From Missouri to California: A history of the Pony Express | St. Louis Public Radio

From Missouri to California: A history of the Pony Express

Jul 17, 2018

Jim DeFelice is the author of "West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express."
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The Pony Express is an enduring icon of the American West. It was a venture that used horseback riders to transport mail halfway across the continent from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California.

“This book had to be one of the ones that I had the most fun with,” explained Jim DeFelice, author of “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express."

DeFelice, who was a guest Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air, said his research included following the old trail, much of which is publicly accessible by car or walking.

“They wanted to create an empire,” DeFelice said of the people who founded the Pony Express. “If you had anything to be delivered ... they wanted to be the ones doing it.”

Founded in 1860 just prior to the Civil War, the Pony Express gained early attention as its riders delivered the news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. Just four years prior, news of the election of James Buchanan took months to reach California.

Typically, it took the Pony Express 10 days to get a parcel from St. Joseph to Sacramento.

“For the most part you’re talking about a very grueling workday of 10 to 12 hours in the saddle,” DeFelice said. “There are some reports about riders falling asleep in the saddle and horses taking them to their next destination.”

However, riders, who were often 19 or 20 years old, were well compensated, receiving $100 a month.

“At the end of your ride you were pretty much exhausted. If you were lucky you could sleep in the stable.”

DeFelice also talked about several myths and misconceptions involving the Pony Express.

One such misconception is constant violence between riders and Native Americans. “As far as we can tell, that may have been the case on exactly one segment,” DeFelice said.

Another misconception is that advances in telegraphy put the Pony Express out of business.

“The reality is that [the telegraph] was baked into the formula from the beginning,” he said.

DeFelice will be discussing his book Tuesday night at St. Louis County Library headquarters.

He is also co-author of “American Sniper,” a memoir about U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, which was later adapted into a movie of the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Related Event

What: St. Louis County Library Presents Jim DeFelice
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis MO 63131
More information

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lallygive you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.