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Reflections: When express riders carried the mail at a gallop

A Pony Express postmark from 1860.
A Pony Express postmark from 1860.

The Pony Express has become the stuff of American legend, thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his world-famous Wild West shows.

Businessman William Russell established the Pony Express in April 1860 as a publicity stunt he hoped would help him win a contract to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach from Independence, Missouri, to California. Russell’s ploy lasted only 18 months, and never carried the U.S. mail, but rather acted as a private express service. As one of his riders later put it, it was “a put-up job from start to finish.”

Despite the Pony Express’s short, ineffective run, thanks to Buffalo Bill (who was one of the young men who rode for the company) it has gone down in American history as a noble effort to provide speedy transcontinental communications. In fact, since 1907, it has been the subject of 15 movies, two made-for-TV movies and a 1959 television series.

Although most of us seem to believe Russell’s effort was the first of its kind, people living at the time knew it was not. In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s. And unlike Russell’s PR stunt, it actually carried the U.S. mail.

Designed primarily to carry financial news linking important but far-distant cities in the west such as New Orleans and St. Louis, the Express Mail had a couple branches. One of those branches of the Express Mail passed through our state of Illinois, connecting Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Illinois, on the National Road.

Express Mail differed from regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who was required to make the best time possible. Unlike with regular mail contracts, Express Mail carriers could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Express Mail service was sporadically established at many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders carried messages during the colonial period, then after the Revolution, most expresses were part of the military communications network.

The need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service became apparent in the spring of 1825. When a fast sailing ship arrived from England, New York cotton merchants learned that cotton prices on the London market had skyrocketed. They then bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the news of the price jump. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news so they could purchase cotton at low prices. And they made a hefty profit on the scam, too.

Postmaster General John McLean, vowing such a thing would never happen again, prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” and also established an Express Mail to travel what was called the Great Mail Line from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year. It would be up to one of his successors to create a true Express Mail service.

Amos Kendall took over the post of postmaster general for President Andrew Jackson following a scandal that erupted over Postmaster General William Barry, who was not only incompetent, but allowed politics to enter the mail carriage contract system, driving the previously financially healthy postal service into bankruptcy. Enter Kendall – our county’s namesake – who instituted a wide range of reforms. Those reforms, combined with a nationwide financial boom, created huge postal revenue surpluses.

Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service carrying regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the New York to New Orleans route. Regular mail was carried at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed ... to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news.

President Jackson signed the bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and service began that autumn. Within a few weeks, another express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Alabama. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis. On that line was the Illinois state capital at Vandalia.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, express riders traveled from Dayton to Richmond, Indiana, and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to Terre Haute, Indiana. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie from Terre Haute to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis. Each stage of the trip was made daily by express riders.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days, 15 hours.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. Thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major improvements to the nation’s road system, the regular mail had become nearly as fast as the express. As a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York ... makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

As a stopgap while the nation improved its transportation infrastructure, the Express Mail was a success, keeping the nation tied together via the most sophisticated information technology the era offered. And it might be interesting to note that sending a one-page letter by Express Mail from New York to Vandalia in 1837 cost 75 cents – a time when land in Illinois was selling for $1.25 per acre. That certainly puts any modern postal rate increases into some historical perspective.

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