Alex Dawson

William Russell: Originator and 'degenorater" of the Pony Express
Alex Dawson

In late October of 1861, the telegraph line connecting the East Coast to the West Coast was finally completed. Many believe this to be the major event that caused the downfall of the Pony Express mounted mail delivery service after only sixteen months of delivery service. This is for the most part true, but it was not so much the telegraph, as it was on account of other factors. For instance, there were financial reasons, a shortage of young men willing to face the dangers of the West, and the fact that technology is constantly replacing old methods and tools. All of these reasons led to the inevitable failure of the Pony Express. For the most part, bad financial decisions and disasters within the company that ran the Express, Russell, Majors & Waddell, caused its inevitable failure. William Russell, one of the major contributors to the idea and running of the Pony Express, holds most of the responsibility for the financial mistakes along with the major costs of operating. However Russell also deserves the credit for making the Pony Express as popular and widely used as it was. Other reasons for the failure of the Pony Express were that the United States government made major errors in contracts and payments with Russell's Pony Express as well as Native American uprisings against the riders when they were traveling along the mail routes.

The pony express was the first delivery service to travel almost cross-country from the Pacific Coast to the Missouri River and back. Before the advent of the express, horse drawn wagon carried large quantities of mail the same distance in approximately 20 days. On the other hand, the Pony Express bragged ten-day delivery. In effect, the pony service decreased the time of delivery by half and therefore made people all around the country much more informed. It was now easier for the entire community. The Pony Express helped put the united in United States.

Considering all the reasons for the failure of the Pony Express, the most obvious and devastating has to be the telegraph technology replacing the need for riders and horses to deliver mail by hand. Momentum and progress began to slow measurably the summer of 1861 when work sped up on the East-West telegraph line. One wire-stringing crew advanced west beyond Fort Kearney. The Pony Express soon abandoned service beyond that point. Another crew from Carson City advanced at 25 miles a day. The Gap closed in Salt Lake City on October 24, 1961. Even after the telegraph, the Pony Express continued to make short local runs, but the last piece of mail was delivered on November 20, 1961. The riders moved on to other forms of employment such as Buffalo Bill, who made money off his Wild West show telling tales from his Pony Express rider days. Technology is changing constantly, making procedure more efficient and faster. The Pony Express proved to be the latest technology during the 18 months between 1860 and 1861. Everyone associated with the Pony Express knew that it would not last forever. The United States was less than a century old, and progress moved as swiftly as the Express horses. Wagon trains had replaced steamships. The Pony Express had replaced the wagon train. Surely another operation was bound to replace the Express. That operation is a long wire called the telegraph.

William Russell is credited with the popularity and success of the Pony Express. In most history books, he holds the honor of creating the idea of using riders to deliver mail. However, this was not truly the first time riders had been used for this purpose. There are records of mounted postmen traveling among the thirteen British colonies in America. Even before that, in the early 13th century, Genghis Khan himself used a system to carry important news across his vast territories. (Benson 1) Unlike his predecessors, Russell could not keep his service alive and successful simply because of his method of business. He was known for having no patience for small, hard-won gains and reveled in taking big risks to induce big profits in the shortest time possible. Many examples of this harmful practice can be seen in the creation and running of the Pony Express. For example, the estimated cost of operating was at least $250,000 in the organization and manning of relay stations. In a desperate effort to cover these costs, Russell borrowed heavily on credit from his mutually owned firm and actively sought new members. Another mistake did not make itself evident until after the destruction of the Pony Express. It was when Russell decided to challenge the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, a rival mail service that used the southern route through El Paso, Texas. The Pony Express did not rival the Overland Company directly in literal terms, but they were forced to compete with each other for Government subsidies. To receive these, Russell had to prove that the Pony Express was faster and more efficient. The firm, Russell, Majors & Waddell set up a test run for the government and the people before opening for operation. The extremely risky test run was a great success for Russell and as a result, Russell got the subsidy he wanted and desperately needed.

Even after the subsidy was promised to Russell's Pony Express, the founders knew their service was going to fail eventually. It has been shown that Russell, Majors, and Waddell were nearly bankrupt a full month before the Pony Express had been formed. However, due to Russell's never ceasing stubbornness in business and his personality, his bankruptcy was not a very well known fact. Russell based his service on the hope of money to come. He recklessly overspent and borrowed against money he had not received yet. To assign a number figure to this situation is difficult, as Russell was somewhat sketchy and secretive within his financial notes, to say the least. However, estimations have been made. The cost to equip the line came to an even one hundred thousand dollars. Approximately thirty thousand dollars per month were spent for maintenance of the service. The service was available for a total of 16 months, so another $480,000 can be taken in account. Miscellaneous costs added up to $45,000. These costs make for a total of $625,000. Assuming Russell, Majors, and Waddell were bankrupt, and received approximately $500,000 in governmental receipts and subsidies, the total net worth of the Pony Express mounted mail service is a whopping negative $125,000. Back in 1860, this was a pretty hefty sum. (Bradley 174) This number does not even factor in the war the company was forced to pay for against meddling Indians, which cost them a total of $75,000. This war not only represents the downfall of the Pony Express due to Indians, but also the downfall due to improper government policy.

Early in 1860, just months after the creation of the Pony Express, an Indian tribe began to interfere with the Pony Express riders. This tribe was called the Pah-Utes or Paiutes. Apparently their chief, Old Winnemucca, held a profound hatred of the Western settlers for taking their land and had instructed his warriors to obstruct their lines of communication. However, the Pah-Utes did not act alone. Soon after the Pah-Utes began their onslaught, the Bannocks and Shoshones joined in. With the help of these two tribes, the entirety of the Indian population in Nevada, Eastern California, and Oregon was attacking all passing mail carriers. These attacks resulted in the loss of many riders along with their horses, not to mention the destruction of every rest station between California and Salt Lake. There was no mail service for a few weeks after U.S. Major Ormsby was defeated in the battle of Pyramid Lake. Had it not been for Russell's relentless pursuit of the dollar, the Pony Express may have ended right there. Russell persuaded the government to send eight hundred men to protect the riders as they passed through. Finally, the Indians backed off and express service became available again. It is interesting to note that the total cost of the stolen and destroyed goods was $75,000. The government should have paid for this expense. However, a bill was received by the company for the aforementioned $75,000 for "protection from savages". This type of governmental neglect is inexcusable. Yet Russell never once directly complained to the government. In the back of his mind he truly believed he could make the Pony Express a success.(Bradley 171)

William Russell never gave up on his Pony Express. From the beginning he would make any bargain, deal any deal, and bend any law to further his company. This trait is shown as he, at the very start of his Pony venture, quickly acquired John Hockaday's contract for mail delivery from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City with $120,000 and then the route from Salt Lake City to Placerville. The Pony Express was soon a monopoly in this area, with much responsibility to William Russell. However, problems soon arose when cash became extremely hard to come by. Russell, still buying on credit, tried loans and credit vouchers, but bankers knew he could not afford to pay the money back. Desperate, he proceeded to make a deal with Godard Bailey, a law clerk in the Interior Department and custodian of a fortune in bonds being held in trust for Native American tribes. The plan was that Russell would "borrow" some Indian bonds from Bailey, use them as collateral for loans, and return them as soon as he could pay back the loans. Soon $870,000 worth of bonds was found missing, but the credit vouchers helped to balance it out. However, Russell was arrested. He immediately confessed, knowing he could get back to his dealings more quickly that way. Luckily for himself and the Pony Express, Russell got off punishment on a legal technicality and his crime was forgotten in the heat of the Civil War. However, the consequent loss of the $870,000 caused the Pony Express to go bankrupt. Nevertheless, mere bankruptcy couldn't stop William Russell. He continued to spend lavishly on coaches, horses, and relay stations, losing up to $1000 a day. According to the hopeful Russell, the government was to hand out another large subsidy for the mail service. He was right. Unfortunately for him, Congress gave the money to his rival, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, not the Pony Express. Congress also passed an amendment to ensure there was to be no competition for government subsidies in the future.

Congressmen stated that their biggest reason for switching companies was the bond scandal Russell was involved in. It turns out the biggest blow Russell dealt in his lifetime was to Russell himself, for if it were not for the scandal, he may have received $1 million per year in government subsidies. Partners William Waddell and Alexander Majors chose to let the firm recoup its losses by the slow method of fulfilling contracts. That is, with the exception of Russell. He continued to make quick deals while spending, such as relinquishing the western half of the route to the Butterfield Overland Mail Company to share the government subsidy almost equally. Had Russell been as prudent as the others partners as well as patient, the Pony Express would not have gone bankrupt so quickly.

This was not the only way the government helped in destroying the Pony Express. Along with the troubles of Russell's decisions, the government also contributed in financially straining the Pony Express. The actual incidents dated back to the winter of 1857-1858. The Army was leading a campaign to quell Mormon defiance of federal authority in Utah. Russell, Majors & Waddell had a contract to freight army supplies but discovered that the U.S. government had underbid the firm for another freighting firm, resulting in losses of $493,000. In addition to that, the War Department could not afford to offer any money compensation for this miscalculation. Moreover, the firm had hired thousands of men and oxen to haul these army supplies and to pay them for standing around. With losses such as these to start with before the Pony Express, success was hard to come by.

Another minor but important reason that the Pony Express underwent financial strain was the cost of the operation itself. The St. Joseph to Salt Lake City stage line was refurbished at a great cost on loans and credit, of course, with elegant Concord coaches. The outcome was success in every area with the exception of the most important one. There were no profits. Debts reached an amount of $525, 532. Soon the firm was scrambling for support. They made outrageous promises like ten-day delivery and Russell actually demanded a subsidy from the government. Like always, when Russell became involved, other costs soon arose. The price of the riders' wages, horse feed, and up keeping of relay stations amounted to $38 when customers were only paying $2-$10 a letter. Keeping up with daily expenses was soon difficult.

Not only was financial success a strain, but the search for qualified riders was a desperate task as well. Ads hung on walls often advertised that lightweight, young men were asked to be riders. Orphans were very much preferred with $100-$150 a month. Years of riding experience were a plus. There were even warnings of death on the ads. Teenage boys were often the people that fit the description and the most willing to do a very physical exerting job. The ideal candidate was 20 years old and about 125 lbs. with unusual strength and stamina, as well as an adult sense of responsibility. Relay stations stood about 10-15 miles apart. When the men arrived at the station, 15 seconds was the average time to change a horse and restart a trek to the next station. At an average speed of 12.5 mi/hr., the young men rode through darkness and many other obstacles that threatened their lives every minute. Riders often had to go through extreme weather, hostile Indians, and survive the physical qualifications of riding many miles at a time, all day and night. Between the 190 relay stations and 2000 miles of country, riders often experienced prairie, sandy deserts, and glaring sunlight in the summer. Sparkling snowdrifts, surging rivers, enormous mountain ranges, and alkali wastes were also experienced just to name a few. In fact, Warren Upson, son of the editor of the Sacramento Union newspaper and a rider, was starting for Strawberry Station when it starting snowing. The wind was quite strong and blinded him with snow. More often than not, he had to dismount and actually lead his pony. This situation is a good example of what the riders often had to face throughout the season, traveling across different environments. Another situation was on the flooded Platte River. The horse and rider plunged in, but the horse lost its footing and was dragged downstream. Fortunately, the rider saved the mochila, a saddle bag that carried the mail, and reached the opposite bank, where spectators gave him another horse. Throughout all weather, riders faced life-threatening problems. To ride horses through weather like this required a great rider with a large amount of riding ability and experience. Likewise, the Pony Express riders also had to face not only hazardous weather in delivering mail, but also direct Indian attacks on them. Legendary rider Bob Haslam or "Pony Bob" is famous for holding off an ambush by Pah-Ute Indians single-handedly while being shot at. Aside from all the dangers of weather and Native Americans, just riding the route was very physically and emotionally exhausting. After riding all night, riders got to sleep for a few hours on cots at the relay stations, but were soon up before dawn to ride again. With all the delivery, the riders also suffered from a great amount of loneliness, traveling back and forth across the country. Weather, long hours on horseback, certain physical requirements, Indian attacks, and sometimes thieves and bandits trying to steal their horse or mail, a good qualified young man was often hard to come by. Out of the 80 young men that were hired, 40 more had to replace the boys who found the job too punishing or were killed by Indians.

If one were to suppose that the telegraph was never invented, the Pony Express would most likely have lasted for a longer period of time. However, with time comes change. Surely something else would have been invented that achieved greater efficiency and speed than the Pony Express. The demand of the public would have pushed for it. Even with financial stability and easy employment, the Pony Express could not have lasted forever. The Pony Express marked a remarkable era of growth in the United States. It reflected the growth in the United States' needs as the mass migration to the western half of the country appeared. The Pony Express was a martyr for many things that took place after it was gone. It roughly marked out the path followed by the first transcontinental railroad, proved the superiority of the central route, provided countless stories of dedication and courage, and enriched the whole country. As the old becomes obsolete, new technology always appears seemingly without fault until the next system arrives. This process illustrates the need for new techniques of efficiency in all parts of life, for trials and errors we make in the technology in fact make the next new technology. Failure of the Pony Express was not only inevitable, but also necessary for growth as a nation.

Financial mishaps, riding conditions that tested the limits of 80 young men, and the ever-continuing process of development all predicted the downfall of the Pony Express. The swift rise and fall of the Pony Express is mirrored even in more recent society. An example of this is the switch from artisans to industrialization and factories in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. Artisans were people that had learned a specialized craft from a very young age, such as a blacksmith or butcher. That soon led to factories where workers were arranged in assembly lines and did not have to be skilled at their jobs. Like the Pony Express, the artisan was a short era in which that was the latest so-called technology. However, something that provided for a populating country's needs was soon derived from the artisan. This relates to the Pony Express as a part of the chain in American transportation history. The United States' main mode of transportation through history has gone from the pony to the wagon train, then to stage coaches, trains, to cars, and finally to airplanes. Technology is the need to make humans' lives easier and convenient.

The termination of the Pony Express in October of 1861 was greeted with a considerable level of melancholy, proving the service's value in the hearts and minds of the American public. Americans had marveled at the attributes of the riders and in turn viewed the Pony Express service as an almost human entity. In the closing days of the service, the Sacramento Daily Bee lamented:

Nothing that has blood and sinews was able to overcome your energy and ardor; but a senseless, soulless thing that eats not, sleeps not, tires not- a thing that cannot distinguish space... has encompassed, overthrown and rooted you. This is no disgrace, for flesh and blood cannot always war against the elements. (DiCerto 59-60)

The author spoke for America in general when he bid goodbye to a "friend" that had done his "duty" by winning the West for the Union but was now being overcome by the transcontinental telegraph line (DiCerto 59-60). This source clearly shows the extreme to which the service was romanticized and marks the point in history when the legend was born.

The Pony Express had started as simply a quick solution to a major problem. Its creators had envisioned nothing more from their service than a rapid influx of profit. Unfortunately, this quick solution, badly manufactured, led to anything but profit. The founders lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a period of only sixteen months. Ironically, the failures were mostly the fault of founder William Russell, yet the Pony Express never could have been the success it was without his schemes. These failures were financially related for the most part. However, Russell was taken advantage of by the government, who never paid their supposedly promised subsidy to help pay for the upcoming Civil War. Countless people made the Pony Express possible. They poured their souls into making it a success to help a country in need of better means of communication. Little did they know how far-reaching the impact they would have on Western ideas for the rest of time. Little did they know that the heroic riders would forever be the objects of romantic reminiscence and idealism for generations of Americans to come. Little did they know that the Pony Express, which was only able to survive in this ever-changing society for sixteen months, would still survive as a legend today.

Works Cited:

Benson, Joseph. The Traveler's Guide to Pony Express. Helena, Montana: Falcon Press, 1995

Bloss, Roy S. Pony Express - The Great Gamble. California:Berkeley Howell North, 1959

Bowyer, Matthew J., They Carried the Mail: A Survey of Postal History and Hobbies.Washington - New York: Robert B. Luce, INC, 1972.

Bradley,Glenn D. The Story of the Pony Express. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Gryphon Books, 1971

Chapman, Arthur. The Pony Express: The Record of a Romantic Adventure in Business. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, INC, 1971.

Crews, Tom. The Pony Express Home Station. Online. Internet. 2 Decemeber 1999. Available:

DiCerto, Joseph J. The Pony Express: Hoofbeats in the Wilderness. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.

Alex Dawson is a sophomore at North Central HS in Indianapolis, Indiana. He says

"loved the site.... Feel free to use attached essay - keep in mind I'm not exactly a scholar - just a sophomore in HS.... In other words, don't quote me on this stuff."

December 1999