Scoffers cynically made their bets. That first “Pony” mail that dashed away from Sacramento in the dark hours before dawn on April 4, 1860, they wagered, would not get beyond the Sierra Nevada.
Were not the mountains deep with snow? Was not the Marysville stage, which in three years had never missed a trip, completely blocked? Were not the stages from Carson snowed in near Strawberry Valley? The pessimists looked smug and increased their wagers. But they had not counted on the Western horse.
Since that fateful January day in 1860 when William H. Russell had announced that he had “determined to establish a Pony Express to Sacramento, California, commencing the 3rd of April, time 10 days,” the resources of the powerful firm of Russell, Majors and Wadell, pioneer freighters and stagecoach operators, had been devoted to seeing that the mail ponies would go through on schedule. For purposes of supervision and supply, the proposed route was divided into three divisions. The eastern section, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City lay along an already established stage line, but further westward practically an entirely new series of stations had to be built across the deserts and mountains to California. The division from Salt Lake City to Eagle Valley, Nevada, was under the charge of B.F. Ficklin, while W.W. Finney controlled the western division, which stretched the remaining three hundred miles to Sacramento.
Under the supervision of the division agents, the new stations were erected and supplied, brave and skillful riders were hired and, perhaps most important, the express horses were selected and purchased. The horses had to be good. The schedule, although varying with the seasons, required that the mail be carried about two hundred miles a day, good weather or bad. Stations at which mounts were changed were twenty-five miles apart, and the ponies had to do their runs at full tilt. Later, this distance was found to be too great for efficient operation, and was reduced to ten or twelve miles. The horses had to be able to out run the fast ponies of hostile Indians and to continue their killing pace for lap after lap when relay stations were wiped out. It is understandable, then, why the agents took such extraordinary pains to secure only the best mounts obtainable, and why these animals were fed and housed with such scrupulous care.
For the eastern division, much blooded American stock seems to have been chosen. That many of these animals came from the United States Army is indicated by the following item from the Missouri Free Democrat: ” The stables of the Pony Express Company are being rapidly filled with horses bought from Captain McKissack at Leavenworth.” About the mounts for the central division, practically nothing is known, but it is safe to assume that a good proportion of them were of Western stock. Fortunately, the record is more full regarding the horses used on the western end of the line.
The task of obtaining the mounts for this division was entrusted to Major P.L. Solomon, United States Marshal for California. He was authorized to “select and procure as fine a collection of fleet-footed and muscular horses as could be found.” To fill this order, it was only natural for the Marshal to turn to that same source upon which the West had relied for years to secure its best mounts for difficult tasks – the native stock of California.
It was these same horses which were being used at that time with such spectacular success to draw the overland Butterfield stages. One Eastern passenger on that line recorded his praise of these animals in the following words: “I have had long and great experience in horses, but had not the least possible idea in favor of the native California stock. The have been well selected, are of good size, not too heavy, strong and full of spirit, remarkably free travelers, and possessing the most wonderful powers of endurance.”
In addition to the Pure California stock, Major Solomon purchased a number of half-breed horses, the result of the breeding of the native stock with blooded American animals. These, then as now, made splendid trail horses and did excellent service in crossing the Sierra Nevada. As far as is known, there exists but one description of a horse of the western division of the Pony Express. The was the “clean-limbed, hardy little nankeen-colored pony” which was on display in San Francisco on the day that the first express left for St. Joseph.
In the grueling test of actual operations, the animals selected by Major Solomon showed their worth. Time after time their remarkable exploits proved that the Western horse had no peer when it came to traveling under difficult conditions. In spite of the wagers that the first eastbound pony express would never cross the Sierra, the first run between Sacramento and Fort Churchill, Nevada – a distance of 185 miles – was made in fifteen hours and twenty minutes, and included many miles of mountain trails thirty feet deep with snow. It was partly good horse-flesh which permitted such record runs as that of “Pony Bob” Haslam during the Pah-Ute war. He covered 380 miles of hostile country, being thirty-six hours in the saddle.
This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Pony Express. In view of the important role played by that enterprise in linking the West to the Union during one of the most crucial periods in our history, there must be many lovers of the Western horse who echo the sentiments of the toast proposed by Major Solomon at a gathering held in San Francisco to prepare a welcome for the first west-bound Pony Express. He raised his glass to “The mustang ponies of California; they have done more for civilization, with California boys on their backs, than their mailed ancestors did in conquering the Montezumas.”
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the January-February 1942 issue of Western Horseman. For more on the Pony Express, check out the September 2006 article by Jennifer Denison, “The Pony Express Paradox”.