On January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James W. Marshall looked down and saw gold flakes in a stream of water on land owned by John Sutter in Caloma, California.
It could be argued that Marshall set off a butterfly effect that led to California becoming the largest economic giant in the U.S., one so large that if California were an independent nation, it would have the fifth-biggest economy on the planet. All because a carpenter looked down at some water at a particular moment 171 years ago.
As word of Marshall’s discovery spread, California’s population skyrocketed overnight, and the territory became a state two years later. To this day, California’s state motto is “Eureka” which is Greek for “I have found it”, the phrase that was surely exclaimed thousands of times along riverbeds in those days.
But as with all American history, it wasn’t all fun and games. Native Americans were among the first victims of the rush as new settlers drove them off their native lands, often through violence. Those that survived suffered depletion and pollution of their food sources due to toxic gold-mining operations.
The overall economic impact of the California Gold Rush is unclear, though there is a great irony that neither Marshall nor Sutter ever got rich from the gold rush.
Also born from the gold rush was a need to deliver mail from the east to the west, and the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company thought it had the perfect solution: the Pony Express.
Using horseback riders, the Pony Express boasted it could get mail across the 1,840 miles that separate Missouri and California in 10 days or less, a previously unthinkable level of efficiency.
Home stations were set up every 100 miles or so along the route, where riders could switch horses, eat, and rest up before setting back on the trail. The Pony Express went through areas so remote that remnant of old stations still stand to this day, weathered by the sands of time. I’ve been out in the places the Pony Express ran through, and I’ve never felt more at the mercy of nature.
The Pony Express was a simple concept organized meticulously. It’s a popular example of life during the Wild West, but it’s difficult to overstate how dangerous it was.
A job poster for it reportedly read, “WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen,” noting that applicants “Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Each day was not a leisurely stroll down a designated path with an equine pal. Riders had to go through an actual war zone as the short-lived Paiute War took hold between the Northern Paiute tribe and incoming settlers, and riders were alone in barren deserts and high mountains, hoping their horses wouldn’t toil over.
Not only that, but they were expected to be on their best behavior while on the route.
Alexander Majors, one of the Express’ founders, required riders to take an oath that they won’t curse, drink or fight while on the Express, though given that this was the literal Wild West, I have a hard time imagining those rules were taken seriously.
Historians estimate that about 120 young men rode the Pony Express. Its most famous rider being “Buffalo Bill” Cody, though I much prefer the nickname of his sidekick, Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam. Little is known of many of the other riders.
Historians Mary and Raymond Settle wrote that the riders, “Did good work against heavy odds and came up with splendid results.” Only one bag of mail was reportedly lost during the duration of the Pony Express.
And while The Pony Express was an effective solution to the problem it set out to solve, something would come along less than two years after those first wiry fellows threw their legs over their horses and headed west. The completion of the first transcontinental telegraph system was a swift death knell for the Pony Express.
Two days after telegraph lines were completed, the Pony Express ceased operations after just 18 months.
Despite being outstandingly short-lived, the Pony Express remains a symbol for the Wild West. The operation’s parent company reportedly kept very few records, so it’s believed much of what we know about it is thanks to passed-down lore.
But we do know that the Pony Express was one of the first ways we communicated rapidly, and it was made possible by the efforts of a bunch of young people we don’t know too well.
It’s hard enough to put yourself in the shoes of someone who grew up in a different decade than your own. Imagining what life was like as a teenager nearly two centuries ago is nearly impossible.
But I like to think about those mostly anonymous riders, and what their experience on the Express was like.
Buffalo Bill, Pony Bob and co. could never have known the legacy their rides would leave, nor could they have known how soon it’d all be over. How many riders set out for the thrill of it? How many were chasing a good paycheck? Did they spend the rest of their days reminiscing about their experience on the road, or was it just a passing memory, like a modern college internship?
Were I born 150 years sooner, would I have grabbed a mochila and set out on the Express? Probably not, but I remember what being a teenager felt like: directionless, hungry for a ticket out of town, and a very skewed idea of what’s dangerous and what’s not.
Most of all, the Pony Express is a lesson in how cruel timing can be.
The Pony Express was a pretty good idea, as far as ideas in the 1800’s went, and even though it was ultimately flopped, it was successful in the short term.
If the telegraph hadn’t been a few years away, or if the Express had first kicked off a few years prior, the fate of American transcontinental communications may have taken an entirely different path.
Yes, it feels inevitable that the telegraph would be invented, but what about the riders? How different would their lives had been if they’d been on the Express for 18 years instead of 18 months? How many more small towns would have popped up along the route? Would they be there today?
I think just because something goes horribly awry and flops after a short period of time doesn’t necessarily make it a failure. Yeah, it didn’t work out, but the Pony Express was an ambitious, flawed idea that was worth undertaking. I think everyone has some ideas of their own that fit in that category. The trouble is seeing past the telegraph lines that we’re all afraid will show up.