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Monday, April 20, 2015

The Pony Express in Stamps

As a retired rural letter carrier for the United States Postal Service, I feel a certain connection to the Pony Express riders of yester-yore. Although my “ride” was a right-hand drive surplus government jeep (later a RHD Subaru) instead of a horse, and my risk of being attacked came in the form of aggressive guard dogs instead of hostile Indians, I also rode many miles for long hours day after day to deliver the mail. I also developed a love for stamp artwork, although my personal collection is limited.

The Pony Express began operations on April 3, 1860 and ended eighteen months later in October, 1861. It was organized by the owners of Russell, Majors & Waddell, the overland transportation and communications service started in 1854 to supply military posts. They knew the Pony Express would be of short duration due to the rapid expansion of railroad and telegraph services, but it turns out it ended because the parent company was failing.
Pony Express marker by Fort Laramie, WY

Between losses on the Pony Express and their other shipping services, Russell, Majors & Waddell went bankrupt in 1862.

However in the months leading up to the start of the Pony Express, California was still a fairly new state in the Union that was separated by the railroads east of the Mississippi that connected to this nation’s capital by miles of sparsely-inhabited territories. The Civil War loomed on the horizon, many residents in both California and Oregon had come from the South and advocated for slavery, and, although the big placer gold strikes in California were all but over, there was a lot of wealth in that state that the Union did not want to fall to Southern interests. The Union (with its military forts) needed a speedy means of communication to keep tabs on what was happening on both sides of the continent.

  Based on the advertisement for riders, Russell, Majors & Waddell understood this was a high-risk job. Still, it attracted 80 riders including fifteen year-old William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. 
At the time they were hired, each rider was given a Bible and required to sign a pledge promising not to swear, drink alcohol, or fight with other employees.

The riders carried the mail in a four-pocket pack called a mochilla. It fit over the saddle and was quickly transferred to one horse to the next. The letters inside were wrapped in oil silk to protect them from moisture.

The route started in St. Joseph, Missouri and roughly followed the California/Oregon trail traveled by the freighting operation until it arrived in Sacramento. From there, mail was sent by steamer to San Francisco. Each rider rode approximately 75 miles per day between 184 stations set up into five districts. The mail was able to travel this entire route in ten days.


Robyn Echols writes using the pen name, Zina Abbott. Visit the Zina Abbott's Amazon Author Page HERE.

Big Meadows Valentine, the first novella in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series is available on Amazon Kindle HERE and on Nook HERE . The second novella in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, A Resurrected Heart, is available on Amazon Kindle HERE and on Nook HERE.


  1. For such a short term in our history, the Pony Express was certainly one of the most iconic and romantic. Talk about a dangerous job--wow! I loved all these images, Robyn. They are so beautiful. I didn't know that bankruptcy is what actually ended the Pony Express. I thought the railroad ended it. There is still nothing as intimate and touching as a handwritten card or letter. Wonderful blog.

  2. Thank you, Sarah. The telegraph came before the railroad to replace the Pony Express. It was up in most places during Civil War times. My great-grandfather's CW service took place in a unit tasked with protecting the telegraph from Fort Bridger going west. The acts signed by Pres. Lincoln authorizing the transcontinental RR I think came later in the CW and construction didn't start until after. I haven't researched that lately and don't have the timeline at the forefront of my memory. That is another blog post--maybe one I'll write for next month since that same great-grandfather was also called upon to work for the Union Pacific as it moved through the Rockies and he was present at the Golden Spike ceremony.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

  3. Love these stamps! And that job wanted poster is too funny.

  4. I've seen that advertisement for riders several times, and I still get a kick out of it. "Orphans preferred." :-D

    Pony Express rider must have been a difficult job, but I'll bet those boys loved it. I hope they were paid well.

  5. Loved this post, and the artwork, wonderful. Our fascination with the challenge faced by the company and its riders will be with us for years. Thank you for a great overview. Doris McCraw

  6. Oh, Robyn! What a wonderful post this is! I used to collect stamps with my dad "back in the day". It would have been one of the toughest jobs around, being a Pony Express rider. I can't even imagine it. Thanks for such a wonderful post!