Pony Express Historic Trail – Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska

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Shouts will be heard across the Pony Express Historic Trail on June 08, 2022, beginning at around 4:00 pm at the Scotts Bluff National Monument in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

By: Jerry Lucas
Photos by: NPS / Robert Wagner
Photos by: Hawk Buckman


| SEE THE RIDERS

Riders of the National Pony Express Association will carry Express Mail from June 6 through the 16th. Commemorative Letters and Personal Mail will be carried by horse and rider relays from The Missouri River to the Sacramento River. The first Rider departs the Patee House in St Joseph, Missouri, June 6 at 3:00 PM, with the last Rider riding into Pony Express Plaza in Old Sacramento, California, June 16th at 4:30 PM.

The route will be over the Pony Express National Historic Trail, a component of the National Trails System administered by the National Park Service. The mail will travel 1966 miles from Missouri, through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, to California.

Six-hundred riders from the eight State Divisions will ride in relays of 1 to 5 miles each, taking turns carrying the mail in a mochila— a leather square with four cantinas (pockets) sewn in the Corners.

Prior to riding each will take the Pony Express Oath and be issued a Bible.


The ride is a 10-day, 24-hour event honoring the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company which carried letters and telegrams from April 1860 to November 1861.

The Commemorative Letter this year will be a vignette of Pony Express History in Utah Territory.

The Cachets can be purchased at 1860 prices— $5.00.

Information and Updates can be found on the NPEA’s Website.

This year is pretty interesting thanks to technology as a GPS Unit will be placed in the mochila that will transmit the real-time location of the mochila. Follow the ride.

| THE PONY EXPRESS

In 1860 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was traveling by stagecoach in the west when he captured an event that has fueled the curiosity and fascination of a nation. In his book Roughing It (1872) Twain writes: “We had a consuming desire, from the beginning to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our head out of the window. But now we were expecting one along every moment and would see him in broad daylight. Presently the driver exclaimed: “HERE HE COMES!”

Every neck was stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level 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 toward us nearer and nearer- growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ears-another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go swinging away like a belated fragment of a storm.”

Twain’s brief but thrilling encounter and report of the express rider from his stagecoach may be the source of our public fascination with this exciting enterprise of the early west.

There is the possibility that our interests may have been fed by wild west shows performances depicting the exploits of those “brave” riders taking chances with terrain, weather, wildlife, and Indians.
Many of these tabloids were drawn from the accounts of one of the most noted of all wild west show promoters and operators, William Fredrick (Buffalo Bill) Cody, who may have been one of those brave riders. 

Hollywood has added its influence to this western adventure.  One of the earliest movies, found by this writer, was released in 1925, there may have been earlier releases. Locating an accurate count or listing of films about the Pony Express would take more time than this writer cared to invest. Along with the movies glorifying the express television has added its interpretation of the adventure. Early in television history, the airwaves were peppered with shows of the west, the most recent show was titled “Young Riders.” This program followed the adventures of one group of Pony Express riders featuring two particular figures-James (Jimmy) Hickock and Bill Cody.
              
Today we complain about the mail service constantly; they never get the mail to the right address; it costs too much, and it is way too slow. We think it is slow today, picture yourself back in the 1850s to 1860s living in California.

Assume a letter was mailed to you on a Tuesday in March 1858 from a family member in Ohio, that letter may not arrive at its destination until June or later, possibly as late as December. Now, consider a similar letter being mailed from Boston that same day, this letter may not arrive until September or October. Three to six months for the delivery of one letter, if it gets there at all.  You want to talk about slow.

Much of this mail was being delivered by hips from the coastal regions of the country. The ocean deliveries took one of two courses: the first around South America, the other went to Panama unloaded taken overland, and placed back on a ship to finish the journey. There were land routes used, one was the southern route through the Southwest, the Confederacy would interfere with, interrupt, or destroy this route during the Civil War.

Another route was the central route which followed the Oregon Trail. Neither was consistent or particularly reliable. These land routes were at the mercy of the weather and temperament of Indians, and often both.

With the growing threat of war in the 1850s communication with new western regions was of paramount importance to the government. It would be necessary to keep the new territories informed of votes on statehood, changes in the economic and political conditions, and other vital interests.

Several remedies were considered by Congress, there was $30,000 was appropriated for a study of mail delivery through the southwest. An attempt to use camels to carry the mail across this region proved to be unreliable. It was proposed a contest be set with the prize of a lucrative contract to carry the US Mail for providing reliable and consistent delivery of the mail.
One company responding to the call was the freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the Central Overland and Pike’s Peak Express Company.

The company had experience transporting freight over difficult terrain. Their proposal was to establish a series of horse-mounted relays between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

This was not a new concept. Throughout history versions of this concept existed. The Pharos of Egypt used chariots to transport messages on the battlefield. The ancient Romans and Persians used similar tactics to communicate across the empires. Marco Polo describes a system of post-horses used by the Great Khan to send dispatches in the 13th century.

During the early years of the western expansion, Marcus Whitman proposed a horse relay system.

The proposal of Russell, Majors, and Waddell would require establishing a series of remount stations about 10 to 15 miles apart. Joseph J Di Certo in his book The Saga of the Pony Express in Appendix A has a detailed listing of the relay and home stations from St. Joseph to Sacramento.

When this writer counted the stations there were 198 relay and home stations, some were listed as “relay/home” stations, others were alternate relay or home stations, and some were not identified as either. 

Every 100 miles there would be a “home” station where riders could rest and await a return run. Di Certo in his list of relay and home stations identifies 25 to 30 home stations.

The company would need to hire wranglers and station managers to oversee the stations and livestock. In researching this I found little to no information about the wranglers or persons in charge of the relay stations.

It is known that James Butler Hickock was a wrangler at a station near Fort Kearny in the Nebraska Territory and that he was released after being involved in a shooting over a woman in a nearby town.

The company purchased riding stock, at least 10 horses per rider, with replacement or supplemental stock. The company would purchase supplemental feed for the stock. They had to purchase saddles and tack along with the mochila (the saddle bag which held the mail). Adding to expenses was hiring riders and station staff and paying those employed. According to a source station staff was paid $30.00 a month, while riders were paid $50.00 per month.

In Appendix B Pony Express Riders, of Di Certo’s book, he lists 222 names as riders.  In the book The Pony Express Trail: Yesterday and Today by William E Hill, there are 235 riders listed.  It should be noted that variations in the numbers of riders or for that matter the number of stations are due in part to the information gathered being anecdotal based on the writings or interviews of people long after the end of the Express. This writer found that many of the “official company records” are missing and incomplete regarding the stations and riders.

| THE OATH OF THE PONY EXPRESS RIDER

When a young man was hired as a rider he was required to take the following oath:

“I… do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”

After taking the oath the rider was given a Bible as part of the personal items he was allotted to carry. Try this in the modern era and you might be facing legal action.

The first rider leaving St Joseph, Missouri rode out on 3 April 1860 heading west. According to some researchers that the first rider leaving St. Joseph was Jonny Fry (Frye or Frey).

The westbound journey required 9 days and twenty-three hours according to records. The east-bound riders required a time of 11 days and 12 hours to complete the journey. The approximate rate of speed for horses and riders was between 9 and 11 miles an hour to cover almost 2,000 miles. Were you to have placed a letter to be carried by either rider the cost would have been $5.00.

The preceding information is just facts, these do not instill romantic images of either the west or the Pony Express riders. Where do the fascination for this era and those who were engaged with it come from?

It may have started with Alexander Majors saying “the services of over two hundred competent men were secured. Eighty of these men were selected for the express riders. Light-weights were deemed the most eligible for the purpose; the lighter the man the better for the horse…”

Majors also described these men as “faithful, daring fellows” and the “facility and energy with which they journeyed was a marvel.” Albert Richardson described them as “modern Centaurs.”

While John W Clampitt 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.”  

It’s the myths and legends which have grown up surrounding the Pony Express that offer romance. Whether it is the story of Johnny Fry being the first rider out in St. Joseph, the debate over who was the youngest rider, which of the three or four riders claiming to have ridden the farthest, or longest time in the saddle, and was “Buffalo Bill” a rider for the Express here lies the real true fascination of the Pony Express.

Presumably, an advertisement for employment with the Pont Express called for “young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen” “expert riders willing to risk death daily,” and “orphans preferred.”  

This ad according to some sources is a known falsehood, a poster having been found in a bar in Kansas City in about 1902. There are those who believe this ad might have used Russell, Majors, and Waddell to recruit riders. You can add to these the images created by the Hollywood film companies and television as sources for the enduring romance we have of the times and adventurers of the Pony Express.

During its 18-month run, the Express was reasonably successful. With that said, what was the cause of its termination? There are people that would suggest that the Express met its end due to the transcontinental telegraph. This may have been a mitigating factor. The telegraph company of Creighton began setting poles and stringing wire across the continent about the same time that the first riders were starting their runs across the frontier.

The termination of Creighton’s endeavor parallels the end of the Express. Some historians point to this as the primary factor. Other students of history suggest that the contest proposed by congress had a predetermined outcome.

Looking at the costs incurred establishing the company, the revenue generated by the mail, and other economic factors one may be drawn to the belief the express ended due to financial issues.  The end of the Express could be the result of combinations of multiple of these factors.
 
For those of us still fascinated by the stories, myths, and legends of the Pony Express one thing be it fact or myth stands above all others: during the 18 months of its existence there was one rider lost, one mochila lost, and one run not completed. Were these the same or separate events that are for others to research. It is for each of us to decide until we have a definitive answer. The Pony Express was and is real as much as it is also myth and legend.
 
 

| REFERENCES AND MORE INFORMATION

Pony Express-Godfrey, Anthony Ph.D. National Resource Study, National Historic Trail, US Gov’t Printing Office c. 1994
The Saga of the Pony Express-Di Certo, Joseph J., Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT c. 2002
On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical look at the Pony Express Riders
Lewin, Jacqueline & Taylor, Marilyn, Platte Purchase Publishers a division of the St. Louis Museum Inc.   c.2002
The Story of the Pony Express-Bradley, Glenn D. Publisher and copyright date unavailable
The Pony Express: An Illustrated History-Guthrie, C.W., with photographs by Smith, Bart, Twodot Gilford, CT & Helena, MT imprint of Globe Pequot Press   c. 2010
The Pony Express: Yesterday and Today-Hill, William E.-Canton Press, Caldwell, ID  c. 2010

COBBLESTONE:
The History Magazine for Young People-The Pony Express 1860-1861-October 1981, ed. Frances Nankin, Cobblestone Publishing, Inc., Peterborough, NH  
Here Comes the Pony: The Story of the Pony Express-An Educational Activity
            Book-Hill, William E., Oregon-California Trails Association/Pony Express
            National Museum,  Independence, MO  c. 2006
Report on Scott’s Bluff Pony Express Station and Fort Mitchell Sites-Nardone,
            Joe, Pony Express Trail Association, Laguna Hills, CA   c. 2005
PONY EXPRESS-Pony Express National Historic Trail, NPS Brochure updated Pony Express Rider Billie Campbell has quite an experience carrying the mail-
            Author unidentified, Voice of the Sand Hills, Hays Springs, NE  Spring 2006

 


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