Wanted: young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
The Pony Express became the first rapid courier service in history. To get some idea of how difficult the job was, look at this advertisement, which appeared in newspapers in the USA in 1859.
The Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company published the following offer of work: “Wanted: young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
The Pony Express route is the best-known, most legendary route in the history of the United States. With its headquarters in St. Joseph, a city in Missouri near the border with Kansas, the company claimed that its route could connect Missouri with San Francisco in less than 10 days; that is, 15 days faster than the stagecoach services of that time. The Pony Express is one of the oldest legends in the American West, that fascinating age in which a nation began inventing itself.
As from 1857, the fastest means of transport for travelling from Missouri to California was the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach service, the route of which ran from St. Louis to San Francisco, and took a total of 25 days. It is important to remember that until 1857, all the federal mail to California (which had been a member of the Union since 1850) had been transported via the following route: it was sent by ship to Panama, after which it was carried overland across the continental isthmus, and then put onto another ship which sailed for California.
The route of the Butterfield Overland Mail company passed through Arkansas, Oklahoma (at that time Indian territory), Texas, New Mexico and, finally, California. It was known as the Southern Route and was almost 1,000 kilometres longer than the Central Route, which ran through Utah and Nevada.
In 1859, the government put the concession for this route up for tender. This excellent opportunity was immediately seized by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors, who set up a mail service which they guaranteed could cover the route in just 10 days.
The three partners created the company the Pony Express in 1862 to bid for the tender for the Central Route for mail delivery. A little over 3,000 kilometres long, this route ran through vast stretches of flatlands, mountains and deserts.
The entire route was covered by riders galloping at full speed, which meant that the riders required a new steed every 15 or 20 kilometres. An approximate total of 200 horses were needed to travel the entire route, and furthermore 190 Pony Express stations had to be set up, where the rider could change horse. But it wasn’t only the horse that had to be regularly replaced – every five or six pony express stations, the rider was also changed. The Pony Express company owned a total of 500 horses to ensure that the service would operate effectively, and a similar number of riders.
Many adventures, experiences and fascinating life stories only served to increase the legend of these riders, who would compete with each other to see who could reach the different destinations in the shortest time. People even used to bet on the times they would pass through certain towns. Even today, many stories have survived of how the riders risked their lives travelling through Indian territory.
One of the best-known Pony Express riders was William F. Cody. While his real name might not ring any bells among many people, everybody will know him by his nickname: Buffalo Bill. After his early days working for the mail company, he began working in the world of shows and entertainment. However, it must be said that his fame did help, to a great extent, to promote the existence of the express mail service.
But only 18 months after it had opened, the Pony Express route came to an end. Because while it had demonstrated that the central route could be covered in record time, on 22nd October 1861 the transcontinental telegraph service came into operation. Two days later, the announcement was made that the Pony Express route would be closing down.
Even so, never before had a mail service helped to shape and model the personality of a nation, which came to include this symbol of the American character into its collective imaginary. The Pony Express represented one of the most exciting, unforgettable chapters in the story of the conquest of the American West, as well as helping to bring the East and West coasts of the USA closer together, at a swift gallop.
The Marull Collection contains two commemorative stamps from this legendary postal express service. On the left is the first American standard mail stamp to make no reference at all to the US president, and which was issued in 1869. Next to it, on the right, there is a stamp which, issued in 1939, commemorated the 80th anniversary of the creation of that legendary company, the Pony Express.