“Wanted: Young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” In 1860, this ad appeared on posters advertising openings for one of the most dangerous, heroic jobs in American history, the Pony Express rider. From April 1860 to October 1861, dozens of brave young riders carried the U.S. mail by horseback on the Pony Express Trail , 1,800 miles between Sacramento, California and St. Louis, Missouri. Within eighteen months, three rider died. Today, Highway 50 roughly parallels the route of the Pony Express Trail.
Young Pony Express riders sat atop the fastest horses available and carried the mail in a special pouch saddle called a “mochila.” Each Pony Express rider would cover a certain distance to a relay station, where the next would grab the mochila and continue the journey across the Pony Express, until two thousand miles of wilderness had been crossed. Because speed was so important and extra weight avoided, the Pony Express riders were usually small men or boys armed with pistols instead of a rifle. Conflict with Native Americans, gangs of robbers and other troublemakers were common, and numerous riders died in the line of duty along the Pony Express Trail.
The Pony Express Trail was important to America in many ways. First, and most obviously, it filled an urgent need of its time. By 1860, the citizens of California were no longer willing to remain cut off from their families and friends back East, or from the news of the nation. The Pony Express Trail, if only for a short time, connected California and much of the rest of the West with the motherland, and in doing so the Pony Express Trail solidified the bond and confirmed the West’s identity as part of the United States.
The Pony Express Trail was a product of its times, not only in its purpose but in the sheer daring of its inception and execution. The sense of bravado that permeated mid-nineteenth-century America was apparent in the Pony Express riders, of course, but less apparent was the financial bravado of its creators and inventors.
There are many stories of the brave Pony Express riders who rode around the clock carrying the U.S. Mail across the wilderness. They remind us that the settlement of the West was made possible by people of great character and foresight. These Pony Express riders were ready to make the supreme sacrifice for their country.