The partners William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell in February of 1860 formed the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Co. which would be the basis for what has become known as the Pony Express.

pony express map

This company would employ perhaps as many as 500 young men over the next year and a half as riders or support personnel who would transport mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and on the reverse journey.

Ever wondered why the Pony Express was formed, is known today, and yet lasted only a couple of years? Find a brief explanation of its history here, courtesy of the Smithsonian.

The Pony Express solved an urgent problem for the U.S. government. In the late 1850s political tensions had increased between North and South over slavery and other issues. The government feared losing control over mail along the Southern Route and contact with gold-rich California. To ensure Union control over cargo and mail carried between East and West, a route outside the Southern states was needed.

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George B. Leonard, Sr. was an early settler of Kamas, Utah. He moved to Kamas around 1862 from Salt Lake City where he had grown up in a home located on present day 2nd North Street and about West Temple. About a block West and South was the home of a friend of his named Thomas O. King. A man named Howard Egan lived a block North of Thomas.

Howard Egan was hired by Russell, Majors and Waddell as a division superintendent for the Pony Express. The young men, Thomas and George , were soon employed by the new company which was offering to pay its men $25.00 per week while unskilled labor was paid only $1.00 per week.

pony express Utah

While Thomas O. King worked for the Pony Express he wrote home every week and those letters are still in the possession of the family and copies are in the possession of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum. I have visited with the family and received copies of statements written by Thomas O. King in which he relates how he and George B. Leonard stocked the Pony Express stations east of Salt Lake City with Horses and they made the ride carrying the first mail Eastward. The Pony Express company began moving mail on the 3rd of April 1860. King and Leonard’s first ride was to the East on 8 April 1860 as it took that long for the mail to reach them.

LEONARD RIDE PONY

The first ride was toward the East as West bound mail had not yet had time to reach this far West. Thomas rode from the station located at the mouth of Echo Canyon up the canyon then over the hills to the station called Bear River Crossing about eight miles Southeast of Evanston, Wyoming. Thomas in his writings records he then handed off the mail to George B. Leonard who took the mail as far as Ft. Bridger, Wyoming.

The mail must go. Hurled by flesh and blood across 2,000 miles of desolate space—— Fort Kearney, Laramie, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City. Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains and Indians, burning sands or snow must stop the precious bags. The mail must go.”  Major M. Jeff Thompson, Apri 3,1860.

 

Today it’s possible to drive much of the path taken by the “rough riders” across Utah – see here. and here

It was tough life, as this rider details here;

At 7 o’clock a.m., we were ordered from the stables two blocks east of the Patee House which was the signal for the ferry boat to come from Elwood and to lie in waiting at the landing until our arrival. We rode into the office and put on the mail, which consisted of four small leather sacks six by twelve inches, fastened onto a square holder which was put over the saddle…. When the mail was put on… [the rider]bounded out of the office door and down the hill at full speed, when the cannon was fired again to let the boat know that the pony had started..”  John Keetley.john keatley PEx

John Keetley, pictured above, has another interesting claim to fame. After the Pony express was disbanded in 1861 John got a job in a Park City mine. He soon rose to the position of supervisor and the owner liked him very much. When the owner determined to build a little town in what is now the bottom of the Jordanelle lake he named it after John. The little town of Keetley had a sparse existence until the day the waters of the Jordanelle Dam covered it and forced the moving of Highway 40 to the West.

The riders faced many dangers, and frequent calls were made for Federal troops to be  provided to protect the routes and allow them to be re-stocked and repaired.

      “OVERLAND MAIL. MORE INDIAN TROUBLES.

Springfield, MO., June 21…. The Stations on the Pony Express line, and Salt Lake route, are known to have been destroyed, and the stock driven off over a distance of two hundred miles Eastward from Carson Valley. Parties of Indians constantly cross this route, and render it impossible to repair stations and restock the route unless United States troops are provided to protect it…”Leavenworth Daily Times June 23, 1860

But it was these stock keepers who manned the relief stations en route, that faced the biggest dangers, out in remote locations with little protection, they were often ambushed. In the summer of 1860 alone, 16 stock hands were killed as their outposts were ambushed by Indians. Yet, during the entire 14 month history of the Pony Express, only 6 riders were killed.

The End of the Pony Express

The Telegraph replaced the pony on 24 October 1861 and two days later the Pony Express closed its doors. But it wasn’t just the telegraph that wrecked the Pony Express, as the Smithsonian article above explains;”The Pony Express was a rousing success in speeding mail across the country, cutting delivery time in half, but it was unbearably expensive to operate. Unable to win a government mail contract, Russell, Majors, and Waddell lost $30 on every letter carried and were forced to sell the Pony Express. In 1861 the Wells Fargo freighting company took over the route through its Overland Mail Company and, in what must have seemed a final blow to Russell and his partners, won a government mail contract on the condition they continue the operation of a semiweekly pony express service.

After George Leonard left employment of the Pony Express he returned to the Salt Lake valley and farmed for a short while on his father’s property before moving to Kamas, Utah. About that time another Pony Express rider came to Kamas valley. His name was Newton Myrick. In the census of 1860 in the city of Great Salt Lake Newton is listed as a Pony Express rider together with several others. By the 1880 census he is listed in Kamas, Utah with a wife and several children living near James Woolstenhulme. The 1880 census in Kamas was taken by George B. Leonard.

 

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I have enclosed a picture of one of the letters which George and Thomas carried on their very first ride for the Pony Express, east bound to Fort Bridge from Bear River. 

pony express monument SLC

The monument to the riders of the Pony Express, SLC

Written and complied by Phil Leonard.

References:

“Our Pioneer Heritage” By Kate B. Carter, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1960, Vol. 3 pp. 390 – 392.

Handwritten account of his Pony Express experience by Thomas O. King and copied by Faun and H. E. King November 29, 1957 from original draft.