The Pony Express: The Fastest Delivery of a Message across America


The inauguration of a new service, the Pony Express, on April 3, 1860, promised the fastest communication ever from the Missouri River to California. How long did a Pony Express message take to go from its starting point in St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California? How many years was the Pony Express in existence? How many riders were employed? What hardships did the riders experience? Finding the answers to these questions and many more like them captivates youngsters, encouraging them to read about, imagine, and romanticize an era of long ago.

Pre-Civil War settlers who had already reached California and its promise of gold found themselves cut off from the rest of the world. Butterfield Express was an overland mail route via stagecoach that took twenty-three days for delivery. Most people knew it was a matter of time before the telegraph and railroad would span the continent, but with the Civil War looming in the near future, something was needed now to replace the existing overland route. Elementary students can examine primary documents such as newspaper articles, stories, and letters to understand how important the Pony Express was for settlers seeking east-to-west communication in record time.

Essential Question

Why was the Pony Express described as an immediate success by Western settlers but a financial failure for its proprietors?


  • Explain that advertisements were used in the 1860s to influence people to demand better and faster methods of communication.
  • Ask how people communicate today.


  • Students will analyze newspaper articles, stories, and letters to understand the significance of the Pony Express.
  • Students will create a poster or a power-point presentation based on their research.




Day 1

  1. Distribute to the students copies of the "MEN WANTED!" poster and the St. Joseph newspaper advertisement.
  2. Explain that the purpose of the advertisement was to draw public attention to the Central Route in order to gain a government mail contract for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. The demand was to speed communication from the East to West.
  3. Discuss the appeal the advertisement and poster had to the public.
  4. Divide students into groups of four and assign each group one topic listed below. Distribute copies of all primary documents to each group for analyzation and ask students to prepare presentations for Day Two that address their topic’s questions.

Topic A: Historical Background

  1. Who founded the Pony Express and when was it established?
  2. Why was the Pony Express established?
  3. What investments did the proprietors make to get the Pony Express in operation?

Topic B: The Riders

  1. List three of the earliest riders.
  2. What was their base salary?
  3. What were their qualifications?
  4. What was the average speed of a rider, and how often did a rider change?

Topic C: The Horse

  1. What type of horse was purchased and why?
  2. How often were the horses changed?
  3. Describe, explain, and provide a picture of the mochila (saddlebag).

Topic D: The Station
Provide a brief overview of the following:

  1. general physical conditions of the structure
  2. sleeping arrangements
  3. food served at the stations
  4. hospitality of station masters

Topic E: The Route

  1. Use a map to point out the states that encompassed the 1,966 miles of the Pony Express.
  2. List the hardships the rider experienced along the route.

Topic F: Termination of the Pony Express

  1. When did the Pony Express end?
  2. Discuss the new method of technology that brought an end to the Pony Express and explain why it was used.

Day Two

In groups, the students will create a poster (or a power point-presentation) that will focus on the specific topics they were assigned on Day One and that will respond to the questions. The students will explain their posters or power-point presentations to the entire class.


The teacher will lead a discussion of the successes and failures of the Pony Express and will write key points that emerge from the class discussion on the board.


Students will make a timeline showing the progression of technology for communication from the days of the Pony Express to the present. They will write a paragraph explaining the advantages of the most modern forms of communication.

Suggested Books

  • Adams, Samuel Hopkins. The Pony Express. Chicago: Spencer Press, Inc., 1950.
  • Bailey, W.F. "The Pony Express." Golden West: True Stories of the Old West.
  • Freeport, NY: Maverick Publications, Inc., Vol.1, No. 1, 1964.
  • Banning, Captain William, and George Hugh Banning. Six Horses. New York: Century Company, 1930.
  • Barrett, Ivan J. Eph Hanks -- Fearless Mormon Scout. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, Inc., 1990.
  • Beck, Warren A, and Ynez D. Haase. Historical Atlas of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
  • Benson, Joe. Traveller’s Guide to the Pony Express Trail. Falcon Press, 1995.
  • Biggs, Donald. "The Pony Express: Creation of a Legend." San Francisco: privately printed document, 1956.
  • Bloss, Roy S. Pony Express: The Great Gamble. Berkeley: Howell-North, 1959.
  • Corbet, Christopher. Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
  • Di Certo, Joseph. The Saga of the Pony Express. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002.
  • Settle, Raymond W., and Mary Lund Settle. The Story of the Pony Express. London: W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd., 1955.