[Some of our readers]The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1112, p. 386-387.
October 12, 1861
Some of our readers may possibly be puzzled, when reading American news, to find most important intelligence from California, Oregon, British Columbia, and the Pacific side of the continent of North America contained in a short paragraph headed "By Pony Express;" and the questions naturally arise, What is meant by a pony express? where does it come from? where does it go? and why is it a pony express, and not a horse, or a stagecoach, or a railway express? For the purpose of giving some information on this point, our Special Artist has taken the trouble to visit the locale of the pony express, to see it arrive and depart at its eastern terminus, and also to get a view of it enroute on the plains.
The great importance of maintaining rapid communication between the States of the American Union situated on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards has long been felt, and numerous projects for connecting them by railways have been continually before Congress, but to the present time scarcely anything has been done either towards the railway or telegraph. Between the Missouri River and California—a distance of 2000 miles—there exists a huge wilderness of prairies, arid plains, mountains, forests, and two huge mountain-chains—the Rocky and the Cascade Ranges. Through the whole of this must an Atlantic and Pacific railway be carried when it is made, if it be made through the United States' Territory. The railway works were extraordinary in perforating and climbing the Alleghanies. Railways are now being made through the mountains in India, and in other places where tremendous obstacles have to be overcome, yet on none of the lines made or being made do such formidable barriers exist as are found between the Atlantic and Pacific States of the American Union. The present unhappy state of affairs—the waste of war—is draining the national exchequer dry, and deferring to a distant date the completion of the most important work the United States' Government has had in hand since the declaration of independence—the binding their eastern and western territory together with a band of iron.
Mr. W. H. Russell, of the firm of Russell, Major, and Waddel, extensive Government contractors for the conveyance of stores overland to the States on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, having observed the daily-increasing importance of a more rapid means of communication than then existed, hit upon the exceedingly bold idea of running a pony express from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, carrying a telegram from New York, or any other part of the States, to San Francisco in eight days, and a letter in thirteen. Those who knew the country through which the express must pass shook their heads, and said it would never do; the route was far north, the winter severe, the roads impassable, the snow lying often fifteen feet deep on the ground. It then took 115 days to make a quick passage between New York and San Francisco.
Mr. Russell was not the man to set aside a plan he had made up his mind he could carry out by any multiplication of difficulties: he therefore prepared to make the attempt. First he built stations all along the route and stocked them well and plentifully, then engaged a corps of fearless and trustworthy riders, and purchased about six hundred horses, the very best that money could procure. Having done all this and a great deal more that was necessary, on April 9, 1860, two ponies started simultaneously, one from San Francisco, and the other from St. Joseph, on the Missouri; and, although the season was most unfavourable, the mud being in some places two or three feet deep, yet the entire distance, one thousand nine hundred miles, was run in seven days and a half, carrying dispatches from New York and San Francisco. This performance is the more remarkable because the early part of April is considered the very worst season of the year: the snows on the mountains are deep, and on the plains the rivers are swollen and filled with floating ice. Old mountaineers consider April as bad as any winter month on the mountains, and worse on the plains. The pony express, being "un fait accompli," continued to run regularly with letters once a week from each end, traveling invariably to a time schedule, until the month of June, when a source of trouble appeared which had long given cause for anxiety. The wild Indians of the western plains began to meddle with the express, and shot dead from his horse one of the couriers. His body was found a few days after, stripped of everything; but the bag of letters remained beside him untouched. The horse and the firearms are what the Indians want, and they wisely consider that meddling with the letters would only unnecessarily irritate Uncle Sam without doing them any good. The dangerous ground extended about three hundred and fifty miles from Salt Lake, in Utah territory, west to Carson City. In this district the inter-
Page 387ruptions became so incessant that it was considered necessary to "haul off the pony" from that particular section of the route. On the other portions the express continued to run, delivering its letters at Salt Lake and Carson City, where they accumulated, waiting the first favourable opportunity to push through with safety.
Those unacquainted with the country west of the Rocky Mountains can scarcely appreciate the difficulty and danger attending a journey through it. For hundreds of miles it is a long dreary waste, inhabited only by bands of warlike Indians, who prowl about robbing and killing as they choose, and dotted at every fifteen miles of distance with the stations of the pony express, in charge of two or three persons. Occasionally its monotony is broken by the passage of a train of emigrant wagons waggons bound west to California or Oregon. Night and day, heedless of the weather or the attacks of the redskins, the pony courier dashes along, at the rate of twelve miles an hour, his revolver in his belt, his hand on the trigger of his rifle, his eye watching intently for redskins, so that he may have the first shot; under him, on the saddle, is the bag of letters so anxiously looked forward to in New York, for they tell important things—how ships have sailed for Europe laden with Californian gold, of terrible wrecks and losses, or of rising markets and great gains, or perhaps how the votes have counted that decide the destiny of States. Not only to America is this bold and solitary rider's leather saddle-bag of interest, but on to Europe will electricity and steam send many a long-looked-for message which it contains; and the merchant on many a change in the Old World will tell of news he has received so soon from the farthest shores of the Pacific. He little knows, and less cares, for the hairbreadth dangers run by this lonely courier of the plains and mountains. Altogether, the Pony Express Company have lost six men killed by the Indians. They, however, provide liberally for the wives and families, if there be any.
It is a remarkable fact that they have as yet lost only one mail, and this one was lost under peculiar circumstances. The letters are inclosed in two leather bags, which are slung across the pony's back, and are kept in their place by the rider sitting on them, so that in case of anything happening to him the bags fall off and are recovered, though the pony scamper off and be lost. In the case alluded to the rider had, against special instructions, fastened the bags to the saddle. On a dark night in July, 1860, the express, bound east, on crossing the bridge over the Platt River, stumbled over an ox that had taken up its quarters there for the night, and was precipitated into the river. The rider reached the shore, but the pony and the mails were gone no one knows wither, never having been heard of to this day.
The company have suffered severely from first to last by the depredations of the Indians; they are, however, now in a much better state. The express was almost driven off the line west of Salt Lake City, their stations being burnt or otherwise destroyed, their people killed, and their horses stolen. All, however, is now repaired and in better order than ever—the troops of the United States' Government and a force organized organised by the company having driven the Indians away, and made them as scarce, and their occupation as dangerous, as it would be in the State of New York.
There is nothing very particular about either the pony or the rider: the riders are small, courageous, active young men, capable of great endurance; the ponies, or rather small horses, are the best description of animals for the purpose that can be procured. There is nothing showy or ornamental about either riders or horses; yet they are very picturesque, and are evidentally got up entirely for business. Our Artist saw one of the expresses arrive at St. Joe. The young man who rode was a long, wiry, reddish-haired chap, who looked made to gallop galop through the world on a horse's back. He wore a red worsted shirt, a rowdy hat, and a long, light-blue great-coat, with a little cope and plenty of brass buttons. This young man had ridden on one occasion two hundred miles in twenty-four hours without rest or food, except such as he could get on the pony's poney's back. The rider usually rides fifty miles, using two ponies, who run twenty-five miles each.
The pony express does not pay the running expenses directly, but the company continue it nevertheless, allowing a little extra time during the winter.
St. Joseph, or St. Joe, as it is irreverently called by the Americans, is a pretty good town situated on the east bank of the Missouri River: it is the western terminus of the Hannibal Hanibal and St. Joe Railway, which completes the American system of railways westward.
St. Joe has much the same relation to the great plains that a seaport has to the ocean: it is the point of arrival and departure after a three-months' voyage overland of hundreds of travellers and wagon waggon -trains who make the passage between California, Oregon, and the Western States of the Union. The passage across the mountains and over the plains is as lonely as a voyage across the ocean. Neither towns nor villages are met with, and the emigrant-train has to depend upon its own resources as much as a ship does while navigating the sea.
There is a wild look about the people at St. Joe. Nearly everybody carries a rifle, and has that peculiar expression of countenance which indicates the possession of the ability to take care of himself and cut up particularly rough if interfered with. Some awful roughs may be seen about occasionally, but these are held in good check by the respectable portion of the place; and, although St. Joe is a wild, out-of-the-way place, almost beyond the reach of the law, yet the people go about as safely, and carry on their business as securely, as if they were in the neighbourhood of Boston. Should any of the border ruffian class attempt any villany, Lynch law would most likely cut short his career, and he might find himself hanging to the branch of a tree before he had time to engage counsel to prove his innocence of the crime w hich he was caught in the act of executing. It is an event and a picturesque scene to see one of the long trains of wagons waggons arrive from the westward, the people looking so brown and weather-worn and the children healthy and happy, and the rush all make immediately on certain shops and stores. One great delight on the part of the men seems to be to get themselves shaved as clean as possible; fine bright-coloured shirts and handkerchiefs are immediately obtained and ostentatiously exhibited.
Market-day at St. Joe is a peculiar sight, and gives one a better idea of the back-settlement life than can be obtained anywhere else. The farmer and his family, in their particular wagon waggon , which, with the exception of the wheels, they have made themselves, are things to be seen. There is no place in the United States where greater variety of character, interesting incidents, and opportunity for the study of human nature, exists to a greater extent than at St. Joe, on the Missouri.
We shall give an Illustration of the town of St. Joe in an early Number.