About the Holiday
Today’s holiday commemorates the intrepid souls who risked life and limb to bring our ancestors important letters in a timely manner. Towns across America hold special, fun events to remember the riders who took to heart the postal carrier’s motto: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Find a local festival or maybe reenactment and have a little Old West fun!
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Pony Express Rider! A Dusty, Thankless Job You’d Rather Not Do
Written by Tom Ratliff | Illustrated by Mark Bergin
So, you’re 16 years old and lookin’ for a job. There’s not much out there, and the pay stinks. Then you see a broadside advertising jobs with a newfangled technology. The description seems pretty good, exciting even—just up your alley. “WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” And here’s the kicker—you make $25 per week! Heck most people only make $25 a month!
You decide to apply for this Pony Express position, and your life takes off in a whole new direction—to California, to be exact! William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell own the company. It’s real name is the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, but that’s quite a mouthful, so the enterprise is fondly known as The Pony Express. It’s a rapid mail-delivery system that promises letters and packages will go from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California (2,000 miles/3,200 km) in only 10 days. Can you imagine?!
Planning begins in January of 1860 and is completed in less than four months. Hundreds of horses are bought and about just as many riders are trained (they have to learn how to change horses in two minutes or less). Along the route 157 relay stations are also constructed. All this is to supply communication for the many pioneers who are steering their Conestoga Wagons out West, battling floods, snow, disease, and those pesky obstacles called the Rocky Mountains to find a better life for themselves and their families.
You’re young, enthusiastic, and want to be part of this new landscape. You strap on your company-given “two revolvers, rifle, and Bowie knife,” have your horse shod, and take the Rider’s Oath: “While in the employ of A. Majors, I agree not to use profane language, get drunk, gamble, treat animals cruelly, or do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman.” Well, Dang! (Oops!)
The route West is fraught with danger, so forts and trading posts pop up along the way to protect and supply Pony Express riders. The pioneers also keep an eye out for you, so it’s handy to get to know them. While you ride you can be assured that you have the latest in mail-carrying gear. A special saddle modeled on those used by Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) is more comfortable for the long miles, and a mochila (a leather pouch that fits over the saddle) is stuffed full of the mail.
You were right about the job being exciting! Every day brings a new experience: dehydration, heat exhaustion, blizzards, frostbite, floods, 6-to-10-hour hard rides, plus you’re a target for outlaws and bandits. It’s worth it all, though, to bring a smile to someone’s face when they open a letter from their far-away sweetheart—and all for only $5.00 a letter (that’ll be about $120 in 2016). Just be thankful it’s not a business letter—that’ll set ya back $30, which is…uh…umm…well, a heck of a lot (oops!).
In 1844 some upstart named Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph that uses a code of electrical signals to deliver messages. It only takes 5 years for all the major cities to be connected, and as more people move west, so do the poles and electrical wires.”In June 1860, congress authorizes construction of a telegraph line to California. If the telegraph ever reaches the West Coast, you will most likely be out of a job.” One thing about this Morse Code, though. Because “messages sent long distances have to be copied and recopied several times, mistakes are common.” Betcha in the future, though, there will be some kinda automatic correction system, and errors will be left back here in the past.
It’s 1860—a presidential election year—and the campaign has been ugly and hard fought. The country is divided, and fast delivery of the election results is crucial to keeping the United States together. You are part of saving the country, as the news of Abraham Lincoln’s victory reaches California from Washington in only 7 days and 17 hours—a cross-country delivery record! Within a year, the U.S. is at war and danger looms for the Pony Express riders. To protect the riders and the mail, the Overland Stage Company (soon to be known as Wells Fargo) and their enclosed stagecoaches take over.
And the Pony Express? Well, as you probably know, it’s losing money and limping along, what with the competition and the war and all. In October 1861 the transcontinental telegraph is completed and the Pony Express stables its horses. And you? You’ll be fine. With all the experience you’ve gained, you can easily find a job as a scout to guide folks over the trails to their new Western homes.
These “You Wouldn’t Want to Be…” series of books brings history to life by revealing the seamy side of events—and aren’t those really the most fascinating? Tom Ratliff corrals a heap o’ info on the Pony Express and the pivotal changes the United States experienced during the 1860s. While the text trots out fun sidebars, the short chapters are loaded with concrete facts about the development of the American West as it grappled with the need for faster and better communication.
Mark Bergin depicts the concepts presented with bold, vivid cartoon-inspired illustrations of the pioneers, riders, inventors, and townspeople who made up the Pony Express system. The people’s faces register well-earned skepticism, fright, and weariness, but also pride and excitement to be on the cutting edge of technology. Maps portray the 2,000-mile route from America’s middle to its western sea.
The Pony Express may be long gone, but as this book affirms, the more things change the more they stay the same. Teachers, researchers, and anyone interested in history will want to hoof it to add You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Pony Express Rider! to their collection.
Ages 7 – 10
Scholastic, Inc., 2012 | ISBN 978-0531209479
Pony Express Day Activity
Pony Express Mail Carrier Coloring Page
Can you color this printable Pony Express Mail Carrier Coloring Page as quickly as a rider could deliver the post? You’ve got 10 days—so don’t rush!
Picture Book Review