A Short History of the Pony Express

The Pony Express, the predecessor to the U.S. Postal Service, made its first run on the 3rd of April in 1860. The first rider, one Henry Wallace, departed St. Joseph, Missouri on horseback with bags of mail headed toward Sacramento. One particularly important parcel was a message of congratulations from the president, James Buchannan, Jr. to the John Gately Downey, the Governor of California, arrived exactly ten days after Wallace's departure form St. Joseph. Riders for the Pony Express followed that original route from St. Joseph to Sacramento and all points in between.

This prototypal post was pioneered by Alexander Majors, William B. Waddell, and William H. Russell, financiers of the freight industry, who saw the need of a more effective means of communication with the West. This need became all the more urgent in light of the impending war between the North and South. The Wells Fargo wagons that originally delivered communications from St. Joseph to Sacramento could take as many as 20 days were simply not efficient enough as the country continued to undergo change. The Pony Express could cover that ground in as few as nine to eleven days, depending on the terrain and conditions the riders encountered.

Letters were generally written on tissue paper and wrapped in waterproof oilpaper, and the cost of postage was an outrageous $5 for a regular-sized letter. Eventually the price of postage fell to $2.50 as the system evened out. Riders worked on a relay system, where each rider would cover about 100 miles with about 40 pounds of mail. The Pony Express employed about 80 riders and about 500 horses. Riders were chosen based on their weight—none could weigh more than 110 pounds—as well as horsemanship, their mettle, endurance, and marksmanship. A familiarity with Indian ambush was also a consideration. The horses were all broncos, chosen for their tendency to be fleet of foot, strong, and able to go long distances. Post stations were generally about 25 miles apart, but more stations were built for both the convenience of those sending and receiving mail, and for the well being of the horses, who weren't always able to withstand such long runs.

One all-too-common occurrence for Pony Express riders was arriving at a station that had been seized and destroyed in battles with robbers or Indians. If the relief rider was killed or wounded, the original rider had no choice but to ride on, despite exhaustion. If you've heard of Buffalo Bill Cody, then you have probably heard of his record ride of 322 miles for the Pony Express. This legendary service had a surprisingly short life. It was not as profitable as the original investors suspected it would be, but the Pacific Telegraph line eliminated the need for these long and treacherous rides. Even though the Pony Express was a short-lived system, halting its operations after just 19 months, it remains a symbol of American flint and determination.

Lawrence Reaves writes about shipping labels and asset tags for http://www.MaverickLabel.com

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