FORT LARAMIE – It’s an image that’s become synonymous with the Old West – The lone rider and his horse, making their way through potentially-hostile territory, ferrying news and letters from the east to the new territories in Wyoming and points west.
Though it only ran for 18 months, the Pony Express was a vital instrument of societal changes in the early-1800s. And that impact is being celebrated this week with the annual Pony Express Re-Ride.
On Wednesday, riders made their way from Register Cliff in Guernsey to the Fort Laramie National Historic Site, recreating the southeast Wyoming leg of the almost 2,000-mile route from Sacramento, Calif., to St. Joseph, Mo. They carried mail in locked pouches called mochila draped over the backs of their mounts. And periodically, riders would meet in predetermined locations, pass the mochila from horse to horse and carry on their journey.
“I can’t imagine what they went through,” said Angela Montgomery of Cheyenne, one of the riders on the Goshen County leg of the journey Wednesday. “Those were tough, resilient young men.
“They had to have good horse flesh under them,” she said. “It was pretty admirable, what they did in that part of history.”
Riders for this year’s commemoration departed Sacramento the afternoon of June 20. Just like the original Pony Express, once they are on the road, the ride doesn’t stop until the mail is safely in the hands of the U.S. Postal Service late Saturday night, June 30. Participants in the re-ride – about 650 total – are on horseback around the clock, trading off the mochila every few miles, until it reaches its destination.
Montgomery has been involved in the Pony Express re-rides and the Wyoming chapter of the National Pony Express Association for about 12 years. She and her husband, Scot, got recruited to the group while they were living in Wheatland by long-time ride captain George Branscom.
It was the devotion to a part of history which had a great influence on the entire country that attracted Angela Montgomery to the group and the rides.
“It’s reliving the history,” she said. “I think it’s being lost in today’s day and age. Everyone seems like they’re in such a hurry.
“I think we need to stop and remember those things,” Angela said. “What better way to do it than on the back of a horse.”
The national Pony Express group first approached the National Park Service and the Fort Laramie National Historic Site to host a special hand-off of the mail in honor of the NPEA’s 40th anniversary this year, said Eric Valencia, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the NHS. It was fitting, he said, because the fort was a Pony Express stop in 1860-61 when it was an active, frontier military post.
Interpretation of the national historic trails, including the Pony Express Trail, is part of the mission of the Fort Laramie NHS and the National Park Service, Valencia said. Beyond that is the importance of the Pony Express to the development and expansion of the West.
Particularly for soldiers and civilian settlers around Fort Laramie in the 19th Century, communication with family “back East” took weeks to months, said Dean Atkin, current president of the NPEA. Mail bound for California, for example, either traveled by wagon train or by ship, around the tip of South American then back up to west coast ports. The advent of the Pony Express cut the travel time for mail and important news from months to just days.
“That really made communications better,” Atkin said.
The Pony Express was one step on the ladder of the evolution of American society and helped consolidate the country, Valencia said.
“It was a connection to back east,” he said. “The Pony Express was a real innovation that allowed the soldiers (at Fort Laramie) to keep in contact with their families easier.”
Pony Express riders also carried important news, including the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln and the secession of the Southern states that launched the Civil War, Atkin said.
“It really changed the way the soldiers, the civilians, everybody in the West was able to communicate,” Valencia said. “It was the next evolution in the historic trails. It’s part of who we are today and who we were 100 years ago.”