The Pony Express

The Pony Express was an early mail service that crossed North America in 1860 and 1861 (right before the Civil War).  It ran from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and consisted of relay teams of horseback riders carrying messages.  Before the telegraph communication began, it connected California to the rest of the country more efficiently than anything else had.

This painting called “Coming and Going of the Pony Express” was painted in 1900 by Frederic Remington. Public domain.

It took riders about 10 days to make the journey.  There were 190 stations along the way (one about every 10 miles).  After 10 miles or so, the horses could no longer travel at a full gallop and the rider got a new horse from the next station.  Just before arriving at each station the rider blew a horn to alert the station to get a fresh horse ready.  Every 75-100 miles the rider would also change.  The riders received $25.00 per week as pay (a normal laborers wage at the time was about a dollar per week, so $25.00 isn’t too shabby!)

This is a map of the Pony Express route across the western US. Image created by the National Park Service, public domain.

The Pony Express closed 2 days after telegraph service reached Salt Lake City, Omaha, and Sacramento.  In the end the company grossed $90,000. and lost $200,000.00 . . . ouch!  This April 1st will mark the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.  It didn’t last long, but what a cool part of our history it was!

Pony Express Exploration

We created our own Pony Express line using stick horses we got from the dollar store (regular sticks or broom handles would work too.  Each person wrote several letters that needed to be delivered to locations within our home (we assigned drop off areas for each person).  The kids mounted their stick horses, ran them like crazy, blew their horns, arrived at stations to swap horses, and continued on until all the mail was delivered.  This turned into not only an excellent way to learn about the Pony Express, but also a great letter writing activity.

Pony-Express-(3) Pony-Express-(6)

Additional Layers

  • Create a map of the Pony Express route.
  • Compare the Pony Express with the U.S. Postal Service today.  How is e-mail similar to the telegraph in the effect it’s had on delivery industries?  Read this article for more info. about what is happening to the USPS revenue over the past 10 years.
  • Take a tour of your local post office so you can see the mail room and how they sort things to get to all the right places.
  •  Make a horse craft like this one or this one.
  • Learn about Buffalo Bill, perhaps the most famous Pony Express Rider.

 More From Layers of Learning

Activities to be a Civil War soldier.
Activities to be a Civil War soldier.

Learn about Chinese immigrants to America.

Map of area explored by David Thompson, Canadian cartographer, fur trader, and explorer.
Map of area explored by David Thompson, Canadian cartographer, fur trader, and explorer.

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