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.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

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