Heard of the Pony Express? Steve has. He remembers growing up to fascinating stories of what life was like in the old west, and the Pony Express was a big part of that legend and folklore.
With Steve to talk about its origins, ambitions and fate is Jim DeFelice. Jim is the author of a new book titled West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express.
The book is an informative, fun read for anyone interested in learning more about the Pony Express and America’s wild, daring entrepreneurs of the wild west.
Earlier, Jim had co-authored American Sniper. You may remember this best-selling book as it was made into a well-reviewed movie by none other than Clint Eastwood.
The Pony Express has fascinated almost everyone who’s heard of it. However, few know its true story.
The company behind Pony Express began operations in 1859 under the name Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company. It was founded by three men:William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell. They were each notable in the freight trade and held government contracts to deliver army supplies and bulk goods to the western frontier.
Then, in 1860, with the Civil War looming, Russell came up with the idea of fast mail delivery for the U.S. government. Using mounted riders instead of traditional stagecoaches – the Pony Express was born.
Pony Express Goes Coast To Coast In Ten Days
The company started operations on April 3, 1860. They began as a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Letters were delivered in ten days, a feat many thought impossible. The Pony Express made it all happen with a crew of 120 riders, 400 horses, and several hundred personnel. They used 184 midway stations, roughly 10 miles apart, with deliveries year-round.
Through Pony Express, Russell’s grand plan was to build a transportation, information and financial empire. They were to deliver everything from military supplies to gold and silver.
But his idea wasn’t new. Two decades before him, another company had done just that very successfully using a different route. As a matter of fact, they’re still with us today. Perhaps you’ve heard of the company by the name of American Express?
There were others too. As a matter of fact, Wells Fargo with its famous horse-drawn stagecoach, had a similar idea. They served a smaller, more diversified client base, leaving the big government contracts to Russell & co.
What made Pony Express different was that it ditched the stagecoach to gain its speed advantage. They hired and trained lean and tough twenty-something to zealously ride through all kinds of difficult terrain. This included wind and rain, blistering sun and deep snows, hostile forces and outlaws, to get the job done.
As one popular Pony Express ad read:
WANTED: YOUNG, SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS
Not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week.
The job, indeed, was as perilous as the advertisement stated. With the Civil War gaining steam and California siding with the Union, passions were running high, Pony Express riders put their life on the line every time they got onto their horses.
The delivery involved riders starting out almost simultaneously at both ends. One from St. Joseph going west and the other from Sacramento going east. Riders would switch horses every ten miles and kick-in to a gallop as the ladies watched ‘em ride into town. They gallantly completed delivery in the insanely short span of ten days relative to three to six months by boat.
Alas, government contracts didn’t quite come their way. The Pony Express shuttered operations a mere 18 months after it started. But despite its short lifespan, it sparked a flame and remains a legend even today.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital. Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.
Steve Pomeranz: How many of you remember hearing about the Pony Express? My generation was brought up on the stories and the myths of the Old West, and the Pony Express was a big part of the legend and the folklore. My guest today is Jim DeFelice. He’s the co-author of the best-selling book American Sniper, which was made in to a wonderful picture produced by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper.
But today, we’re going to talk about his latest book. The latest book is West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. Hey, Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim DeFelice: Thanks for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: As I said, the Pony Express sparked the imagination of so many of us when I was growing up, but, in effect, we really don’t know that much about it. You write that it was really a get rich quick scheme and so many other things. Take us through the beginning story of the Pony Express.
Jim DeFelice: Well, it’s kind of literally a get-rich-quick scheme in that it’s about getting information or, particularly, mail from one spot in America, the Missouri River, over to California, another spot in America very quickly.
But the overall idea wasn’t just to deliver the mail. The guys who started the company were entrepreneurs and, actually, visionaries—certainly in the case of William Russell, who’s kind of the godfather of the whole thing. And their idea was to, as you just said, to get rich. What he wanted to do, what he envisioned, was a transportation and information and financial empire, and the idea was not just to deliver mail in that vast area between Missouri and California, but to deliver everything from military supplies, which was really the bulk of their business at the time, to gold and silver.
Silver had recently been discovered in what is now the Denver area or near there, and there was a lot of things to be made. Now it sounds a little bit like almost an apocryphal idea, how can you do that, how could you, corner the market on transportation out in the wilderness.
Well, less than two decades before, another company had done that, around the…as the frontier opened around the Erie Canal and then beyond the West, that company was extremely successful then, and it’s still with us. As a matter of fact, a lot of us carry its credit card; it’s American Express.
Steve Pomeranz: Right, goes back a long time.
Jim DeFelice: Absolutely, so the idea itself, Russell’s vision, wasn’t necessarily that ridiculous. It was just a little too grandiose for-
Steve Pomeranz: Well, there was another company too, I don’t know when they started, but we still carry their credit cards today. And we’re talking about Wells Fargo, the Wells Fargo wagon streaming across the prairie. That was a tremendous visual image, and it’s still with us today.
Jim DeFelice: Absolutely, and as a matter of fact, they were competitors with Russell, Majors, and Wadell, the guys that started the Pony Express. They were also involved in creating American Express. And there was a conflict—which we’ll get into a little bit of that in my book—with some of the partners, and so they started their own thing out west.
And there were two basically competing business models the Pony Express and its parent companies were relying on, largely on a government contract, to fund their infrastructure and kind of fund most of their expenses. And then they would add on money, whether it was from the Pony Express or their stagecoach business or even their insurance company or bank.
Meanwhile, Wells Fargo which had deeper pockets was a little more diversified and also it spread out the risk, so they would partner with very small companies in different areas. So as they grew, if one company, if there was a problem or a setback in one area, then they could just cut ties with that company.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s get to the Pony Express itself because there’s something pretty magical about it. This idea of having young twenty-somethings with special abilities to ride, to withstand very difficult terrain, and weather and hostile forces and outlaws and all of this. And this idea of riding a fresh horse every ten miles, as a matter of fact, I want to read from an alleged ad of the time. “Wanted, young skinny wiry fellows, not over 18, must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred.” [LAUGH]
Jim DeFelice: There’s a lot of truth in that advertisement. Certainly, the fellows who worked for the Pony Express, the riders were, well, mostly skinny [LAUGH] because they wanted the lighter, the faster you could go.
Steve Pomeranz: Like a jockey almost.
Jim DeFelice: Absolutely, and they did risk life and limb often. Usually it was about twice a week, by the way. But the other thing, is that poster, which is very famous now and is great, has been tracked down by other people, not myself, and found to actually have come out much later, much after the Pony Express.
Steve Pomeranz: There’s a lot of hype that we’re going to get into in a minute that surrounds this. When did the Pony Express actually begin its first ride?
Jim DeFelice: Well, the Pony Express, the very first ride, is April 3rd, 1860. And they start, actually simultaneously. One starts at St. Joe, Missouri and goes West, and then at the same time, a rider’s starting from roughly the same time, from Sacramento and going East.
And the funny thing to me, is that the Pony Express only lasted until October ‘61, so it’s roughly, we’re talking 18 months. And yet we still, 150 years later, we still know about it.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I mean, one of the characteristics was that it took— gee, I forgot—ten days to get from Missouri to Sacramento. Was that the amount of time?
Jim DeFelice: Absolutely, it’s ten days.
Steve Pomeranz: Which was insanely fast, at that time.
Jim DeFelice: Compared to three to six months going by steamer. There is another route through the desert, but that’s much slower, as well. And it was just an incredible…
Steve Pomeranz: So how do they, so they must have had really fast sources, obviously. But how often did they change horses?
Jim DeFelice: Well, the thing is the horses were the fastest that they can find, no doubt about that, but the other, the thing really that’s most important, is really endurance. Because you’re talking about almost 1,800, 2,000 miles, is very far. And what the riders would brag about, was how far they went? Ordinarily, they’d go about 100 miles in a trip. They would change horses every ten miles. Hop off the horse, throw their mailbag on, hop on the new one, and ride away, at a good pace, They’d ride at a gallop when they came into town; they wanted to impress the ladies, but I would say three-quarters of the galloped most of the way.
Maybe a little slower, depending on the terrain. But they did, the other remarkable thing is they did it at night. They did it in thunderstorms. They did it in snowstorms. And time after time, almost all of the trips, at least from east to west, were ten days, some 11. For some reason, west to east usually took at least several hours longer, sometimes a day or even two. Not clear why.
Steve Pomeranz: Interesting, but I can just imagine when they get within, maybe 500 yards of the town, they’d really start to pick up speed [LAUGH].
Jim DeFelice: Well, on the places where there are towns.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, sure, that’s true too.
Jim DeFelice: Well, that we have to note in Kansas or Nebraska. But, well, of course, because you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, and there is a couple of available ladies around there. Got to show off a little bit. You’re looking good too; you’re on that horse; you’re riding fast.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Jim DeFelice.
The book is West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. Okay, I want to get into the politics a little bit here because why did they pick Missouri, that one town in Missouri, how did they get started there? What was the reason for the beginning point? I would think that would be up for grabs.
Jim DeFelice: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, when you think about it, you want some sort of city, some sort of transportation center, but that’s the Missouri River where you’re going to locate, and there are a couple of sound business reasons.
There’s a railroad nearby. They had other headquarters and companies within the state. But the real reason that they selected St. Joe’s, which was an up-and-coming but still fairly small city at the time. It’s that Saint Joe’s gave them the best deal. They’re basically like the sports owners of their day: they bid the towns and the cities against each other, and Saint Joe’s threw in a lot of land that they knew that they could sell for big bucks, gave them some concessions on the railroad.
Steve Pomeranz: Sounds very familiar, right?
Jim DeFelice: Absolutely, nothing changes really.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so nothing really changes. So we can’t really get into it, but this story includes a lot of corrupt politicians, a lot of payoffs, some swindles. Some stuff that kind of seems, some fake news. A lot of stuff that seems very current in today’s environment.
We really have very little time. I want to ask you one question. So this was 1860. Now, signs of the conflict over slavery were growing. So, in 1860 Missouri’s population was 1.1 million, of which 115,000 were slaves. So it was pretty big business there. Now, Kansas abolished slavery in 1860.
The Pony Express began in April 1860. Lincoln was elected in November of 1860, and the country was in civil war by April of 1861. How did that affect the Pony Express?
Jim DeFelice: Oh, it affected it big time. Now for one thing, one of the whole reasons that the eastern politicians wanted some sort of mail service, and a quick one, was that they wanted to keep California, and that, well like all, that they’re pulling out of the mountains there, coming to the North, and so they needed the communication.[sic]
But, on a physical level, certainly for the riders, for the people that worked for the Pony Express, there’s a lot of conflict. I mean, we call it Bleeding Kansas to this day, and in Missouri, some of their earliest conflicts in the Civil War, which took place actually before the declaration of the war, take place in Missouri.
So you have, the riders are kind of caught in the middle. A lot of them end up in the war, on one side or the other. And it’s a personal thing for them.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, there’s a lot more to the story that we cannot get to today. The book is a fun book, a fun read. West Like Lightning, The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. And Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock, play an important role expanding the myth of the Pony Express. If you have a question about what we just discussed, and just want to kind of give us your opinion, just ask us.
Go to stevepomeranz.com, and ask anything that you’d like. It’s stevepomeranz.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our weekly update, where we’ll send you our weekly commentaries and interviews straight into your inbox. To find out more about this book, go to westlikelightning.com. Jim DeFelice, thanks so much for joining me.
Jim DeFelice: Thanks for having me.