A Pony Express Rider’s Firsthand Account
Due to another rider's self-inflicted gunshot wound, this Pony Express wannabe gets his big chance
This account from Daniel M. Drumheller was originally published in the Spokesman-Review (Seattle, Washington). It is excerpted here from Stamp Collectors’ Fortnightly, July 1921.
Pioneer Transportation and the Pony Express
The main interest in travel was to overhaul the immense freight outfits of Major & Waddell. They were the Pioneer transportation men of the great West, and they were credited with having hundreds of wagons in their employ. They moved Government freight for the Army posts from the Missouri River clear across the Continent to Santa Fe and Salt Lake. The usual freight outfit consisted of 26 wagons, with 12 oxen to each, in charge of a wagon master, and sometimes they had guards of soldiers along through the more troublesome Indian country, although usually they depended on the teamsters standing guard at night.
Pony Express monument in Salt Lake City
This was long before the days of the overland stage. As I remember, the stage commenced running through the south first in 1857, via Texas and Arizona to San Francisco, and was moved to St. Joe, Mo., on through Laramie and Ogden to Sacramento in 1860, about the same time the pony express started.
The pony express could make short cuts on bridle paths where the cumbersome stages could not possibly follow. In a general way the stage route and the pony express folIowed the same route as the present line of the Union Pacific system from St. Joe through Cheyenne and Ogden on to Sacramento, but the pony express route, which started first, used some short cuts to the Carson Valley over the Sierras. The stage road followed the Humboldt Valley. Neither went through Virginia City, Nev., Which was six or eight miles south. Sacramento was the western terminal, because from there to San Francisco, 90 miles, the trip could he made by fast steamers. One boat, the New World, made the run in five hours.
The fare from the Missouri River to Carson City. Nev., in the early days, was $250 in gold. These huge red coaches, which cost $1,200 to $1,500, were pretty expensive to operate, for they were frightfully heavy.
My Share in Founding the Pony Express
While the overland stage was a wonderful institution, it never compared with the pony express. All things considered, the present travel of the limited trains that go from Omaha to Sacramento in three days is an easy exploit compared with the service of the pony riders, who made that same run of 1,950 miles from St. Joe to Sacramento in from 8 to 10 days. It happens that I had a little part in the founding of the express.
I was still working for Mr. Singletary in Colusa county in the winters of ‘59 and ‘60, I was always dickering and trading around on my own account, and I had a few horses that I had bought. About the first of February, 1860, a man named Finny came along in search of horses, and I sold him four or five head of nice saddlers. He liked the bunch and asked if I could get him 50 or 60 head like them gentle, fairly well broke critters of good bottom. I told him I thought I could, if I could square matters with my boss, Mr. Singletary. He let me off and I picked the horses up.
Mr. Finny was so well pleased that he gave me $200 in gold, ten double eagles, as a present, and asked me to drive them with another man across the Sierras to Genoa in the Carson Valley, 15 miles south of where Carson now stands He was assembling a bunch of horses there for the pony express. Already they had men at work building stations and assembling feed and supplies for the pony service. We got the horses over the range, and I was ready to start back for the Sacramento when in came Finny.
“You stay with me and sort of look after things,” he said. I was a youngster, 20 years old, ready for any excitement, and it was all one with me whether I was working for Finny on the express run, or whether I was punching cattle for Singletary, so I stayed. He paid me, I remember, $150 a month, gold, which was more than the pony express riders were to get. They had $100 a month for their wages. The pony express service started about March 35th, 1860. The overland stage route was started later in the same year.
Jumps in Saddle to Keep Pony Express Going
It wasn’t expected then that I would ride, for I was a little over weight they did not like to take on riders who weighed more than 130 pounds and I weighed 150 pounds but the second day after they got the service started a young rider came into the station nearly dead from loss of blood. He was carrying a six-shooter tied around his thigh and it happened to explode, with the result that he got an awful wound in his leg. I happened to be there, and so I jumped into the saddle and started to ride the pony express route.
Our equipment was very simple. In the front of every station when the driver was due, the horse stood out at the rack, bridled and saddled and ready to go. The saddle was a very light tree with a single cinch. The mail was carried in a machero two pieces of pliable harness leather each about two feet long and 18 inches wide, spliced together along the top with rawhide thongs. There were holes in the top of the machero to fit over the pommel and the cantel of the saddle tree, and a cinch around the horse’s belly held the rigging fast. The rider used it as a covering for his saddle.
On each side of the machero, behind the rider’s leg, was a big leather pocket 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep, with a smaller pocket of leather in front on each side of the pommel. Here the mail was tucked away. The through mail was padlocked in one set of pouches which could be opened only at terminals St. Joe and Sacramento. Local mail was carried in the small pouches. As I remember, we carried about 30 pounds of mail and it consisted entirely of letters written on the thinnest of paper, I believe the special editions of some newspapers printed on tissue were also sent regularly through.
There was reason for economy of weight, for the rate of postage was $2.50 for a half-ounce. Even then the rates were not exorbitant, for that little bundle had to provide the revenue for a string of stablemen, to say nothing of superintendents and horses and supply outfits, which were required to keep the service in operation. The stations were usually 18 or 20 miles apart. We aimed to make 100 miles in a day’s trip of 10 hours with five relays of horses. Then we would lay off at the station for a little more than 36 hours before starting back with the opposite mail. We averaged about 10 miles an hour. Changing horses at the stations, we would unbuckle the machero, throw it on to the waiting animal and off we would go.
Rates and Heavy Expenses of Pony Mail System
The section that I rode was only 90 miles long, but it was in one of the roughest and most dangerous parts of the route, from the Carson River Ranch to the sink of the Carson River. It was infested with roving Piutes, including old Winnemucca’s bunch of lazy pirates. One night, coming into a station, instead of my fresh horse tied up and waiting for me, there was neither horse nor camp-tender in sight. The cabin was a little affair, made out of quaking aspen logs with a gunnysack door. I walked into it in the darkness, and there was the corpse of the station tender, dead and mutilated by the Piutes, I had to push on to the next station for a fresh horse. I was riding the pony express for a month, beginning with the second day that the service began out of Genoa, in the shk of the Carson.
Puncturing Some Claims to Pony Express Fame
I got tired of the pony express and quit about the first of May, 1860, and struck out for Virginia City. The service was never profitable; and I believe that Major Waddell and Russell, who were behind the deal, lost half a million dollars on it. It only ran a little more than a year.
Every once in a while I read about the death of the last of the pony express riders. Buffalo Bill claimed to have been one of the early riders. Maybe he was on the east end, hut I never knew anything about him. I remember reading of a rider named Appleby who died in Salt Lake about two years ago, I remember meeting a lad of that name at the east end of my run. Then there’s a story of Pony Sam, who claims to have ridden out of Virginia City. He was a faker, a pieshop gambler. I knew him well, and I don’t believe he ever rode the express.
The line, which was maintained by the Central-Overland-California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, only lasted about a year. It went out of business in 1861 upon the completion of the Pacific Telegraph Company’s line across the Continent. As I recall, the fastest time ever made by the pony express was a trifle more than eight days in carrying the news of Lincoln’s nomination.