Your Ancestors Mail Service - The Pony Express

America was expanding as our ancestors started moving westward in the 1840s. The only major problem was getting goods and products along with mail to these western outposts. If things were sent from the east to the west using a steamship it would be months arriving and then additional time to get to the family living somewhere out west. There was the cross-country service of Butterfield Overland Mail Co. which promised a 24-day delivery service (NOTE –24 days).

A new service came to the country in the Spring of 1860, known as the ‘Pony Express’. It was the idea of William H. Russell who was from Missouri. His idea was a delivery service, comprised of the speediest horses and bravest riders to bring mail from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast in the unheard-of time of 10 days.

With the help of partners, he established the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company and dove into the logistics of acquiring both riders and horses and establishing a route across the daunting mountains and deserts of the West.

The start was on April 3, 1860, with crowds gathered in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, for the inaugural rides of the Pony Express. From St. Joseph, Missouri the first rider was Kentucky-born Johnny Fry, who would place the mailbag known as a mochila across the saddle and set the race in motion from the service’s eastern starting point. The only problem was Fry was delayed because the train had not arrived yet with the mailbag, so delaying the start by 3 hours.

He and the relay riders who assumed the load every 100 miles or so made up for a lost time as they streaked the 1,800-plus miles across the remote frontier land of the West. The mailbags arrived at their final destinations on April 14, just over 10 days after the start of their separate journeys, proof that the Pony Express could indeed deliver the goods with its promise of a leaner, faster service. It was James Randall who started from left San Francisco, Calif. to head east.

These new Pony Express riders became celebrities. Like Johnny Fry, they were almost entirely young, white men in their late teens to early 20s, slight of build but renowned for their ability to race their horses. These riders had to deal with sweltering desert areas and blinding blizzards. Fry quickly gained a reputation for never failing to deliver the mail, regardless of weather or danger, and was a fast rider, averaging a speed of 12.5 miles per hour, including all stops.

Even with this new speed for mail, not many people were using the Express, as the initial cost of $5 per half an ounce, which is equal to around $165 in 2022, making it too expensive for the average person.

By the summer of 1860 things were changing. The US Congress was planning on developing a transcontinental telegraph line to send messages. Also, there were problems between the settlers in Nevada and the Native Indian tribes causing mail to be halted to California.

By November 1860 with things improving, more relay stations were set up along the route to California so the election results of Nov. 1860 with Lincoln winning could be announced.

However, the national mail contract was given to the Overland Mail Company in March 1861 and with the establishment of the transcontinental telegraph lines completed, Russell and Company were out of business.

But the Pony Express did have a good record. With a total of 34,753 letters carried over 308 runs and a distance of 616,000 miles, with just one mochila (mailbag), which means “backpack” in Spanish, of letters, reportedly lost.

NOTE: Johnny Fry joined the Union Army in October 1863 as a messenger rider. He was attacked by Confederate soldiers and was killed on October 6, 1863.

Photo: Pony Express rider, Johnny Fry.

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