11 Facts About the Pony Express

Part of a mural by Frank Albert Mechau, Jr. called ”Pony Express" in the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington, D.C.
Part of a mural by Frank Albert Mechau, Jr. called ”Pony Express" in the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington, D.C.
Carol Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On April 3, 1860, in St. Joseph, Missouri, a young rider (probably) named Johnny Fry stuffed a mail pouch containing 49 letters, five telegrams, and other various papers into a tailor-made saddle pack and dashed off on his horse, Sylph, heading west. Almost 2000 miles away, his California counterpart, Harry Roff, took off on his horse from Sacramento, heading east. Their rides marked the launch of the famous Pony Express, the remarkable mail system that carried correspondence and news across the western United States at breakneck speed in the days before the transcontinental telegraph and the transcontinental railroad. There are plenty of myths surrounding the historic mail delivery service, and much of what we're taught about the Pony Express in school isn't quite right. Here are 11 things you might not have known about the amazing delivery service.

1. IT COVERED A LOT OF GROUND, FAST.

An illustrated map of the Pony Express route
A map of the Pony Express route by artist William Henry Jackson
William Henry Jackson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With riders traveling at an average pace of 10 miles per hour around the clock, the 1966-mile route passed through eight modern-day states in 10 days. (When the Pony Express began, only Missouri and California were officially states.) From Missouri, the route snaked through Kansas to Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and then on to California, where it ended in Sacramento (the mail would then usually travel by boat to San Francisco). The riders carried mail from the Midwest to the West Coast in less than half the time a stagecoach could (24 days), and in a pinch, could go even faster. In 1861, riders traversed the westward route in seven days, 17 hours to get a copy of Lincoln's inaugural address to California. The Pony Express was by far the most effective way to communicate cross-country at the time—at least until the telegraph came along.

2. IT DIDN'T OPERATE FOR THAT LONG.

A man on a horse waves his hat at men putting up a telegraph pole.
George M. Ottinger, Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Pony Express plays a bit of an oversized role in the popular imagination, considering how long it actually existed. Launched in April 1860, it operated for less than 19 months before the first trans-continental telegraph line was completed, connecting California to East Coast cities, no ponies necessary. The system officially shuttered on October 26, 1861, and the last remaining mail was delivered soon after.

3. IT REQUIRED A WHOLE LOT OF HORSES.

A painting of a Pony Express rider taking off on a new horse from a station
Frederick Remington's The Coming and Going of the Pony Express, 1900
Frederick Remington, Gilcrease Museum // Public Domain

Pony Express riders typically rode for 75 to 100 miles at a stretch, but they changed horses many times over the course of their journey to ensure that their steeds could go as fast as possible. The stations were about 10 miles apart, and at every station, they changed horses, swapping out their steeds up to 10 times a ride; the whole enterprise involved about 400 horses.

However, those steeds may not have been ponies in the proper sense—by definition, ponies are small breeds of horse under 4.8 feet tall. Accounts of the types of horses used by the Pony Express vary; in his 1893 autobiography, Pony Express co-founder Alexander Majors wrote that "The horses were mostly half-breed California mustangs, as alert and energetic as their riders, and their part in the service sure-footed and fleet was invaluable." The eastern part of the route may have also used breeds like Morgans and Thoroughbreds (now best known for their use in horse racing).

4. ITS FOUNDING WAS AS RUSHED AS ITS RIDERS.

A black and white image of a historic Pony Express station
The Hollenberg Pony Express station near Hanover, Kansas is the most intact Pony Express station left. It’s the only one still standing on its original site with its original dimensions.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Alexander Majors, alongside co-founders William Russell and William Waddell, had just two months to get the Pony Express up and running—a more complicated task than it might sound. They not only had to buy hundreds of horses, but build enough stations that riders could change horses every 10 miles or so—meaning more than 150 stations across the West. The stations were usually located in remote areas decided by route efficiency rather than construction or supply convenience. Majors had to find riders and substitutes (paid around $125 a month, according to his autobiography, or around $3500 today) as well as 200 station masters who could work in those remote locations, plus buy and deliver the supplies necessary to run the stations.

5. RIDERS LOOKED A LITTLE DIFFERENT THAN YOU MIGHT IMAGINE.

A seated tin-type portrait of four Pony Express riders
Clockwise from top left: Billy Richardson, Johnny Fry, Gus Cliff, Charles Cliff. Fry is thought to be the first eastbound rider on the Pony Express.
Martin E. Ismert Collection - Kansas City, Missouri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Contrary to myth, Pony Express riders weren't speeding across the landscape in cowboy hats wearing fringe-covered buckskins and toting guns. They were trying to minimize the weight their horse had to carry in every way, including in their dress. In Roughing It, Mark Twain (who, we should note, was not always known for his adherence to the truth) described seeing a rider for the Pony Express speed by wearing clothes that were "thin, and fitted close; he wore a 'round-about,' and a skull-cap, and tucked his pantaloons into his boot-tops like a race-rider."

Twain goes on to say that the rider was unarmed. "He carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage on his literary freight was worth five dollars a letter," he wrote.

6. BUFFALO BILL PROBABLY WASN'T INVOLVED.

Buffalo Bill stands with his rifle on his shoulder in a studio portrait
Buffalo Bill Cody circa 1892
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Very few company records exist for the Pony Express, making it hard to confirm who was really involved. Much of what we know about the entire endeavor is myth, exaggerated and reworked in tales told long after the route was shut down. Even first-person accounts tend to be full of inaccuracies—in one first-person recollection, for instance, a man who says he was born in 1864 claims he rode for the Pony Express for three years, ending in 1881, 20 years after the last mail was delivered [PDF]. And the service's most famous rider, Buffalo Bill Cody, may not have even been a rider at all. Historians disagree on whether or not there's enough reliable evidence to prove whether or not he worked for the operation, which only employed about 80 men (plus substitutes), according to the National Park Service.

"He simply liked to insert himself into history," as Buffalo Bill researcher Sandra Sagala wrote on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum's website in 2011, and there's evidence [PDF] that he was elsewhere during the times he claimed to be riding for the Pony Express.

But the Pony Express performances during his Wild West Show did significantly shape how history remembers the service. In his 1979 biography of the showman, Don Russell argues that he was, in fact, probably a rider, but that Cody undoubtedly made the Pony Express into a legend whether he was there or not. "It is highly unlikely that the Pony Express would be so well remembered had not Buffalo Bill so glamorized it," Russell wrote.

7. RIDERS WERE ASKED TO CARRY BIBLES.

A worn bible against a white background
A Pony Express bible
Doug Coldwell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Pony Express riders were expected to be stand-up citizens, despite their later reputation as rough-and-tumble frontiersmen. Pony Express co-founder Alexander Majors asked each of his employees to take an oath saying that they wouldn't curse, drink, or fight. Riders were required to sign the oath on the inside of the specially made Bibles Majors gave each of them. Contrary to his wishes, his riders likely ignored him. First of all, the leather-bound Bibles he wanted them to carry would have weighed riders down, when the whole point was to travel as lightly as possible to maximize speed. And they probably didn't take the whole "no cursing" rule very seriously either. In 1862, Sir Richard Burton remembered stagecoach drivers hired by Majors and subject to the same oath in his book The City of the Saints: "I scarcely ever saw a sober driver; as for the profanity … they are not to be deterred from evil talking even by the dread presence of a 'lady.'"

8. IT INVOLVED SPECIAL EQUIPMENT.

A commemorative stamp showing a Pony Express rider on a galloping horse
U.S. Postal Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pony Express riders didn't just throw a standard mail bag over the back of their saddle. They had mochilas designed specially for the Pony Express—ones that look nothing like some of the products now sold as "Pony Express saddlebags." Designed to be easy to transfer from horse to horse during the minutes-long station stops, these leather covers fit over the saddle so that the rider was sitting on top of the leather, with mail pouches on either side of their legs. Twain wrote that each of these locked pouches would "hold about the bulk of a child's primer," but they could still fit a surprising amount of mail for their size, because to keep loads light (Major recalls a maximum of 10 pounds, while a former rider recalled 20), the mail was printed on thin tissue paper.

9. IT WAS DANGEROUS, BUT MAYBE NOT BECAUSE OF VIOLENT ENCOUNTERS.

A film poster that reads 'The Pony Express' from Paramount Pictures
A lobby card for a silent Western made in 1925
Beinecke Library, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There's no doubt that the route definitely ran through territory beset by conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans, but that may not have been the biggest danger. According to Christopher Corbett, author of the 2003 book Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, the real danger along the route was the cold, not violence. In 2010, Corbett told NPR that in the few first-person accounts available in the historical record, original riders remembered the dangers of freezing during winter rides, especially if you strayed off the trail.

The Paiute War between Native Americans and white settlers in modern-day Nevada and Utah did affect service during the spring and summer of 1860 though. During one ride during the spring of 1860, express riders were escorted through Nevada to protect them from attacks. As a result, the mail took 31 days to reach Missouri, the longest of any of the eastbound Pony Express rides [PDF]. The National Park Service reports that four riders were killed on their way to deliver mail (some say that most of the employees killed by those ambushes were station masters, not riders, but at least one rider was killed during this period of conflict). The National Park Service reports that one other rider died in an accident and two froze to death, while other accounts add that at least a few riders died after being thrown from their horses. And one rider disappeared along his route never to be seen again. His mail pouch was found two years later.

10. IT LED TO FINANCIAL RUIN FOR ITS FOUNDERS.

A vintage poster advertising rates for Pony Express mail
An ad placed in San Francisco on behalf of Wells, Fargo & Company in 1861, after the company took control of the Pony Express and lowered rates.

The Pony Express was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, who ran a transportation company taking freight, mail, and passengers by stagecoach across the American West before they launched the Pony Express. Their Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, parent company to the Pony Express, would take such hard losses from operating the extra-fast route that it would be nicknamed "Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay."

Initially, the going rate for Pony Express transport was $5 ($138 in today's money) for every half ounce of mail. While that sounds a little steep compared to today's stamp, the company still lost $30—a whopping $830 today—for every letter transported, according to the Postal Museum. Knowing the service wouldn't be financially stable without it, the founders hoped to secure a government contract for their mail route, but just a few months after the launch, Congress passed a bill to subsidize the construction of a transcontinental telegraph line.

The government did fund the Pony Express during its later months—just not through Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Instead, Congress effectively made the three founders (one of whom, Russell, had recently been indicted for fraud) hand over the western part of the route to the Overland Mail Company, a subsidiary of Wells Fargo [PDF] that already ran a different stagecoach route.

11. YOU CAN STILL SEND A LETTER BY IT.

An envelope stamped 'Pony Express'
A Pony Express letter carried from San Francisco to New York in 12 days in June 1861

Each June, the National Pony Express Association stages a commemorative ride for its members over the same path that the Pony Express traveled, with volunteer riders traveling 24/7 to get mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California (or vice versa—they switch the route based on if it's an even or odd year) in 10 days. More than 750 riders take part, carrying up to 1000 letters in total. Anyone who's interested can pay $5 for a pre-printed commemorative letter or send their own personal letter for $10.

If you aren't the pony-riding type, you can travel the trail in other ways, like running the 100-mile endurance race held along parts of the trail in Utah each year.

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

The Disturbing Reason Schools Tattooed Their Students in the 1950s

Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Paul Bailey was born at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah on May 9, 1955, it took less than two hours for the staff to give him a tattoo. Located on his torso under his left arm, the tiny marking was rendered in indelible ink with a needle gun and indicated Bailey’s blood type: O-Positive.

“It is believed to be the youngest baby ever to have his blood type tattooed on his chest,” reported the Beaver County News, cooly referring to the infant as an “it.” A hospital employee was quick to note parental consent had been obtained first.

The permanent tattooing of a child who was only hours old was not met with any hysteria. Just the opposite: In parts of Utah and Indiana, local health officials had long been hard at work instituting a program that would facilitate potentially life-saving blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack. By branding children and adults alike with their blood type, donors could be immediately identified and used as “walking blood banks” for the critically injured.

Taken out of context, it seems unimaginable. But in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its apex and atomic warfare appeared not only possible but likely, children willingly lined up at schools to perform their civic duty. They raised their arm, gritted their teeth, and held still while the tattoo needle began piercing their flesh.

 

The practice of subjecting children to tattoos for blood-typing has appropriately morbid roots. Testifying at the Nuremberg Tribunal on War Crimes in the 1940s, American Medical Association physician Andrew Ivy observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried body markings indicating their blood type [PDF]. When he returned to his hometown of Chicago, Ivy carried with him a solution for quickly identifying blood donors—a growing concern due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict was depleting blood banks of inventory, and it was clear that reserves would be necessary.

School children sit next to one another circa the 1950s
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

If the Soviet Union targeted areas of the United States for destruction, it would be vital to have a protocol for blood transfusions to treat radiation poisoning. Matches would need to be found quickly. (Transfusions depend on matching blood to avoid the adverse reactions that come from mixing different types. When a person receives blood different from their own, the body will create antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.)

In 1950, the Department of Defense placed the American Red Cross in charge of blood donor banks for the armed forces. In 1952, the Red Cross was the coordinating agency [PDF] for obtaining blood from civilians for the National Blood Program, which was meant to replenish donor supply during wartime. Those were both measures for soldiers. Meanwhile, local medical societies were left to determine how best to prepare their civilian communities for a nuclear event and its aftermath.

As part of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee, Ivy promoted the use of the tattoos, declaring them as painless as a vaccination. Residents would get blood-typed by having their finger pricked and a tiny droplet smeared on a card. From there, they would be tattooed with the ABO blood group and Rhesus factor (or Rh factor), which denotes whether or not a person has a certain type of blood protein present.

The Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health endorsed the program and citizens voiced a measure of support for it. One letter to the editor of The Plainfield Courier-News in New Jersey speculated it might even be a good idea to tattoo Social Security numbers on people's bodies to make identification easier.

Despite such marked enthusiasm, the project never entered into a pilot testing stage in Chicago.

Officials with the Lake County Medical Society in nearby Lake County, Indiana were more receptive to the idea. In the spring of 1951, 5000 residents were blood-typed using the card method. But, officials cautioned, the cards could be lost in the chaos of war or even the relative quiet of everyday life. Tattoos and dog tags were encouraged instead. When 1000 people lined up for blood-typing at a county fair, two-thirds agreed to be tattooed as part of what the county had dubbed "Operation Tat-Type." By December 1951, 15,000 Lake County residents had been blood-typed. Roughly 60 percent opted for a permanent marking.

The program was so well-received that the Lake County Medical Society quickly moved toward making children into mobile blood bags. In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana enrolled in the pilot testing stage. Children were sent home with permission slips explaining the effort. If parents consented, students would line up on appointed tattoo days to get their blood typed with a finger prick. From there, they’d file into a room—often the school library—set up with makeshift curtains behind which they could hear a curious buzzing noise.

When a child stepped inside, they were greeted by a school administrator armed with indelible ink and wielding a Burgess Vibrotool, a medical tattoo gun featuring 30 to 50 needles. The child would raise their left arm to expose their torso (since arms and legs might be blown off in an attack) and were told the process would only take seconds.

A child raises his hand in class circa the 1950s
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

Some children were stoic. Some cried before, during, or after. One 11-year-old recounting her experience with the program said a classmate emerged from the session and promptly fainted. All were left with a tattoo less than an inch in diameter on their left side, intentionally pale so it would be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the same time that grade schoolers—and subsequently high school students—were being imprinted in Indiana, kids in Cache and Rich counties in Utah were also submitting to the program, despite potential religious obstacles for the region's substantial Mormon population. In fact, Bruce McConkie, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, declared that blood-type tattoos were exempt from the typical prohibitions on Mormons defacing their bodies, giving the program a boost among the devout. The experiment would not last much longer, though.

 

By 1955, 60,000 adults and children had gotten tattooed with their blood types in Lake County. In Milford, health officials persisted in promoting the program widely, offering the tattoos for free during routine vaccination appointments. But despite the cooperation exhibited by communities in Indiana and Utah, the programs never spread beyond their borders.

The Korean conflict had come to an end in 1953, reducing the strain put on blood supplies and along with it, the need for citizens to double as walking blood banks. More importantly, outside of the program's avid boosters, most physicians were extremely reticent to rely solely on a tattoo for blood-typing. They preferred to do their own testing to make certain a donor was a match with a patient.

There were other logistical challenges that made the program less than useful. The climate of a post-nuclear landscape meant that bodies might be charred, burning off tattoos and rendering the entire operation largely pointless. With the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear arsenal—1600 warheads were ready to take to the skies by 1960—the idea of civic defense became outmoded. Ducking and covering under desks, which might have shielded some from the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, would be meaningless in the face of such mass destruction.

Programs like tat-typing eventually fell out of favor, yet tens of thousands of adults consented to participate even after the flaws in the program were publicized, and a portion allowed their young children to be marked, too. Their motivation? According to Carol Fischler, who spoke with the podcast 99% Invisible about being tattooed as a young girl in Indiana, the paranoia over the Cold War in the 1950s drowned out any thought of the practice being outrageous or harmful. Kids wanted to do their part. Many nervously bit their lip but still lined up with the attitude that the tattoo was part of being a proud American.

Perhaps equally important, children who complained of the tattoo leaving them particularly sore received another benefit: They got the rest of the afternoon off.

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