Last summer I received a letter that had been carried by the Pony Express. And no, it hadn’t been lost for 158 years. Want to know what happened? Keep reading…
The Pony Express is a well-known American mail delivery service of the early 1860s. A relay of young horseback riders rode non-stop at top speed across the wild western landscape to deliver the mail in record time. Ten days to cover 2,000 miles was unheard of at the time and is still amazing, even today. As a tribute to this historic venture, the National Pony Express Association recreates the ride along the original trail every June. Supporters of the assocation and history lovers can purchase a spot in the mochila for a letter of their own. I sent my first letter on the 2019 re-ride and I’m about to do it again this year. Who will be the lucky recipient this time? Will they appreciate the historic method of correspondence delivery?
The Pony Express, though actually very short-lived, has held a top spot in the collective narrative of America’s westward expansion. It is a symbol of our ingenuity, bravery, and daring. Jim DeFelice, author of West Like Lightning, sums it up nicely. “There’s so much embodied in the story of the Pony Express that’s part of the American spirit: man verses nature, rugged individual exploits. Above all, it was the riders’ endurance and resilience that made the Pony Express live on, and still resonate today.”
Why do I love the Pony Express?
We all bring our own personal life experiences to any subject that we encounter. Some of my previous experiences include several summers spent riding horses at Girl Scout camp; a love of Little House on the Prairie and all of the westward ho pioneer times; and several years as a supply officer in the Navy, including the collateral duty of Postal Officer. Pack all that into a bag and bring it to the Pony Express.
Right off the bat I’m imagining the hours spent in the saddle. Did you know there was a rider in a saddle 24 hours a day? I add my experiences of camping and being outside in the woods after dark to my experiences riding horses and I say “Yikes!” Imagine riding with no road, in the dark. Imagine experiencing the power of a thunderstorm or blizzard without any shelter. Being a Pony Express rider was no easy job.
What else? Well, how about the logistics of it all. As a supply corps officer, I have some experience with logisitics, planning, supply chains, etc. As a road-tripper I have experience with the wide-open and even desolate spaces that still exist today along the Pony Express trail. Miles and miles of nothing but nature. Now imagine how to keep the necessary food, communication, and supplies flowing in the days before motor vehicles and widespread electricity. After all, the whole reason the Pony Express came to be is because the country needed a faster way to communicate from coast to coast. Letters took a month to travel by ship, and a month or more by stagecoach. The Pony Express promised delivery in 10 days.
Pony Express Facts
There is no shortage of information about the Pony Express. The actual facts though are often mixed with the myth and legend that grew around this enterprise. Here’s a little history.
*The idea for the Pony Express was first introduced to Congress in 1855 but was defeated.
*As the beginning of the Civil War became more of a reality, Congress realized that it needed a faster overland communication route that wouldn’t be compromised by southern states. The southern route, St. Louis to California Butterfield line, could easily be cut off from the Union. The central route was the most direct route and ran through Union territories but it was harder to use year-round due to winter snow.
*The Pony Express was founded by the freighting firm of William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company became known as The Pony Express.
*They had 3 months to develop the whole trail for use. They had to had to revise existing routes (combining and re-routing some of the lines they had purchased to shorten distances or to avoid “wild” areas where Native Americans might interfere), equip it with relay stations (including provisions for men and horses), hire dependable men as station keepers and riders, and buy high-grade horses to cover entire 2000 mile route. (See what I mean about the logistics aspect of this enterprise?)
*Approximately 400-500 horses were purchased for the Pony Express at an average price of $200 each. This was a high price for the day and is equal to about $5700 today.
*80 riders were needed to cover the entire route. The Pony Express was looking for the cream of the frontier crop who had been hardened by life on the frontier. Riders were paid $25 per week which equates to $640 today.
*Pony Express riders wore red shirts as their uniform.
*Stations were located at intervals of 10-15 miles. Riders would switch to a fresh horse at each station and after 75-100 miles, a new rider would take over. Don’t forget – these riders kept the mail moving 24 hours a day, no matter the time or weather.
*It wasn’t cheap to send a letter via the Pony Express! Though the owners had hoped for government subsidies similar to those given to stagecoach companies, they never received any. Mail cost $5 per half ounce (that’s $155 today!). Today we are able to send mail with a single 55-cent stamp.
*The first ride of the Pony Express began on April 3, 1860. Then just 18 months later, the transcontinental telegraph ended the financially-struggling Pony Express on October 24, 1861.
*Though the business of the Pony Express was ultimately a failure, it paved the way and helped win federal aid for a more economical overland postal system going forward, which we all benefit from today.
How to send a letter via the Pony Express
So now that you know how cool the Pony Express is, you want to use it to send a letter yourself, don’t you? Well, you’re in luck because I’ve tested the process for you and now I’m sharing what I learned.
Step 1 – Visit the Pony Express website to download a letter order form.
There are two options to choose from. Either send a commemorative letter to the recipient(s) of your choice or use the paper and envelope they send to write a personal letter. You will pay a fee for each letter that goes to support the National Pony Express Foundation.
Last year was the first time I participated so I chose both options to see how it all works. My only complaint about the commemorative letter is that the recipient doesn’t know who sent it. So unless you tell them in advance that it’s coming, they won’t know why they’re getting the letter. I sent one to my dad and he guessed it was from me (clearly he knows me well enough to know I might do something random like this!) but didn’t know for sure until I asked if it had arrived.
Fun fact to note – the letters are numbered in the order they are requested and each letter is hand-stamped with a special USPS cancellation.
Step 2 – Write your letter on the officialPony Express stationery paper and return it to the foundation before the deadline.
In order to make sure the horses are not carrying too much weight in the mochila, only the provided stationery may be used for the personal letters.
Step 3 – Follow the mail online as it goes along the Pony Express trail.
This is definitely at modern perk to be able to track your Pony Express mail. You can follow the re-ride on the website and you can also see hand-off videos and other highlights on Facebook. A tracking device inside the mochila helps to keep the fans updated on the current location but there can be a lag in some of the more remote areas. If you’d like to read first-hand accounts from participants on the trail, click here. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere near the trail, go on out to see them when they ride by!
Step 4 – Be excited when your letter arrives!
Unfortunately, the Pony Express does not offer door-to-door delivery. Just like in the old days, the Pony Express carries the mail between the Eastern and Western terminus locations then local mail delivery takes over to cover the final stage of delivery. Your letter will come to you via USPS after its tour of the Pony Express Trail.
Let’s watch as the 2019 Re Ride begins…
Pony Express Re-Ride Facts
Here are a couple interesting bits of information about the annual re-ride.
*They alternate directions each year. In even years, they ride from Sacramento, CA to St. Joseph, MO, and in odd years, from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA.
*Over 700 volunteer riders participate each year to carry the letters along the original Pony Express Trail route, completing the ride in just 10 days.
*Just like the original riders, the re-ride goes continually, 24 hours a day from start to finish. For the 150th anniversary though, they rode only during daylight hours so that communities all along the route could celebrate the occasion.
*About 1,000 letters are sent each year on the re-ride.
Read more about the Pony Express
Jim DeFelice wrote West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. Published in 2018, it was a finalist for Best Western Historical Nonfiction. As mentioned above, the facts are few and the legends are many but DeFelice reportedly does an excellent job of finding truths. You can read an interview with the author on National Geographic, here. I’m waiting on a copy from the local library so I’ll get back to you with my thoughts after I’ve read it. This book along with MANY others is listed on the National Pony Express Association website. Be sure to check that page for more reading sources.
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