and during the establishment of stable government.

William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody
Noun

(1846-1917) American entertainer.