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Pony Express Rider, 1861

The Pony Express made its first run on April 3, 1860 and immediately captured the imagination of the nation. It had been established to provide a speedy method of delivering mail over a two thousand mile route that stretched between St. Joseph

Frank E. Webner
Pony Express rider ca. 1861
Missouri and Sacramento, California. The distance was divided into a series of relays 75 to 100 miles in length over which a lone rider would race, changing his horse every 10 to 15 miles before handing his cargo off to the next rider. He would then wait for a rider from the opposite direction to arrive, take his mail, and return to his starting point.

Speed of delivery was paramount. Any weight other than the mail the horse carried was kept to a minimum. Ads for riders called for: "Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." A specialized, light-weight saddle was developed that had built-in pouches to carry the mail. Hazards abounded, including weather, terrain, hostile Indians and bandits. It typically took a week for mail to reach its destination at a cost of $5.00 per ounce.

Travelers on the trial would keep an expectant eye out for the appearance of the Pony Express rider. Suddenly, a speck would appear in the distance, rapidly grow larger and a cheer would arise as the rider sped by and gave a wave of acknowledgement.

The completion of the telegraph line to California spelled the end of the Pony Express in October 1861. Its lifetime had lasted only eighteen months but the imagery of a lone rider making a perilous journey against all odds made an indelible impression on the nation's collective memory.

"A party of fifteen Indians jumped me. . ."

Buffalo Bill Cody, who later became famous for his Wild West Show, was a rider for the Pony Express and wrote of his experiences. We join Bill's story as he is hired - at the age of 15 - to ride a section of the trail that lies in modern-day Wyoming:

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". . .The next day he [Mr Slade,the manger of Cody's Pony Express station] assigned me to duty on the road from Red Buttes on the North Platte, to the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater - a distance of seventy-six miles - and I began riding at once.

One day when I galloped into Three Crossings, my home station, I found that the rider who was expected to take the trip out on my arrival had got into a drunken row the night before and had been killed; and that there was no one to fill his place. I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of eighty-five miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time. I then turned back and rode to Red Buttes, my starting place, accomplishing on the round trip a distance of 322 miles.

Slade heard of this feat of mine, and one day as he was passing on a coach he sang out to me, 'My boy, you're a brick, and no mistake. That was a good run you made when you rode your own and Miller's routes, and I'll see that you get extra pay for it.'

Slade, although rough at times and always a dangerous character - having killed many a man - was always kind to me. During the two years that I worked for him as pony-express-rider and stage-driver, he never spoke an angry word to me.


Richard Egan
Pony Express rider ca. 1861

As I was leaving Horse Creek one day, a party of fifteen Indians 'jumped me' in a sand ravine about a mile west of the station. They fired at me repeatedly, but missed their mark. I was mounted on a roan California horse - the fleetest steed I had. Putting spurs and whip to him, and lying flat on his back, I kept straight on for Sweetwater Bridge - eleven miles distant - instead of trying to turn back to Horse Creek. The Indians came on in hot pursuit, but my horse soon got away from them, and ran into the station two miles ahead of them. The stock-tender had been killed there that morning, and all the stock had been driven off by the Indians, and as I was therefore unable to change horses, I continued on to Ploutz's Station - twelve miles further - thus making twenty-four miles straight run with one horse. I told the people at Ploutz's what had happened at Sweetwater Bridge, and with a fresh horse went on and finished the trip without any further adventure.

About the middle of September the Indians became very troublesome on the line of the stage road along the Sweetwater. Between Split Rock and Three Crossings they robbed a stage, killed the driver and two passengers, and badly wounded Lieut. Flowers, the assistant division agent. The red-skinned thieves also drove off the stock from the different stations, and were continually lying in wait for the passing stages and pony express-riders, so that we had to take many desperate chances in running the gauntlet.

The Indians had now become so bad and had stolen so much stock that it was decided to stop the pony express for at least six weeks, and to run the stages but occasionally during that period; in fact, it would have been almost impossible to have run the enterprise much longer without restocking the line.

" 'Bill, Bill! Help! Help! Save me!' "

Another rider for the Pony Express was Wild Bill Hickok, a friend and mentor of Buffalo Bill. Buffalo describes an incident when his friend was riding the trail:

"The affair occurred while Wild Bill was riding the pony express in western Kansas.

The custom with the express riders, when within half a mile of a station, was either to begin shouting or blowing a horn in order to notify the stock tender of his approach, and to have a fresh horse already saddled for him on his arrival, so that he could go right on without a moment's delay.

One day, as Wild Bill neared Rock Creek station, where he was to change horses, he began shouting as usual at the proper distance; but the stock-tender, who had been married only a short time and had his wife living with him at the station, did not make his accustomed appearance. Wild Bill galloped up and instead of finding the stock-tender ready for him with a fresh horse, he discovered him lying across the stable door with the blood oozing from a bullet-hole in his head. The man was dead, and it was evident that he had been killed only a few moments before.

In a second Wild Bill jumped from his horse, and looking in the direction of the house he saw a man coming towards him. The approaching man fired on him at once, but missed his aim. Quick as lightning Wild Bill pulled his revolver and returned the fire. The stranger fell dead, shot through the brain.


Buffalo Bill Cody

'Bill, Bill! Help! Help! save me!' Such was the cry that Bill now heard. It was the shrill and pitiful voice of the dead stock tender's wife, and it came from a window of the house. She had heard the exchange of shots, and knew that Wild Bill had arrived.

He dashed over the dead body of the villain whom he had killed, and just as he sprang into the door of the house, he saw two powerful men assaulting the woman.

One of the desperadoes was in the act of striking her with the butt end of a revolver, and while his arm was still raised, Bill sent a ball crashing through his skull, killing him instantly. Two other men now came rushing from an adjoining room, and Bill, seeing that the odds were three to one against him, jumped into a corner, and then firing, he killed another of the villains.

Before he could shoot again the remaining two men closed in upon him, one of whom had drawn a large bowie knife. Bill wrenched the knife from his grasp and drove it through the heart of the outlaw.

The fifth and last man now grabbed Bill by the throat, and held him at arm's length, but it was only for a moment, as Bill raised his own powerful right arm and struck his antagonist's left arm such a terrible blow that he broke it. The disabled desperado, seeing that he was no longer a match for Bill, jumped through the door, and mounting a horse he succeeded in making his escape - being the sole survivor of the Jake McCandless gang.

Wild Bill remained at the station with the terrified woman until the stage came along, and he then consigned her to the care of the driver. Mounting his horse he at once galloped off, and soon disappeared in the distance, making up for lost time.

References:
   This eyewitness account appears in: Cody William F., The Life of Buffalo Bill (1879, republished 1994); Bradley, Glenn D. The Story of the Pony Express (2006); Davis, William C., Joseph G. Rosa (editors), The West (1994).).

How To Cite This Article:
"Pony Express Rider, 1861" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008).

Pony Express Riders were paid $100 a month. This is equivalent to approximately $2,570.00 today.
The Pony Express was a financial failure for the company that operated it.
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