Pony Express Historical Timeline

January 24, 1848: Gold is discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill by James W. Marshall. While people on the west coast were clamoring to get rich, poor communication to the east would delay the so called “49ers” gold rush from that part of the country for 16 months. The U.S. government did not even confirm the existence of the find until December, 1848. Over the next several years, especially in 1849, 300,000 people would come to California seeking their fortune panning for gold or supplying certain means to miners.

Forty-Niner Gold Prospector (left) & Artist Rendering of Sutter’s Mill (right)

September 9, 1850: California enters the union as a free non-slavery state. California became the 31st state. Pressure mounts from citizens, businesses, and miners alike for its elected U.S. government representatives to get faster communication between the east and the west.

1853: William Russell and William Waddell form Waddell & Russell to deliver military supplies for the U.S. Government to the western territories from Leavenworth, Kansas.

1854: Benjamin Ficklin, an employee for the firm, travels with California senior Senator William Gwin while heading east. Ficklin suggests the use of fast horses, riders and relay stations to deliver mail in less time to California. Gwin proposes a bill to congress for the government to provide the mail service. But, the bill never gets out of committee.

January 1, 1855: Alexander Majors joins the firm as a partner. The firm is renamed Russell, Majors and Waddell. The firm would soon monopolize western freighting and start a mail-passenger service to both Colorado and Utah by stagecoach. The Mormon War in 1857 would almost bankrupt the firm due to losses from stolen or destroyed equipment and supplies.

July 1859: Gold is discovered at Pikes Peak. Russell starts up a stagecoach passenger service to Denver. But, the service is too costly for most people heading to the the Rockies in search of gold. The service becomes a failure.

December 1859: While in Washington D.C., Senator Gwin proposes to Russell a demonstration of a fast-mail delivery by a pony express along the central overland route. Wanting a mail contract from the government, Russell embraces the idea and convinces his partners to go along with the venture.

January-March, 1860: The firm sets out to establish the Pony Express mail service under the name of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company. On March 2nd, St. Joseph, Missouri was chosen as the eastern terminus while everyone already knew Sacramento would be the western terminus. St. Joseph was the perfect choice since it was connected to the east by railroads and the telegraph. The firm set up the route that would travel from Missouri, through Kansas, and now known as Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Benjamin Ficklin was hired as superintendent of the route. Ficklin set up the route into five divisions and hired superintendents to run each division. Stationkeepers, stocktenders and riders were hired along the route. Over 400 horses are purchased and relay stations are built and staffed 10-15 miles apart. At relay stations, riders would change horses. Home stations were 90-120 miles apart where riders would change and rest. In March it had been announced the rider would leave St. Joseph and Sacramento on April 3rd and deliver the mail in a record ten days.

April 3, 1860: The first rider was to leave St. Joseph at 5:00 pm. However, the mail had been slowed up in Chicago for transfer to Hannibal, Missouri. A train was stripped down with no passenger cars at Hannibal. Once the mail arrived there, the train rolled across the state at a record speed to St. Joseph. It finally arrived around 7:00 pm and the mail was rushed to the stables where the first rider, Johnny Fry awaited. The mail was placed into the specially made mochilla saddle and at 7:15 pm a cannon was fired alerting everyone Fry was on his way to the river. Cheering crowds waived at Fry as he made his way through streets of St. Joseph. Once at the river, Fry boarded a ferry which took him and his horse Sylph across the river to Kansas where he rode at breakneck speeds for 90 miles before another rider took over. In Sacramento, at noon, the first rider, Harry Roff, took off with the eastbound mail.

Johnny Fry

April 14, 1860: Riders arrived in both St. Joseph and Sacramento with the mail. Proving the mail could be delivered in ten days. Throngs of people turned out in both cities. The mail arrived in St. Joseph at 5:00 pm while the mail arrived in Sacramento shortly after midnight on the same day. From this point, the riders would continue up river to San Francisco by ferry making the latter city the end of the route.

April 18, 1860: A rider leaving San Francisco to head east was killed. Traveling at a great speed at night, the rider’s horse stumbled over an ox lying in the road, throwing the rider. The horse fell upon the rider badly crushing him. He died a short time later.

May 7, 1860: While Russell, Majors and Waddell were enjoying their successful enterprise, an incident at Williams Station in Nevada would occur to disrupt the mail service. A Paiute Indian was brutalized and the incident ended with four white men dead at the hands of the Paiutes that same day. The incident sparked the Pyramid Lake War and the ensuing hostilities would put major delays on mail delivery. Indians attacked Pony Express stations throughout May and most of June because they were easy targets. The military was brought in to escort riders for a time. The route from Diamond Springs station and Carson Valley were shut down for a time because of hostilities. Russell, Majors and Waddell suffered over $70,000 dollars in losses due to the war. Many employees at the stations lost their lives due to attacks.

May 9, 1860: Pony Bob Haslam, a Pony Express rider, makes a historic run of 380 miles back and forth once between Friday’s station and Smith’s Creek station. This was a dangerous ride for Haslam. The Paiutes were attacking stations along his route. At Buckland’s station, a rider, Johnson Richardson, refused to ride because of the danger. This is the only time a rider ever refused to run his route. Feeling duty bound, Haslam ran the extra route. Richardson was branded a coward.

Pony Bob Haslam

June 16,1860: Congress authorizes a bill instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the building of a transcontinental telegraph line connecting the west coast to the Missouri River.

June 25, 1860: With Indian hostilities lessening, mail was delivered to California from St. Joseph without delay. But throughout July, the military continued escorting riders in the Nevada-Utah deserts.

July 1860: A rider is killed while trying to cross the Platte River in Nebraska. The mail was never recovered.
August 1860: A rider is presumed dead when only his horse arrived at the Carson City station.

August 11, 1860: More Indian attacks started around Egan Canyon, Schell Creek and Dry Creek stations. Fortunately, the U.S. Cavalry was nearby and was able to ward off the attacks before anyone was killed.

November 7, 1860: Pony Express riders carried word of Abraham Lincoln’s election as President from Fort Kearney, Nebraska to Placerville, California in a record 5 days. This was considered one of the most significant accomplishments by the Pony Express.

President Abraham Lincoln

December 1860: An inexperienced rider of German ancestry freezes to death after losing his way near Fort Kearney, Nebraska.

December 20, 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union.

December 24, 1860: A surprised William Russell is arrested on Christmas Eve for suspicion of embezzlement by a U.S. Marshall in New York City. He had been accused of borrowing bonds from the Indian Trust Fund worth $870,000 dollars and using them to get loans. Russell was transported to Washington D.C. and bail is set at $500,000 dollars. Not able to pay bail, Russell is remanded to jail.

January 11, 18, and 23, 1861: Russell voluntarily appeared before a select congressional committee investigating the case. He submitted a written statement that discussed the reasons why he used the bonds to secure acceptances against them.

January 29 1861: Russell is indicted by a grand jury for the District of Columbia for cheat, defraud and impoverishing the United States. Goddard Bailey, the man who loaned Russell the bonds, was also indicted including Secretary of War John B. Floyd. Floyd was indicted because his signature was on the bonds. Russell is saved from prosecution because the approaching Civil War interfered with the case. During January, one state after another voted to secede from the Union. That made the country focus on these events as opposed to the bond scandal. Eventually the indictment was quashed. Kansas becomes the 34th slave-free State of the Union.

March 2, 1861: Congress and President Buchanan agree to spend $800,000 dollars to keep the Pony Express going despite the woes of Russell, Majors and Waddell. However, the government ordered the firm to hand over the western half of the route to the Overland Mail Company who operated the Butterfield Line in the south. The Union would not pay any company on a mail contract that would take the route through a state that has seceded. In this case, specifically Arkansas and Texas. The government still had 2 years left on O.M.C.’s contract and had to work a deal that would serve both companies.

March 4, 1861: President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address is telegraphed to Fort Kearney in the Nebraska Territory and the Pony Express delivers it to Placerville, California to be telegraphed along the west coast. Rider, Pony Bob Haslam, carried the Inaugural Address on his run and was attacked by Indians. Wounded, Haslam completed the 120 mile run in a record 8 hours and 20 minutes.

Lincoln’s Inaugural Address in Washington D.C.

March 11, 1861: Russell is released from jail on a “technicality of the law” over the bond scandal. None of the bonds were recovered. The government was forced to reimburse the Indian Trust Fund to the tune of $759,525.56.

April 12, 1861: South Carolina troops fire on Forth Sumter. Within days Lincoln declares a “state of insurrection” which in affect is a state of war. In California and along the route not yet connected by telegraph, westerners eagerly await news from the Pony Express on the Civil War in the east.

April 15, 1861: Russell orders the San Francisco and Sacramento offices of the C.O.C. & PP Express Company to be turned over to Wells Fargo & Company. Wells Fargo becomes the temporary agent for the western route until the Overland Mail Company takes over in July.

April 26, 1861: Under pressure, Russell resigns as president of the C.O.C & P.P. Express Company.

May 1861: Pony Express rider Johnny Fry quits and joins Union forces in Kansas as a courier. Fry would later be killed in a shootout with Missouri raiders near Baxter Springs, Kansas. Due to growing problems with north and south sentiments in St. Joseph, public schools are shut down until October, 1864.

July 1, 1861: Overland Mail Company takes over the western half of the Pony Express route from Wells Fargo.

July 12, 1861: Working as a stocktender for the Rock Creek Pony Express station, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok is confronted by station owner David McCanles over unpaid rent from Russell, Majors and Waddell. A gunfight ensued and three men, including McCanles, were shot dead. Both Hickok and the stationkeeper, Horace Wellman, were charged with murder. A judge later acquitted both.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

July 26, 1861: Telegraph reaches Fort Churchill in Nevada from the west and a few miles west of Fort Kearney, Nebraska from the east. This reduces the Pony Express run to seven days.

August 1, 1861: Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) encounters a Pony Express rider in western Nebraska. The account would later be written down in Twain’s book “Roughing It”.

August 13, 1861: By this date, Pony Express news was being telegraphed to San Francisco a whole two days before Pony Express letters would arrive.

September 18, 1861: The telegraph is extended westward from Fort Kearney 100 miles. Pony Express riders would take the messages to Julesburg, Colorado. The messages were sent to a telegraph station 250 miles west. There, Pony Express riders would take the messages to the next telegraph station coming from the west. From there, the messages were dispatched to San Francisco.

October 24, 1861: Both the east and west coast are finally linked up by the trans-continental telegraph line.

October 24, 1861: The Pony Express is discontinued. Many Californians preferred the Pony Express as opposed to slower stagecoach service. Unfortunately, the government contract stipulated the service be discontinued after the Overland Telegraph Company completed its construction of the telegraph line. Many claimed the new service is unreliable when breaks occurred in the line.

 

Historical Notes

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody claims to have been a rider for the Pony Express around the Julesburg, Colorado area. He probably did more to contribute to the legend of the Pony Express by showcasing it in his wild west show. According to Alexander Major’s book, “70 Years on the Frontier”, there is hardly any mention of Cody except that he served as a messenger for Majors. However, Cody did help pay for publishing the book and wrote a forward at the beginning of the book.

Billy Fisher was a rider from the Salt Lake City area. In the winter of 1861, While making his run, Fisher encountered a blinding blizzard. Fisher was tired from the effects of the storm. At one point, he dismounted and sat down by a tree. He started to fall asleep. Then, something jumped on his legs and started licking him in the face. Fisher was awakened and found a rabbit staring him in the face. The moment startled Fisher and the rabbit scampered away. Fisher said if the rabbit hadn’t did what it did, he may have never woke up and might have froze to death in his sleep. He called it an act of providence. Fisher’s great great grandson William Fisher is also an adventurer of a sort. He is an astronaut and flew in the space shuttle.

Pony Express Rider, Billy and Great Great Grandson Astronaut William F. Fisher

Bronco Charlie Miller claims to have been the youngest rider for the Pony Express. One day in Sacramento, a rider was needed. Miller says his father told the stationkeeper his 11-year old son knows the route and helped him on the horse ushering him off. Miller said he was then hired as a rider. Miller, along with Pony Bob Haslam and other riders, would go on to work in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He claims to be the last Pony Express rider before it shut down and did outlive all other riders dying at the age of 105 in 1955.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok never worked as a rider and only worked as a stocktender. Reason being, he was older and heavier than the other riders. The incident at Rock creek station was the beginning of a career for Hickok as a gunfighter, lawman and gambler. He was good friends with Buffalo Bill and did perform in his Wild West Show for a brief period. Hickok would later move to Deadwood, South Dakota where he would be murdered while playing cards in a saloon.

(L – R) Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundo, Buffalo Bill Cody

Benjamin F. Ficklin quit his job with Russell, Majors and Waddell as general superintendent for the Pony Express three months after it started and worked for a telegraph company for a short period. He joined the Confederate army and became an officer and was a hero. Plagued by asthma, Ficklin took a desk job and was sent to England to buy war materials for the Confederacy. A month before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the Confederacy sent Ficklin to Washington to see President Lincoln. While he waited for an audience, Lincoln was assassinated. Ficklin was arrested and was thought to be a conspirator and sent to jail for two months. He was finally cleared of complicity in the assassination of Lincoln. Four years after starting a mail and stage service in Texas, Ficklin returned to Washington on business. He was having dinner when a fish bone became lodged in his throat. While a doctor was trying to remove it, the forceps slipped and cut an artery. On March 10, 1871, Ficklin who was involved in the thick of things from the War with Mexico, overland freight and stage travel, the Pony Express, the telegraph, the Civil War, and Lincoln’s assassination – bled to death.

Benjamin F. Ficklin

Russell, Majors and Waddell’s firm fell apart eventually after the end of the Pony Express. In March 1862, stagecoach king Ben Holladay took over the company. Waddell returned home to Lexington, Missouri. Broke and terribly in debt, Waddell sold his home to his son for one dollar and continued to live there. Waddell was badly affected by one of his son’s death during the Civil War. William B. Waddell never worked in business again and died on April 1, 1872. The 48-year-old Russell went to New York and failed as a stockbroker because of the bond scandal. No one would trust him. Russell filed bankruptcy on April 3rd, 1865. Exactly five years since the first rider left St. Joseph. His assets were sold off to pay creditors. He returned to Missouri by way of family because of failing health. William H. Russell died at the age of 60 on September 10, 1872. Alexander Majors faired a little better than his other partners. But, not by much. In 1865, living in Kansas City, Majors sold what assets he had left and moved to Colorado. 30-years later, his old wagonmaster and Pony Express rider, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody came for a visit. He found Majors old, in poor health and penniless. Cody helped Majors publish his book, “70 Years on the Frontier” and wrote a foreword in it. Cody also put Majors in his Wild West Show and allowed him to stay at his Scouts’ Rest Ranch in Nebraska. Majors returned to Kansas City and died on January 13, 1900.

Alexander Majors was a religious and temperate man and required all his employees to take an oath and expected them to abide by it. Specifically, the oath below was written for employees of the Pony Express.

Riders Taking The Oath (R -L)Johnny Fry, His Brother, Joseph Fry, and Step Brother, Benton Wells

Pony Express Oath: “I,………..,do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while 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 any other 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 as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”

All Photos Courtesy of St. Joseph Museums, Inc., Pony Express Museum, National Archives, U.S. Library of Congress, St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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