AMONG THE MOST REVERED IMAGES IN AMERICAN HISTORY is the rugged, courageous rider on horseback who braves the elements and risks death every day as a part of his job. He is the Pony Express rider, and he is responsible for helping to define an entire era in America: the bold, colorful Old West.
Alexander Majors, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell founded the Pony Express in 1860.At the time, mail was carried either by stagecoach or by a ship that traveled south, through the Isthmus of Panama and back north to San Francisco. The entire process could take longer than one month — the people of Los Angeles did not find out that California was admitted to the Union until six weeks after it was official!
Majors, Russell and Waddell reduced delivery time to less than ten days by hiring riders to ride day and night with the mailbag, called the mochila, through the most dangerous of weather and terrain. They would ride about 80 miles at a time and pass stations every 12-15 miles. At each of these stations, they would transfer the mochila to a new horse and take off again. After their miles were up, the mochila was passed on to a new rider.
The Pony Express connected the eastern part of America with the west quicker and more efficiently than ever before. As people crossed the country in search of good fortune and opportunity, the Express helped them to stay in touch with family and friends that they had left behind. It also enabled the spread of political news during the tumultuous days prior to the Civil War.
Riders delivered approximately 35,000 letters between April 1860 and October 1861. At the height of its popularity, one-fifth of the 2000-mile Pony Express trail cut through Wyoming. The state was also home to 39 of the 200 Pony Express stations, including the one at Fort Caspar, located a stone’s throw from modern Casper, Wyoming.
An American Icon
Rick Young, director of the Fort Caspar Museum (307-235-8462), says that the Pony Express riders were expected to be shoe-leather tough — a characteristic you’d expect from one particularly famous rider. “Most people believe that Buffalo Bill Cody was a rider in the Pony Express,” says Young.
Legend has it that once, after leaving his home station in Red Buttes with the mochila, Cody learned that his relief rider had been killed. Undaunted, Cody delivered the mochila, covering over 300 miles in under 22 hours, using 21 horses. The terrain he covered spanned what was known to be the most dangerous part of the trail.
As with all legends, Young explains that certain elements of the Cody story may have been exaggerated — even the notion of Buffalo Bill Cody as a Pony Express rider has been questioned by some historians. But, as Young points out, Cody featured the Pony Express in his Wild West Show for 30 years, helping to make the Pony Express an American icon.
Against All Odds
Perhaps more than anyone else, Buffalo Bill Cody embodies the spirit of the west. “A lot of the artwork depicting the Pony Express shows a lone rider against the wilderness or pursued by hostile tribes — the individual in triumph against the odds,” Young says. Reconnecting with that frontier spirit is as easy as visiting the Fort Caspar Muesum, the National Historic Trails Center or any one of the many historical sites that surround the Adventure Capital. “We see ourselves as rugged individualists in a place where good triumphs over evil, perhaps longing for a simpler time.”Click here for a Pony Express map.