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A project based around the history and genealogy of the people involved in the Pony Express, a relay mail service of riders on horses, established in 1860 between Missouri and California, through the Rocky Mountains. It became the west's most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph and was vital for tying California closely with the Union just before the American Civil War.

Inception & Founding

The Pony Express was founded by Alexander Majors who were notable in the freighting business.

Russell was a prominent business man and well respected among the community. Waddell was co-owner of the firm Morehead, Waddell & Co. After Morehead was bought out and retired Waddell merged his company with Russell's, changing the name to Waddell & Russell. In 1855 they took on a new partner, Alexander Majors, and founded the company of Russell, Majors & Waddell. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies to the West frontier, and Russell had a similar idea for contracts with the U.S. Government for fast mail delivery.

By having a short route and using mounted riders rather than traditional stagecoaches, their proposal was to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California with letters delivered in 10 days, a duration many said was impossible. The price was $5 per half-ounce. The founders of the Pony Express hoped to win an exclusive government mail contract, but that did not come about.

Russell, Majors and Waddell organized and put together the Pony Express in two months in the winter of 1860. The undertaking involved 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses and several hundred personnel during January and February 1860.

Operation

The service opened officially on April 3, 1860, when riders left simultaneously from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The first westbound trip was made in 9 days and 23 hours and the eastbound journey in 11 days and 12 hours. The pony riders covered 250 miles in a 24-hour day.

In 1860, there were about 157 Pony Express stations that were about 10 miles (16 km) apart along the Pony Express route. This was roughly the distance a horse could travel at a gallop before tiring. At each station stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds (10 kg) of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse. Included in that 20 pounds were a water sack, a Bible, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver. Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds (75 kg) on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, changed about every 75–100 miles (120–160 km), and rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a quickly moving horse.

The approximately 1,900 mile route roughly followed the Oregon Trail, and California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then the Mormon Trail (known as the Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it roughly followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierras into Sacramento, California.

There were stations along the long and arduous route used by the Pony Express. The stations and station keepers were essential to the successful, timely and smooth operation of the Pony Express mail system. They were often fashioned out of existing structures, several of the them located in military forts, while others were built anew in remote areas where living conditions were very basic. The route was divided up into five Divisions. To maintain the rigid schedule, 157 relay stations were located from 5 to 25 miles apart as the terrain would allow for. At each Swing Station riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones, while Home Stations provided room and board for the riders between runs. This technique allowed the mail to be whisked across the continent in record time. Each rider rode about 75 miles per day.

First Journeys

The first Westbound Pony Express trip left St. Joseph on April 3, 1860 and arrived ten days later in San Francisco, California on April 14. These letters were sent under cover from the East to St. Joseph, and never directly entered the U.S. mail system. To this day there is only a single letter known to exist from the inaugural westbound trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California.

The identity of the first rider has long been in dispute. The St. Joseph Weekly West (April 4, 1860) reported Johnson William Richardson was the first rider. Johnny Fry is credited in some sources as the rider. Nonetheless, the first westbound rider carried the pouch across the Missouri River ferry to Elwood, Kansas. The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about a half mile (800 m) from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river. In later rides, the courier crossed the river without a horse and picked up his mount at a stable on the other side.

The first eastbound Pony Express trip left San Francisco, California, on April 3, 1860 and arrived at its destination some ten days later in St. Joseph, Missouri. From St. Joseph, letters were placed in the U.S. mails for delivery to eastern destinations. There are only two letters known to exist from the inaugural eastbound trip from San Francisco to St. Joseph.

Riders

Back in 1860, riding for the Pony Express was difficult work – riders had to be tough and lightweight. There is a famous advertisement that reportedly read, "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

The Pony Express had an estimated 80 riders that were in use at any one given time. In addition, there were also about 400 other employees including station keepers, stock tenders and route superintendents. Many young men applied for jobs with the Pony Express, all eager to face the dangers and the challenges that sometimes lay along the delivery route. Waddle and Majors could have easily hired them at a much lesser rate but instead paid them a handsome sum for that day of one hundred dollars a month.

Some famous riders include James "Wild Bill" Hickok.

A list of riders can be found on Wikipedia and at Pony Express Riders.

Sources: Answers.com, Wikipedia, Pony Express Museum, Wells Fargo Blog