The Pony Express Battles the Paiutes


Most people know that the Pony Express system was created to deliver mail to the remote state of California during the time of the American Civil War. Prior to that, sending a letter from San Francisco to New York might take up to two months to get through. The federal government for a variety of reasons, the Civil War being a big one, needed a faster way to communicate with California and the Pony Express was the answer.

Russell, Majors and Waddell

pony express postmark

Pony Express postmark

What some might not realize about Pony Express history was that the system, while financially supported by the U.S. government, was indeed a private enterprise. It was a for profit company. The contract for this system was awarded to a freighting company by the name of Russell, Majors and Waddell headquartered in Lexington Missouri. The subsidiary of this company which operated the Pony Express was named the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. The parent firms other operations included stagecoach services, freighting and express.the sgag

Replacing the Butterfield Stage Line

The Pony Express system was launched with great fanfare from St. Joseph Missouri on April 3, 1860. This was quite a welcomed event in as much as the Butterfield Overland Stage Line which traveled with mail from Missouri to California via a southwest route through Texas and the New Mexico Territory was disrupted and abandoned due to Confederate operations in the southwest.

pony express postage stamp

Pony Express 1960 issue postage stamp

The Pony Express trail went from Missouri into Nebraska, Wyoming, the Utah Territory which included today’s state of Nevada and then into California via the Lake Tahoe area. It was this part of the route, the Utah Territory and in particular the Nevada portion that caused major disruptions.

Often, when we talk about the Pony Express, we talk about the brave young riders who carried their mochila’s through all types of weather, day and night. The story I’m telling in this article has to do with the people who operated the Pony Express stations along the route through Nevada. The story has to do with a war and massacres that transpired during the very first months of the Pony Express operation.

Today’s Nevada was home to the Paiute Indians. In a story similar to other Native American conflicts, the Paiutes were tiring of the American frontier advances. In the book, The Saga of the Pony Express, author Joseph J. Di Certo points out that the ill will started as far back as the 1830’s with fur trappers entering the area.

Shoshone Indians around the Humboldt River area were allegedly fired upon by the trappers. The intent was to send out some kind of warning. On one occasion, trappers shot and killed about twenty-five Shoshone just standing on the rivers opposite bank. The ‘warning” of course had the opposite effect. Rather than being intimidated, the Indians in Nevada became filled with hatred against the whites.

alexander majors

Alexander Majors, one of the Pony Express business partners

Years later in 1849, thousands traveled along the same route that would be used by the Pony Express heading to the California gold fields. History chronicles many instances of violence meted out by the gold seekers toward the Native Americans they encountered along the way. The federal government intervened with a treaty designating boundaries for the Indians as a way to stop the violence, but like treaties that would be made in later years, they were not fulfilled.

Another factor which may have contributed to the troubles was that Chief Winnemucca died in 1859. He had a reputation as being an ambassador of sorts and had success keeping the peace. In 1860 of course, his influence was gone. The present Paiute High Chief was Numaga who didn’t seem to have the past chiefs patience. The Indians anger built up over decades. Unfortunately for many, and in particular Pony Express station keepers, the anger boiled over in May of 1860, just a little over a month after the Pony Expresses inaugural run.

What resulted was a war referred to as the Paiute War. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Washoe Indian War or the Pyramid Lake War. Whatever you choose to call it, it was a bloody affair that threatened the very existence of the Pony Express. In particular, it brought great danger to the men who operated both the Pony Express relay and home stations.

Consider that there were no army posts anywhere in the immediate area of conflict. Try to imagine for a moment, operating a relay station in this area of Nevada alone. In some cases perhaps with two or maybe three others to help out. Your structure was probably made from wood and at night it would be as dark as it could get. At the same time, you’re aware that the Indian anger has reached the tipping point. You’re on your own and very outnumbered. This might have been the most dangerous job at it’s time in North America.

pyramid lake nevada

Pyramid Lake Nevada

The Day Was May 7, 1860

The spark that touched off violence and killing reportedly was as a result of an alleged kidnapping and assault on Paiute women. You could call it the last straw. A war council was held near Pyramid Lake and some hotheaded warriors didn’t wait for a decision. Although there were some opposed to war, the warriors rode off and their first target was a Pony Express station called Williams Station on the Carson River.

It was the people at this station who allegedly assaulted the squaws. In short order, the station was attacked. A man named J.O. Williams and his two brothers operated the station and as luck would have it, or bad luck, three visitors had just stopped by before the attack. There was a fight but the six men were overpowered. All six were killed by the Paiutes and the station burned to the ground. The warriors then headed for Buckland’s Station just to the west and dispersed cattle owned by a local rancher.

The Station Operators Were Sitting Ducks

To be sure, the Pony Express riders put up with many dangers and some lost their lives in the course of their duties. Compared to the station operators they probably had a better situation. Being on a fast horse, and the Pony Express horses were fast, you had a better than not chance of outrunning attacking warriors. The station operators were both taken by surprise and were greatly outnumbered. They also didn’t have a fortress as protection. These disadvantages would be apparent in the coming days and weeks.

chief winnemucca

Paiute Chief Winnemucca

In the book, The Saga of the Pony Express, the author writes that upon hearing the news of Williams Station, over one hundred men from the Carson City and Virginia City area organized and headed for Pyramid Lake. They were armed and the Indians had bows and arrows but the Indians had seen them approaching and laid a trap. In the ensuing battle about forty of the whites were killed. the remainder fled. Then in late May about eight hundred men set out after the Paiutes and were successful in driving them into the mountains. There was a pause but the war was far from being over.


Links to our related photo articles you’ll be interested in include the Annual Pony Express Re-Ride and A Visit to Old Town Sacramento California.

Also see our article Western Frontier Generals / Crook and Miles

The Paiute War Continues Against the Pony Express

The next attack was on Egan’s relay station. Two men there were attacked and after the Indians ate and took food supplies, they were to be burned at the stake. The tale is that at the very last moment a loud sound of hoof beats was heard and the Indians were driven off. The hoof beats were from a detachment of soldiers who went past the relay station and laid chase after the attacking Paiutes. The soldiers presence couldn’t have been a minute too soon. Unfortunately, those very same warriors later that night attacked the Schell Creek station and killed it’s three operators. The situation was out of control.

The next attack was on Dry Creek station. The Indians killed one man who was outside preparing breakfast, another was shot in the doorway and two remained inside to fight it out. A trader who lived across the road somehow made it inside the Pony Express station. The story here is that the wounded man shot himself in the head and the two remaining men incredibly made a safe getaway with the trader. The trader convinced the men that he had good relations with the Indians and they were not likely to shoot at him. Amazingly, he was correct and the three made it safely away.

pony express mochilla

The all important Pony Express rider's Mochilla

On another day, a Pony Express rider rode into Deep Creek station only to find that his replacement rider was nowhere to be found. The station operator didn’t have a clue but it turned out that the replacement rider had been killed by Indian warriors.

In yet another incident that certainly had a better ending for the station operators, seven Indians rode up to Willow Creek station asking for food. The operator offered them a sack of flour but the Indians insisted on one sack per brave. The short tempered operator drew out two pistols and ordered them to leave. Seeing that they were out armed the Indians left. On the way out they shot arrows into a cow and the station operator replied by shooting two Indians off their horses.

It’s important to recognize that both the station keepers and the riders were well aware of the massacres and killings during the Paiute War. Even with this knowledge, both continued to fulfill their duties although, in the case of the station operators, their firearm was always within an arms reach.

john coffee hays

John Coffee Hays

Putting an End to the Violence

There were countless other attacks on both Pony Express stations and riders. Many more would be killed. The citizens of the Carson City and Virginia City area called upon a famous Texas Ranger Colonel, John C. Hays, to help organize a force. Hays was a legend in his own time by his activities fighting the Comanches in Texas and by his successes during the Mexican American War.

Hays responded and organized thirteen companies of volunteers. The U.S. Army also responded by sending an artillery and infantry detachment from Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. The second battle of Pyramid Lake involved both Hays’ volunteers and the regular army. During this battle, about 160 Paiutes and four whites were killed.  After this battle the federal government built a small fort at the southern end of Pyramid Lake. Captain Joseph Stewart of the U.S. Army eventually commanded Fort Churchill near Buckland’s Station.

Conflict continued into the summer months although on a smaller scale. In August of 1860, an informal truce was agreed upon with Paiute Chief Numaga.

The number of Paiutes killed during this war was not that large as a percentage of the population. Rather, it appears that Indian hardship and starvation during this war, and actually caused by the war itself, was the main reason the cease fire was achieved. The army abandoned the fort at Pyramid Lake in 1861. Amazingly enough, a formal peace treaty was never signed. As a historical note, the Paiute War was the only time that the Pony Express system experienced a disruption of services. The ten day Missouri to California timetable was intact at all other times.

pony express rider

Drawing of Pony Express rider passing telegraph building crew

The End of the Pony Express

As most know, the Pony Express was a short lived affair, lasting only about eighteen months. In fact, it’s successor, the telegraph, was being built all during the time that the Pony Express operated. As far as the Pony Express owners were concerned, it proved to be a losing investment although all involved were very aware that it was only a matter of short time until the telegraph lines were completed. The book Saga of the Pony Express writes that during the lifetime of the system, the Pony Express covered a total of 616,000 miles and delivered, 34,753 letters.

While the Pony Express was the highlight of the Russell, Majors and Waddell partnership, the company never recovered from their financial losses. Waddell was ignored by his high powered friends and died in 1873. The most successful of the three was Alexander Majors who paid off his debts and established a small freighting company in Idaho and Montana.

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center

Exhibits at this excellent multi-purpose museum describe the Paiute tribe’s history and culture and offer insight into why the Paiute people hold the lake and its surrounding landscape so sacred. The Pyramid Lake War of 1860 was the largest confrontation between Native American Indians and whites in Nevada’s history. If you’re traveling from the west, take I-80 east bound, exit at exit 18 (Pyramid Lake/SR 445) and head north 35 miles. This will take you to the museum.

Pony Express National Museum

The Pony Express National Museum is located at 914 Penn Street, St. Joseph Missouri. This is the site of the old Pony Express stables which today house an interactive museum. The exhibits found at this very historic site chronicle the need, creation, operation and eventual termination of the Pony Express. If your vacation plans take you to Missouri, this makes an excellent addition to your trip planner and is a great stop for the entire family.

An excellent book I’d recommend to learn more details about the Paiute War of 1860 is Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860 by author Ferol Egan.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)

Re-Riding on the Pony Express Trail

There’s one fun and historic event that occurs each year sponsored by the National Pony Express Association. It’s a Re-riding of the 1,966 mile Pony Express Trail and it takes place each June. This event offers a fun and close glimpse into the era of the famed Pony Express.

frederick remington pony express art

Frederick Remington's "Coming and Going of the Pony Express"

The NPEA’s main aim is to keep the spirit and memory of this National Historic Trail alive. Headquartered in Pollock Pines California, right on the old trail itself, the NPEA works to preserve the trail and what better way to do that than to put together a reenactment of the Pony Express ride.

Prior to the NPEA forming, there were three re-rides of the trail. The first Pony Express Re-Ride was held in 1935 which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the trail. There was another re-ride held in 1958 sponsored by the Western States Trail Ride. This famous re-ride actually carried U.S. Mail. Then again in 1960, as a 100 year commemoration, there was a re-ride put together by the Western Pony Express Trails Association along with the Central Overland Pony Express Trails Association.

The next ride after the ones mentioned above didn’t occur until the NPEA was formed in 1977.

The Old Trail

The Pony Express National Historic Trail runs from Missouri to California. The very fact that riders accomplished this arduous and dangerous task of getting mail to Sacramento California from St. Joseph Missouri in about ten days overshadowed the fact that the Pony Express only existed for eighteen months. Only ten days to deliver a letter to California was fascinating to the public at that time considering the alternative routes would have been by steamer either around Cape Horn or over to and across the Isthmus of Panama. In both cases it was months, not days.

pony express postage stamp

100th Anniversary of the Pony Express U.S. Postage Stamp

The Pony Express operated in the west during the American Civil War. This was several years before the Indian Wars on the Plains began. This was years before Red Cloud’s War and the Fetterman Massacre in Wyoming, sixteen years before Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and decades before the Indian Wars in the west officially came to an end.

It was a time when traveling on horseback day and night over primitive routes through Indian country could be quite dangerous in the least.

Necessities included a fast horse, a wiry rider and the ability to find your way in daylight and darkness. You may have seen the old advertisements for Pony Express riders which suggested that orphans were preferable. It was both dangerous and adventurous.

Today’s Pony Express Trail

The proposed route for the Pony Express was very simple. It headed west out of St. Joseph Missouri, up the Platte and Sweetwater rivers, through South Pass Wyoming and the Rockies to Salt Lake City. The route then ran out across the Utah and Nevada deserts, up and over the Sierra Nevada and into California at the south end of lake Tahoe and then down the western side of the Sierra Nevada.

old town sacramento

Today's Old Town Sacramento, the western terminus of the Pony Express

Segments of today’s Pony Express Trail are both publicly and privately owned. The National Park Service depends on many organizations and private land owners to keep this historic trail alive. This involves communication with state governments and municipalities. The Pony Express National Historic Trail follows the 1,900-mile route taken by those daring riders through the states of  Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Just as with other notable old western trails, much of the original trail has been worn away by weather and modernization. Some of the best remaining segments are to be found in Utah and California. Eventually, the Pony Express National Historic Camp Trail is planned to run past 120 historic sites related to the famous yet short lived mail operation, including what remains of 50 stations along the route.

placer county california courthouse

Placer County Courthouse California, along the Pony Express Trail

Exploring the Pony Express Trail

Driving directions and maps are available to provide modern travelers with directions along highways that approximate the historic route taken by the Pony riders during the eighteen months that it operated from 1860-1861. The link Pony Express National Trails has a map where you can pinpoint what parts of the trail you intend to visit. In California for an example, the old Pony Express Route generally follows U.S. Hwy 50 up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. U.S. Hwy 50 is also the primary route to take through Nevada toward Utah. In Utah, the route travels northeast past Salt Lake City and into Wyoming.

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting include a Visit to Old Town Sacramento California and Traveling on the Old Butterfield Stage Line.

pony express mochilla

Pony Express Mochilla exhibit

The Utah Segment

The Pony Express Trail National Back Country Byway in Utah begins near Fairfield and ends at Ibapah, Utah.

Add Camp Floyd / Stagecoach Inn State Park on state highway 73, 5 miles south of Cedar Fort to your trip planner. Then add the Pony Express National Back Country Byway Visitor Information Site. The location is 1.8 miles west of the Fausts Junction along the north side of the Pony Express Trail. The station there was named after station keeper “Doc” Fausts. The station was a two-story stone structure located some distance from the present historical marker which was erected in 1939. The entire Back Country Byway is 133 miles long. Most of the route is range land and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Visiting historic segments of the Pony Express Trail makes an excellent addition to your western road trip planner. The map provided by the National Park Service is a good place to start in planning your upcoming road trip. Attending a segment of the annual NPEA Re-Ride is also a great way for the entire family to learn about the days of the Pony Express. For more information, visit the NPEA site at

(Photos and images from the public domain)


Building the Transcontinental Telegraph Lines / Westward Expansion America

When you research western history, one of the most significant events that helped the United States solidify itself was the creation of a transcontinental telegraph system. In fact, the telegraph system was the sole reason the Pony Express had such a short existence. The Pony Express ended at about the same moment that the last telegraph wires were joined together. It wasn’t even a surprise. Everyone well knew that the telegraph system to California would be completed more sooner than later. Pony Express riders would pass work crews stringing the lines.

Building of the Telegraph Lines

Pony Express rider passing telegraph line work crew

Very similar to how the transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, the telegraph lines built to transmit the Morse code translation, would be constructed from both ends simultaneously.

At the start of the Pony Express in 1860, lines from the east reached St. Joseph Missouri. From the west they reached Placerville California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A Pony Express rider carrying a mochila with telegrams heading west from St. Joseph would drop them off in Placerville where they would then be telegraphed to San Francisco. St. Joseph Missouri would be the terminus for telegrams to be sent further east.

As you might expect, building the telegraph lines between Missouri and California was not the easiest job in the world. It all began in earnest with the passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act by Congress in 1860. So why was 1860 a pivotal year for communications?

The Telegraph and the Civil War

The public domain map below shows the route of the first Transcontinental Telegraph line. The lines used to send and translate Morse code to text would change America’s communication systems forever.

The year 1860 marked the beginnings of the American Civil War. California became a state in 1850, at a time when the California Gold Rush was in full swing. The United States was spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a lot of frontier in between. The federal government needed some way to communicate rapidly with it’s far flung state of California.

To demonstrate the problem, a letter sent from Washington D.C. to San Francisco California in 1860, prior to the Pony Express, had two options to be delivered. In the 1850’s, the method was by Pacific Mail ship from San Francisco to Panama, then through the Panamanian jungles to another ship on it’s east coast, then on to Washington D.C. or New York. This was a journey of perhaps two months. If the ship happened to be using the Cape Horn route, it would take longer.

he second method came into being in 1858. This was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line which ran from Missouri to California via the southwest. The Butterfield route via El Paso and San Diego was scheduled to take about twenty-five days covering it’s 2,795 mile distance. Not fast, but a marked improvement over the steamer mail service. What was fast was the Pony Express system which made the Missouri to California trek through the middle of the country in ten days. In fact, prior to the telegraph, this was considered lightning speed.

Pony Express Postmark

Several other telegraph bills were passed by Congress, and one of those appropriated $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the building and maintenance of a telegraph line between the Atlantic and Pacific States.

The mergers and consolidations that would be the history of the later railroads, were similar to what was being set up to construct the transcontinental telegraph. The various California telegraph companies would merge together to build the line from California to Salt Lake City. The Western Union, who was awarded the contract, would build from Salt Lake City eastward. The California companies did formally  meet and agree on their consolidation. The new California telegraph company was named the Overland Telegraph Company with capital of $1,250,000. They would complete a telegraph line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Building the telegraph lines between Omaha Nebraska and California presented a host of problems. Materials were put together in the latter part of 1860. Major problems in supplying the construction crews were overcome but there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the Midwest plains and the deserts of the western portions.

The Civil War made heavy demands on both labor and supplies. Add to this the task of completing the line over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. Materials for the western section were shipped around the Cape Horn to San Francisco, a similar route as taken by many prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier.

In addition to the geographic difficulties, there was always some threat of Indian attack. The Indians were a bit perplexed as to what exactly was going on. Watching work crews stringing wire from pole to pole raised there curiosity. It was reported that many Indians thought that the wire represented some sort of mystical powers not really understanding the concept of electricity flowing over wires. As a side note, there was an effort made prior to the construction of the line to try to explain to the Indians what was about to occur and why.

Western Union Telegraph Key, circa 1900

Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders, one to work on the line from the West , the other from the East. On October 18, 1861, the workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co. reached Salt lake City. This completed the eastern section of the line out of Omaha. The western section was shorter in mileage but the terrain was quite different. The western section of the telegraph was finally completed on October 24, 1861. This date marked the time that the Pony Express system was considered obsolete.

An historic event took place immediately upon completion of the line. Using the key telegraph system in Morse code, a message was telegraphed to President Abraham Lincoln from the president of the Overland telegraph Company which officially read, “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” Truly, this was a major milestone in communication and unified the country as never before. The Morse code sound traveled across the country at virtually the speed of light.

Here are links to two other articles you should find interesting regarding the westward expansion in America. The Pony Express Trail in California and the story of the Central Pacific Railroad, a part of the first transcontinental railroad.

On our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy the article on The Great Train Robbery and the Union Pacific Posse.

Visit the Locust Grove Museum

There’s an interesting historic site tied in with the transcontinental telegraph system. Locust Grove is a villa in the Italianate style designed in 1850 for artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse by architect Alexander Jackson Davis. None of the original furnishings survive from the Morse family’s years at Locust Grove. Of special interest however is that the Museum Pavilion is the home of a permanent exhibit that explores Samuel Morse’s two careers, first as an artist and later as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code.

William and Martha Young brought a new vision to Locust Grove after acquiring the estate from Morse’s heirs in 1895.  According to the Locust Grove Museum, In 1975 Annette Innis Young, the last member of the Young family to live at Locust Grove, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve the estate for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”  Her bequest included more than 125 acres of gardens and grounds. The Locust Grove Estate is located at 2683 South Road, Poughkeepsie, NY .

(Western Union telegraph key photo is from author’s private collection. Other images shown are in the public domain)