A very large and vivid xylographic Pony Express promotional broadside, its size and visual impact unmatched by any other Pony Express image with which we are acquainted. Only the second example known.
The broadside features a proud upright rider, his bearing and posture remarkably calm considering that the horse under him is in full gallop. In the near foreground are rather spare grasses and desert succulents, while a sparse mountain landscape fills the background, all serving to emphasize the rugged and solitary terrain traversed by the Pony Express.
Due to the short lifespan of the Pony Express, the ephemeral nature of its promotional materials, and its general mystique, all related graphic material is of the utmost rarity and desirability.
The Pony Express emerged as a response to the pressing need for swifter transcontinental communication, particularly with the rapid growth of the American population in California and escalating political tensions in the runup to the Civil War. It was founded in April 1860 by partners William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, who already held government contracts for the delivery of mail and supplies to the frontier. The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, to use the formal name of the enterprise, operated a 1,900-mile route stretching from St. Joseph, Missouri, through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California terminating in Sacramento. To serve the route the partners assembled some 80 express riders, 400 horses, and a network of nearly 200 relay stations set between 10 and 15 miles apart.
At the heart of the Pony Express operations were the young and skilled riders, often in their late teens or early twenties and required to weigh no more than 125 pounds. They were expected to ride day and night in all weather, covering approximately 75-100 miles per day, and to defend the mail pouches with their lives. For this they were paid $125 per month, far more for example than the going wages for tradesmen.
The Pony Express managed to move the mail between St. Joseph to Sacramento in a stunning 10 days, a remarkable improvement over the protracted delivery times of conventional methods, which could extend to several weeks. Nevertheless, it never achieved profitability, as its extremely high rates kept volume down, and it faced competition first from the Butterfield Overland Mail and then from the rapidly-expanding telegraph network. The service announced its closure on October 26, 1861, having grossed $90,000 in revenue but lost $200,000.
Publication history and rarity
This broadside is neither signed nor dated, though it presumably dates to just before or during the Pony Express’s short period of operation in 1860-61. We are aware of only one other example, currently on display Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. That example was donated in 1969 by William Francis Davidson (1905-1973), a legendary dealer in Western Americana with the Knoedler Gallery.
In terms of Pony Express ephemera, we are not aware of anything similar having appeared on the antiquarian market. We have been able to trace only one other Pony Express related broadside, a much smaller text-only announcement sold by Heritage Auctions in 2007 for $22,705. In 2009, a waybill fetched 17,925 USD, also at Heritage. Other Pony Express pieces, such as the desirable but comparatively common “Pony Express Bible” have an auction history between $20,000 and $75,000. Pony Express stamps and covers are more common, regularly appearing on the market, but prove poor comparables given the general exuberance of the stamp collecting market.
Not in OCLC, and a Google image search turns up no additional examples. RareBookHub records no impression having appeared on the antiquarian market.