Hard Work & Horse Power

How America Was Built on the Back of a Horse

text size

The story of America is the tale of a people always on the move.  It is also the story of the continual search to find new and better ways to transport people and goods as dependably and as fast as possible. The story of America begins with the horse. 

Publicador de contenidos


Learn about mail as part of the Hard Work & Horse Power exhibit.

text size

As more settlers arrived on the western lands and established homes, farms, towns and emerging cities, the need for communication and efficient transportation between settlements became paramount.  Just as it had in the East, the stagecoach emerged as the most effective means of shrinking time and distance in the early West. The country’s main stagecoach line was the Butterfield Overland Mail.  Both settlers and government officials had talked about the benefits of a transcontinental stagecoach line that could carry both mail and passengers.

Butterfield’s government contract called for him to use the highest-quality coaches pulled by the best horse teams available.  He bought 1,800 of the fastest horses he could find and 250 new coaches.  He hired the best drivers and 1,000 additional employees to tend the horses at each station. Much of the success of the Butterfield Overland Mail was due to the skill and daring of the drivers.   They were known for descending the steepest grades at full gallop and climbing the highest terrain at a trot.  Thrilled passengers often shared the drivers’ love of speed and sense of adventure. The glory days of the stagecoach in the West were relatively brief, however.  By the 1860s, the railroad began to move into the western territories.  In 1869, the main role of the stagecoach became that of transporting passengers from one depot to another along the rapidly expanding railroad network. 

Determined to make the delivery of mail even swifter than the fastest stagecoach, the Pony Express was born.  Although Pony Express existed for little more than a year and a half, it provided an extraordinary service and earned a place in the nation’s history. The private freighting company of Russell, Majors, and Waddell established the Pony Express.  The goal was to deliver mail along a more than 1,900 mile route that stretched from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California.  The entire route was to be covered in just eight days. It was an enormous undertaking.  Hundreds of station keepers were hired, along with men to tend the horses at each stop.  More than 120 daring and experienced riders were employed, and the horses were chosen with even greater care.  The Pony Express paid up to $200 per horse to secure the very best.  

The Pony Express began operations on April 3, 1860.  A rider started out from each end of the route.  Each rode on a light saddle, which had a square leather pouch with pockets, called a mochila, secured to it.  Inside the pockets, wrapped in oilskin, were about 20 pounds of mail. A Pony Express rider usually covered about 100 miles in a day.  When his stint was over, he would gallop into a station and transfer the mail to the horse of a fresh rider, who would then race off toward the next station.  The entire exchange took less than two minutes.

The Pony Express riders were extraordinary and fearless horsemen.  The challenges they faced as they covered the long miles at a steady gallop would have broken the resolve of less courageous men, and some of their feats became legendary. When the first Pony Express riders raced along their route, they often passed workmen stringing telegraph wires on long poles.  On October 24, 1861, telegraph connections between Kansas City and San Francisco were completed, bringing instant communication to the West; the days of the Pony Express came to an abrupt end.