A Bible and a Gun: The History of the Pony Express

Who knew that the Pony Express was founded with a presumption that its riders would be Christian?

Hermon Atkins MacNeil's Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Hermon Atkins MacNeil's Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri. (photo: Via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

On the evening of April 3, 1860, a lone rider set out on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, carrying a mochila (backpack) crammed full of 49 letters, five private telegrams, and some newspapers. Ten days later, at 1:00 a.m. on April 14, the package was finally delivered by another rider to its destination in San Francisco, California. In addition to the mailbag, the Pony Express riders carried two things: a Bible, and a gun.

The Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Company, better known as the Pony Express, had its beginning 157 years ago. The following year, under the direction of founders William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, its name was changed to the Central Overland California And Pike's Peak Express Company. Cross-country mail delivery was important to keep families and friends in touch anad to transact business, but also because of two factors which are prominent in America's history: the discovery of gold in 1848, which drew thousands of prospectors, investors and businessmen to the new state of California; and the political climate, leading up to the American Civil War.

The rider's work was difficult, and Pony Express riders had to be tough. There are numerous reports of riders traveling 300 miles or more without stopping to eat or rest. There were encounters with wolves and skirmishes with the Paiute Indians, sometimes resulting in injury or death.

A rider also had to be lightweight, so as not to tire the horse. American author Mark Twain, who saw the Pony Express riders in action, wrote in his memoir “Roughing It” that the typical rider was “usually a little bit of a man.” One advertisement for riders read:

Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Some 80 young men fit that description and were hired for the job in 1860, along with 400 other employees: station keepers, stock tenders and route superintendents. A Pony Express rider received a salary of $100 per month – which compared very favorably to the typical salary of the time, ranging from 43 cents to a dollar per day.


The Pony Express's Christian Vision

Who knew that the Pony Express was founded with a presumption that its riders would be Christian? Not I! I knew about some of the more famous riders – like William (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, who began riding for the Pony Express at the age of 14. But I'd never heard that its riders took a Christian oath before heading westward to deliver the mail.

Alexander Majors, one of the founders, was a businessman who also founded the Kansas City Stockyards. Majors was a deeply Christian man; and he resolved “by the help of God” to overcome all difficulties. Majors presented each new rider with a special edition Bible. It's reported that riders received two things, a Bible and a gun; and that they were told to read the Bible daily, and to use the gun only when necessary.

Majors required that every rider read and sign this oath before heading out on the trail:

“I, ….., do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful, to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”


The Intercontinental Telegraph Dealt a Death Blow to the Pony Express

During its nineteen months of operation, the Pony Express became the most direct means of east-west communication, and was vital in tying the new state of California with the rest of the United States. Its riders delivered more than 35,000 letters between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

But its destiny was to be short-lived. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California. Other telegraph lines connected cities on the east and west coasts with points along the line. Two days later, on October, 26, 1861, the Pony Express announced its closure.