In the years between the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the beginning of the Civil War, only about 2 percent of the entire population of the United States lived in the West and Southwest; two-thirds of those lived in California.
If you lived in California during that period, to get a letter in the mail could take forever. Homesick young men who were separated from their families and working in the gold fields could wait from three or four weeks to six months for news from home, by which time, of course, the news could be hopelessly out of date.
Most letters coming from the East would travel in wagons along a meandering, 2700-mile-long trail called the Butterfield Overland Mail Company Route. It went southwest from St. Louis, meandered down to El Paso, then up through California to San Francisco; it was more commonly known as the Oxbow Route. Other letters went by steamships down the Atlantic coast to Panama, crossed the isthmus by mule train or railroad, and then traveled up the Pacific coast. Another route went around Cape Horn; this method could take six months, depending on the weather.
Letters were delivered to the miners by entrepreneurial independent mail contractors. These operations were nothing more than a man, his mule, and a 100-pound sack of mail. The amateur mailman would pick up the mail from the post office in Sacramento or San Francisco, and then ride through the country from one mining operation to another searching for the recipients of the letters. Grateful miners would pay for the letters in gold dust, sometimes as much as an ounce per letter; the equivalent today would be more than $300 per letter. (One of these entrepreneurs, Alexander H. Todd, accumulated $250,000 worth of gold dust in this way; in today’s value, over $4.5 million.)
Other miners, impatient for news, would leave their holdings in the hills and come down to the cities to wait for the arrival of the mail steamers. They would wait in line at the Post Office for days, or pay other men to wait for them. Some would pay quantities of gold dust for better places in line, and some opportunists would stand in line even if they weren’t expecting mail, just so they could sell their spot.
Because mail delivery was so sketchy, alternative methods were tried. Two men, George Chorpenning and Absolom Woodward, contracted with the US Postal Service to haul mail from Sacramento to Salt Lake City on mules; Woodward was killed en route by Indians, and Chorpenning completed the trip, then spent the rest of his life petitioning Congress for compensation. Then the government tried camels; seventy-five were purchased in Saudi Arabia for the purpose. But the rocky terrain proved too hard on their hooves, and westerners could not get the hang of working with the unfamiliar beasts. The camels terrified horses and mules; just the smell of a camel could cause a stampede. Some of the camels wandered off into the wilderness, never to be seen again; the rest were eventually sold to circuses.
During the same period, virtually all overland freight service in the US was provided by a company called Russell, Majors & Waddell. They were famous, the FedEx of their day. Goods were shipped by them on miles-long trains of Conestoga wagons pulled by oxen. In the spring of 1860, inspired by a spectacular feat of horsemanship, the company decided to get into the mail delivery game.
A decade earlier, a horseman named Francis Xavier Aubery had completed a series of heroic one-man cross country rides that made him famous in his day. Using a relay of horses, he was able to make the trip from Santa Fe to Independence in less than two weeks; his fastest trip took only five days and thirteen hours. It was a trip that normally took two or three months. The feat, which he performed on a thousand-dollar bet, nearly killed him, and he slept for twenty hours after his arrival.
In 1860, Russell, Majors & Waddell became convinced that expert riders on good horses could replicate Aubery’s feat and provide high-speed mail delivery to the West. Their plan was to use a relay system and deliver the mail day or night, in all weather, in ten days or less. They established a subsidiary business for this purpose, calling it the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. We remember it today as the Pony Express.
Although men wagered that the feat was impossible, the Pony Express was miraculously successful in its mission. Riders would change every one hundred miles, handing off the twenty-pound “mochila” full of letters to the next rider, who would resume the trip. It cost five dollars to send a letter by this method.
The Pony Express operated for about eighteen months, until the fall of 1861, when the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made the whole venture, and the whole problem of mail delivery in the West, suddenly a thing of the past.