Motive for the Pony Express

Much has been written of the famous Pony Express, but most accounts have stressed the romantic and spectacular side, failing to show the motives which actuated its founders, or to portray its relationship to the other problems of overland communication and western expansion. The Pony Express was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. There had been previous suggestions for the establishment of a fast overland express, and an attempt was made in Congress in I855 to provide such a service, but these first efforts did not succeed. With the establishment of the overland stage lines a rivalry had arisen between the Butterfield and the “Central” routes, and with the assembling of the thirty-sixth Congress in December, 1859, everything pointed in the direction of a general revision of the overland service. Partisans of the Central route were active but they met with considerable opposition. It was with the idea of demonstrating the practicability of the Central route for year-round travel and to secure an enlarged mail contract that the Pony Express scheme was conceived.

During the winter of 1859-60, while Mr. William H. Russell was in Washington, he discussed the overland mail question with Senator Gwin of California. The Senator contended that it was necessary to demonstrate the feasibility of the Central route before he would be able to get from Congress the desired contract. He appealed to Russell to launch a swift overland express and agreed to obtain from Congress a subsidy to reimburse the firm for the undertaking. The plan appealed to Russell and he agreed to put through the enterprise.

Note 349:

The Washington correspondent of the San Francisco Bulletin wrote of the project of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, January 30, 186o: “Their object in establishing this express is not so much to make money at present, as it is to prove by actual experiment the superiority of the Salt Lake route.” The Rocky Mountain News of May 23, 1860, makes the following comment upon the establishment of the Pony Express: “The Express Company deserve great credit for concentrating public attention on the Central route, and it is hoped that their enterprise will shame Congress into legislation in favor of the opening of a daily or tri-weekly mail route to Denver, Utah, and California. The southern route is backed up by the entire South.”

H. H. Bancroft, in his History of Nevada, 228, says that the object of the founders was never distinctively made known. However, he says that Walter Crowinsheld of Nevada who assisted to re-stock the road after the Pah Ute outbreak of 1860, was of the opinion that the line was established with a view to obtaining the mail contract when the feasibility of the route was demonstrated. Bancroft goes on to say that Russell, Majors, and Waddell made no effort in that direction. This is hardly true. Russell was lobbying in Congress, and the Butterfield company was moved to the Central route in 1861 only after a working arrangement had been made with Russell, Majors, and Waddell.

The close relation of the Pony Express to the mail contract is shown in a letter from W. H. Russell, dated New York, September 27, 1860. (Published in the San Francisco Bulletin of October 16, 1860.) In this letter he says that his company’s mail contract expires November 30th, and that they cannot continue the Pony Express unless their mail contract is renewed. “A mail contract alone would justify us to continue the Pony. . . We have however attained our principal object, that of practically demonstrating that the route is feasible and practical, and with a good mail contract, and in that way only, the Express can be sustained.’