Whose Idea Was the Pony Express

It is the purpose of this article to discuss one of these questions, with the hope of shedding a little light upon it and of giving credit where credit is due.

That question is with whom the idea originated. The first attempt to answer it appears to have been made by William Lightfoot Visscher in 1908, when he wrote The Pony Express, the first book on that institution. In the fall of 1854, he said, Senator William M. Gwin, United States Senator from California, was riding horseback from San Francisco to the Missouri River, on his way to take up his legislative duties in Washington. On that journey, for a long distance and many days, he had for a traveling companion Benjamin F. Ficklin, general superintendent of the freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell. Between them they evolved the idea of a Pony Express. . . . That story cannot be true for several reasons, the first and most conclusive of which is that Russell, Majors & Waddell did not exist in the fall of 1854. . . .

Another story of recent vintage, told by Herbert Hamlin, editor of the Pony Express, credits Colonel Frederick A. Bee, president and builder of the Placerville & St. Joseph Overland Telegraph Line, with being the “Father of the Pony Express.” The sole basis for the author’s sweeping assumptions seems to be the mere fact that Colonel Bee and William H. Russell were probably in Washington at the same time during the winter of 1859-60. . . .

Still another story is related by Charles R. Morehead, nephew of Russell’s wife, who was appointed assistant to James Rupe, general agent for Russell, Majors & Waddell, to supervise the wagon trains which were transporting supplies for Johnston’s Army to Utah in 1857. . . “With Mr. Floyd,” said Morehead, “the question of the feasibility of a pony express across the continent was presented by Mr. Russell, and fully discussed. Captain Rupe’s views were called for, and he expressed the opinion that it was entirely practicable at all seasons on this route, all the way to California.” . . . Morehead’s Narrative, written at the request of William E. Connelley, secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, is included in the Appendix to his Doniphan’s Expedition, which was published in 1913. . . .

In 1879, Joseph S. Roberson, who was a member of the Pony Express staff at St. Joseph, wrote a story of its founding and operation. According to his report, “the fertile brains of Wm. H. Russell and B. F. Ficklin conceived the idea of a Pony Express, to be run under the patronage of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company.” . . .

John Scudder, an employee of Russell, Majors & Waddell, stationed at Salt Lake City in the fall and winter of 1859, told how he and others discussed the possibility of a fast letter-mail from St. Joseph to San Francisco in twelve days. Among the group was A. B. Miller, partner of Russell and Waddell in the firm of Miller, Russell & Company, which operated stores in Salt Lake City and Camp Scott at Bridger’s Fort. . . . Quite a number of communications passed between Mr. Russell and his agent (A. B. Miller) at Salt Lake City, and the upshot of it was that the former [Scudder probably meant Miller] agreed to test the matter by stringing out a lot of horses and riders between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. . . .

It appears the scheme originated with

The Alta California of San Francisco, on March 23, 1860, in a dispatch from its Washington correspondent, tells another story. . . “Mr. Butterfield himself in this city about three months ago. At that time Charles M. Stebbins and his Great Overland Mail chief were in consultation on the subject of a regular Horse Express to California, running from the terminus of the telegraph line on this end to the commencement of the Street line on the other, in ten days, carrying important dispatches and paages at the rate of about $50 per pound, and news dispatches at a high figure. . . .

Alexander Majors said in his book (1893) that Gwin asked him and his partners “to test the practicability of crossing the Sierra Nevadas, as well as the Rocky Mountains with a daily line of comminications.” Whether he meant a daily coach service, which he probably did, or a pony express, is not known. If Gwin suggested or sought a government subsidy to carry out this experiment there is no record of it. . . .

Regardless of who conceived the idea for a Pony Express, William H. Russell was the man with sufficient vision, ability, courage, and capital to organize it. That fact cannot be questioned. Others had dreamed about it, but he alone made it a reality. The “Father of the Pony Express,” therefore, was no other than William H. Russell himself.