Life as a Rider on The Pony Express

“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, Alta Bldg., Montgomery St.” This ad was placed in a San Francisco newspaper in March 1860 when the Pony Express was first hiring riders. Despite the risks involved, hundreds of young men applied to deliver mail on the Pony Express.

Since the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, more people moved out west to California. The problem: there was no fast way for them to get mail from other parts of the country. William Russell, a partner in one of the largest freighting companies that sent supplies to the West, had an idea. He would generate publicity for the company by starting a “horse express” that promised to deliver mail in ten days from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. He planned to have a chain of riders relaying mail from one station to the next with one rider coming from each direction. Russell set up home stations where riders could rest and relay stations where they changed horses. He sent supplies to each station along the route, bought horses and paid riders with company money.

Riders on the Pony Express had to meet certain requirements. Most riders were under one hundred pounds and were similar in size to horse jockeys today. The lighter the rider, the faster the horse could go. The company preferred to hire orphans so families would not complain if their sons died trying to deliver mail. Pony Express riders were advised never to start a conflict with bandits or Native Americans. They should flee on their horses whenever possible but could use a revolver as a last resort to protect themselves and the mail.

Despite the images of Pony Express riders shooting Native Americans and having adventures popularized by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and dime novels, the life of a Pony Express employee was far from glamorous. As rider William Campbell said, “Riding express had more hard work than fun in it.” The weather often was a rider’s worst enemy. Campbell recalled his route through Nebraska: “Once I spent twenty-four hours in the saddle carrying the mail 120 miles to Fairfield with snow two or three feet deep and the mercury around zero. I could tell where the trail lay only by watching the tall weeds on either side and often had to get off and lead my horse.” Though the men were paid well by the standards of the day, the physical toll of riding long distances and in bad weather led many riders to quit.

Employees of the Pony Express were in greater danger during a war between white settlers and the Native American Paiute tribe, though station masters died more frequently than riders who often fled on their speedy horses. The Paiute War caused the Pony Express to shut down for about one month. It resumed service after the United States Army settled the conflict.

Regardless of their hardships, the riders were determined to get the mail through no matter what. Even on the first run of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860, the riders got the mail to California in the promised ten days. Due to the more widespread use of the telegraph and the railroads, however, the Pony Express only lasted for a year and a half.

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