150th Anniversary of Pony Express
National Historic Trail Preserves Missouri-to-California Route
WASHINGTON, DC – Hooves pound the earth. Sunlight flashes off a bit. Dust billows around two figures as they pass in a blur: black manes, brown flanks. Rawhide chaps, sturdy leather saddles. Locked mochillas. Black tails streaming behind.
If you had waited along the route of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, between April 1860 and October 1861, such horse-and-rider teams might have hurtled past you as they delivered the transcontinental mail, one mochilla—leather knapsack with mail pouches—at a time.
The Pony Express started mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, in April 1860. It lasted 18 months, until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Pony Express National Historic Trail keeps alive the memory of this 19 th-century communication system while providing places for outdoor recreation. While the National Park Service (NPS) administers the trail, trail segments are managed by other agencies and individuals, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, state and local governments, and private landowners. The Pony Express National Historic Trail, established in 1992, is one of 17 National Historic Trails administered by the NPS.
“We take pride in our stewardship of the trail and in educating people about the Pony Express, which was an impressive example of teamwork,” said NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. “Correspondence moved across the western half of the country thanks to human—and human-equine—cooperation.”
A network of stations gave support to riders on their way through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Letters, newspapers, and telegrams traversed the West by way of “the Pony,” the brief lifespan of which encompassed the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of the Civil War. The Pony Express brought Lincoln’s inaugural address to California, which remained part of the Union because of the policies the new president set forth. Some scholars argue that without the gold fields of California, the Union would not have been able to finance its full participation in the Civil War.
Two commemorative events held in Washington, DC, this week for the 150th anniversary of the Pony included a lunchtime forum at the National Postal Museum on April 14 and a color-guard presentation of letters from the National Pony Express Association at Senate Park, just north of the U.S.
Capitol, at 1 p.m. today. The letters are addressed to each senator and representative from the states and districts along the trail. Over 20 members of the National Pony Express Association came from many states to participate in both DC events. Horses from Pennsylvania ensured that the creatures vital to the Pony Express were visible at today’s symbolic distribution of mail.
The Pony Express held the nation together in a time of crisis, facilitated east-west communication, and left an indelible mark on American culture.
Romanticized and mythologized by “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, the Pony Express has ridden into our collective idea of the frontier. The Pony’s messengers and their galloping mounts embody adventure, stamina, commitment to duty, and national pride.