Thursday, May 26, 2016

Orphans Wanted

Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. So read an 1860 poster advertising for riders for the Pony Express.

The Pony Express was created by three wealthy, freighting and stagecoach entrepreneurs, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. As the Civil War approached, the established 2,800-mile mail route across the Southwest would not be acceptable to the North, and a more northern route would be required. Russell, Majors, and Waddell set out to prove their route extending 1,900 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, using the Oregon/California Trail, was the best choice.

The Mail Must Go Through
by Margaret Rau
Russell, Majors, and Waddell knew a transcontinental telegraph was planned and when completed would make the Pony Express obsolete. But, the bulk of the mail would still travel by stagecoach until the first transcontinental railroad could be built. The Pony Express was a risky business undertaken to impress the Postmaster General and members of Congress. The founders knew the new venture would not make money, but they expected to receive the lucrative government mail contract once they proved how fast they could provided service. In early 1860, the founders hired 120 riders, established 184 stations, and bought 400 fast horses. They paid the riders between $100 to $150 a month, depending upon how dangerous their assigned section of the route.

Pony Express
by Fred Reinfeld

Each rider received a Bible and was required to sign a pledge he would not swear, drink, or fight. The mail was restricted to individual letters and newspapers printed on lightweight paper transported in a mochila, a specially designed saddlebag. Initially, the fee was $5 per ounce, but gradually dropped to $1. The first runs began April 3, 1860. Russell, Majors, and Waddell promised to deliver the mail from one end of their line to the other in ten days, which they did through all kinds of weather and despite frequent Indian attacks. The cross-country telegraph line was completed October 24, 1861, and the Pony Express died. Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not win the new mail contract, which eventually led them to declare bankruptcy.

Dozens of books about the exciting adventures of this proud band of riders have been written. The subject was a favorite of dime novels as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok got their start toward fame as Pony Express riders. Part of that fame was created by the publishing industry. This five cent novel was published by Beadle's Pocket Library in 1891. All riders had to be bachelors, and they attracted the attention of the ladies like rock stars do today. According to legend, one young lady invented the doughnut so that ex-jockey Johnny Fry could spear her treat on a finger as he raced past.
The Pony Express ended several years before my trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles, takes place, but many of the stations where riders changed horses were also stagecoach stations. Some of these stations appear in my books. For those adventurous travelers, young and old, who want to explore the route of the Pony Express, try The Traveler’s Guide to the Pony Express Trail, by Joe Bensen. His descriptions of the history and the location of the stations proved useful in my writing.

The National Pony Express Association conducts an Annual Re-Ride of the Pony Express Trail from Sacramento, California, to St. Joseph Missouri. This year it occurred June 15 - 25, 2016.


  1. I used to enjoy The Young Riders TV show. I wonder if it's on Netflix?

  2. I do not know the answer to your question, Chris. I don't use Netflix. Too old fashioned? Perhaps. Sorry.

  3. The Pony Express is always such a romantic time in history for me. Love learning about it.