|Home -> Other Books -> The Story of the Pony Express -> Chapter 1 - At A Nation's Crisis|
|The Story of the Pony Express
At A Nation's Crisis
The Pony Express was the first rapid transit and the first fast mail line across the continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. It was a system by means of which messages were carried swiftly on horseback across the plains and deserts, and over the mountains of the far West. It brought the Atlantic coast and the Pacific slope ten days nearer to each other.
It had a brief existence of only sixteen months and was supplanted by the transcontinental telegraph. Yet it was of the greatest importance in binding the East and West together at a time when overland travel was slow and cumbersome, and when a great national crisis made the rapid communication of news between these sections an imperative necessity.
The Pony Express marked the highest development in overland travel prior to the coming of the Pacific railroad, which it preceded nine years. It, in fact, proved the feasibility of a transcontinental road and demonstrated that such a line could be built and operated continuously the year around - a feat that had always been regarded as impossible.
The operation of the Pony Express was a supreme achievement of physical endurance on the part of man and his ever faithful companion, the horse. The history of this organization should be a lasting monument to the physical sacrifice of man and beast in an effort to accomplish something worth while. Its history should be an enduring tribute to American courage and American organizing genius.
The fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861, did not produce the Civil War crisis. For many months, the gigantic struggle then imminent, had been painfully discernible to far-seeing men. In 1858, Lincoln had forewarned the country in his "House Divided" speech. As early as the beginning of the year 1860 the Union had been plainly in jeopardy. Early in February of that momentous year, Jefferson Davis, on behalf of the South, had introduced his famous resolutions in the Senate of the United States. This document was the ultimatum of the dissatisfied slave-holding commonwealths. It demanded that Congress should protect slavery throughout the domain of the United States. The territories, it declared, were the common property of the states of the Union and hence open to the citizens of all states with all their personal possessions. The Northern states, furthermore, were no longer to interfere with the working of the Fugitive Slave Act. They must repeal their Personal Liberty laws and respect the Dred Scott Decision of the Federal Supreme Court. Neither in their own legislatures nor in Congress should they trespass upon the right of the South to regulate slavery as it best saw fit.
These resolutions, demanding in effect that slavery be thus safeguarded - almost to the extent of introducing it into the free states - really foreshadowed the Democratic platform of 1860 which led to the great split in that party, the victory of the Republicans under Lincoln, the subsequent secession of the more radical southern states, and finally the Civil War, for it was inevitable that the North, when once aroused, would bitterly resent such pro-slavery demands.
And this great crisis was only the bursting into flame of many smaller fires that had long been smoldering. For generations the two sections had been drifting apart. Since the middle of the seventeenth century, Mason and Dixon's line had been a line of real division separating two inherently distinct portions of the country.
By 1860, then, war was inevitable. Naturally, the conflict would at once present intricate military problems, and among them the retention of the Pacific Coast was of the deepest concern to the Union. Situated at a distance of nearly two thousand miles from the Missouri river which was then the nation's western frontier, this intervening space comprised trackless plains, almost impenetrable ranges of snow-capped mountains, and parched alkali deserts. And besides these barriers of nature which lay between the West coast and the settled eastern half of the country, there were many fierce tribes of savages who were usually on the alert to oppose the movements of the white race through their dominions.
California, even then, was the jewel of the Pacific. Having a considerable population, great natural wealth, and unsurpassed climate and fertility, she was jealously desired by both the North and the South.
To the South, the acquisition of California meant enhanced prestige - involving, as it would, the occupation of a large area whose soils and climate might encourage the perpetuation of slavery; it meant a rich possession which would afford her a strategic base for waging war against her northern foe; it meant a romantic field in which opportunity might be given to organize an allied republic of the Pacific, a power which would, perchance, forcibly absorb the entire Southwest and a large section of Northern Mexico. By thus creating counter forces the South would effectively block the Federal Government on the western half of the continent.
The North also desired the prestige that would come from holding California as well as the material strength inherent in the state's valuable resources. Moreover to hold this region would give the North a base of operations to check her opponent in any campaign of aggression in the far West, should the South presume such an attempt. And the possession of California would also offer to the North the very best means of protecting the Western frontier, one of the Union's most vulnerable points of attack.
It was with such vital conditions that the Pony Express was identified; it was in retaining California for the Union, and in helping incidentally to preserve the Union, that the Express became an important factor in American history.
Not to mention the romance, the unsurpassed courage, the unflinching endurance, and the wonderful exploits which the routine operations of the Pony Express involved, its identity with problems of nation-wide and world-wide importance make its story seem worth telling. And with its romantic existence and its place in history the succeeding pages of this book will briefly deal.