The Pony Express

On April 3, 1860, the people of St. Joseph gathered to witness an event as exciting in those days as our space travels are to this generation. It is difficult to imagine, with today's instant world-wide communications by satellite and computer, the problems that must have faced our nation's settlers just before the Civil War.

Before the Pony Express

St. Joseph was fortunate, with the arrival of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad February 14, 1859. This city was on the western edge of civilization. Settlers headed west from here faced a 2,000 mile trip by wagon train that often took three months of hardships. Those who had already reached California and its promise of gold found themselves cut off from the rest of the world.

At a time when there were no telephones, radios, or telegraph, letters from New York to San Francisco took 30 days by steamship around South America. An overland mail route by Butterfield Express took 23 days for delivery. Most knew it was a matter of time before the telegraph and the railroad would span the nation, but with the Civil War looming on the horizon, something was needed now.

How It Began

William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell, and Alexander Majors were already in the freighting business with 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons, and 40,000 oxen in 1858. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies in the west, and Russell envisioned a similar contract for fast mail delivery.

Their proposal was a fast mail service between St. Joseph and Sacramento, California by a Pony Express with letters delivered in the unheard time of 10 days. It was not exactly overnight, but perhaps overpriced for the time, at $5 a half ounce. Their goal was to snare a government contract for delivery of the mail, something that did not come about.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell literally put together the Pony Express in a two month period during the winter of 1860. It was an enormous undertaking, assembling 156 stations, 120 riders, 400 horses, and hundreds of employees, all during January and February of 1860 without the benefit of radio, telephones, telegraph, or even mail service.

Recruiting Riders

The novel ad read: "Wanted, young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week. Apply Central Overland Express." This ad is now believed by some top Pony Express historians to be a phony.

In St. Joseph, Russell, Majors, and Waddell selected the first floor of the town's newest hotel, Patee House, as their headquarters. More than 30 riders checked into the hotel. Since the Pony Express was not part of the U.S. mail service, local letters bound for the Pony Express were mailed at the Patee House office for delivery to California.

Community Involvement

The people of St. Joseph had an inkling they were on to something big, and about everybody in town turned out for the start of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860. Mail from the east coast was late and the crowd waited until almost dark for the arrival of the mail train from Hannibal.The famous painting by Charles Hargens of the start of the Pony Express is not a historically accurate portrayal of that important day because the first Pony Express rider actually left during the night.

Historians have never fully agreed whether Johnny Fry or Billie Richardson was the first rider, but whoever he was rode the short distance from the Pikes Peak Stables at 9th &Penn to Patee House at 12th and Penn.

Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved by the help of God to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a Bible and required this oath: While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly, and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.