Long Riders of the Pony Express

They came from all over the frontier. Small men mostly, lean and hard muscled,smelling of sweat and wearing horse manure on their boots. They had names like "Bronco Charlie" Miller, "Sawed Off Jim" Cumbo, and "Deadwood Dick" Clarke. They wanted a job and it was fiercely competitive. Only 80 men would ride at any one time and there were hundreds of applicants. The successful candidates were required to take an oath. An odd oath really. It was to a communications company.

The founders of the company, William H Russell, William B Waddell, and Alexander Majors, insisted on it. It spoke to the ethics of the founders, the nature of the business and the problems of the frontier. "I ……, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with another employee of the firm and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God."

Those chosen took a last swig of whiskey, gave up their colorful language and went to work as Pony Express riders. The route carried them 1,966 miles across the west from St Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. They made the journey using 500 horses, each running 5 to 20 miles depending on the difficulty of the geography. Morgans, Pintos, Thoroughbreds and Mustangs were the preferred mounts, chosen for endurance and capable of the short bursts of speed necessary to avoid danger. The riders were instructed to use their speed and avoid fighting.

Most carried few weapons. A belt knife and a Colt 36 caliber Navy revolver was the usual arsenal. Anything else was too heavy. Special saddles and a lightweight saddlebag to carry the mail called a "mochila" completed the outfit. Saddle and mochila full of letters weighed around 13 pounds. At a relay station, the rider had two minutes to change horses, transfer the mochila and be on his way. Using this system it was possible for a rider to cover 75 miles a day although 125 mile rides were not uncommon. A spent rider rested at a relay station while a fresh rider took his place. The next day, the rested rider would return to his original station transporting mail in the other direction. They performed this duty enduring thunderstorms, blizzards and scorching heat, while avoiding the occasional bandit and hostile Indians. Their reward: an average salary of 100 dollars a month.

It was not the money that kept them in the saddle. From April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861, when the last letter was delivered, they had created an American legend. Famous westerners like "Wild Bill" Hickok worked for the Pony Express but as a stablemen, not as a rider. William F "Buffalo Bill" Cody did ride but many of his boasted exploits lack verification. For the most part though, they were everyday people. They went on to lead normal lives, but the romance of working for the Pony Express had made them forever special. As time passed they spoke fondly of their youthful adventure to eager listeners who lamented the passing of the American frontier and occasionally resented the technology that brought its demise. The era ended in 1955 when "Bronco Charlie" Miller, the last living rider, passed away at the advanced age of 105 years.

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