The Overland Trail Across the American West

First Ride of the Pony Express

First Ride of the Pony Express

General John Reynolds, when at his winter headquarters, in 1859-60, not far from the junction of Deer Creek with the North Platte Rivers, on the south side of the Oregon Trail, was one of the first west of Fort Laramie, Wyoming to receive mail by the means of the Pony Express.

“The Pony Express was established while we were in winter quarters, and by it we several times received interesting news but three days old. The sight of a solitary horseman galloping along the road was in itself nothing remarkable, but when we remember that he was one of a series stretching across the continent, and forming a continuous chain for two thousand miles through an almost absolute wilderness, the undertaking was justly ranked among the events of the age, and the most striking triumph of American energy.” — General John Reynolds

But, the Pony Express lasted only a year before the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company went bankrupt and the assets were sold to Ben Holladay.

Ben Holladay

Ben Holladay

In 1861, Holladay was awarded the Postal Department contract for overland mail service between the end of the western terminus of the railroad in Missouri and Kansas and Salt Lake City. Service from Utah to California was given to the Overland Mail Company and other stage lines.

With the discovery of gold in Colorado and the consequent growth of the city of Denver, Holladay changed the Overland Trail to the West, using the banks of the South Platte River, as well as those of the North Platte, as a thoroughfare descending into Colorado before looping back up to southern Wyoming and rejoining the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Due to Indian uprisings that were occurring on the Oregon Trail farther north through central Wyoming along the Sweetwater-South Pass route, the new route became for a while the only emigrant route on which the US Government would allow travel, and consequently was the principal corridor to the west from 1862 to 1868.

Between the years 1861-1866, Holaday operated daily about 5,000 miles of stagecoaches, having equipment of 500 coaches and express wagons, 500 freight wagons, 5,000 horses and mules, and numerous oxen. The cost to take care of the stock of this company averaged a million dollars annually, while to equip and run the line for the first year incurred the added expense of $2,425,000. After five years of freighting, Holladay sold out his entire business to the Wells Fargo Company, which remained in active operation until 1869 in that particular line of transportation, when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were completed. Holladay, in 1865, to help out the Overland Route to the Montana gold fields, established a branch line of his road, which went from Fort Hall, Idaho north to Virginia City, Montana. In addition to freighting, Holladay carried the mail for the government during the period of the Civil War, receiving annually one million dollars for the service. Statistics show that in 1861 over 21 million pounds of freight went west from the shipping points of Atchison, Kansas which brought with it to the plains using 4,917 wagons, 6,164 mules, 27,685 oxen, and 1,256 men.

Pony Express Route by William Henry Jackson, 1860

The Overland Trail close followed the Pony Express Route, drawing by William Henry Jackson, 1860

Russell, Majors, and Waddell, for many years the government contractors to transport military supplies to the forts along the trails, used in their trail-freighting train, 6,250 over-sized wagons, with a carrying capacity of 6,000 pounds each, and 75,000 oxen. This array of transportation facilities, if placed one in front of the other, would have covered the trail for a stretch of 40 miles. After a reliable freighting system was in place, it was not uncommon to see stretched across the plains each week over 1,000 of these patient, plodding ox-teams, with wagons loaded many feet beyond the side-boards.

The Pony Expresswas running while the telegraph lines were  being built. This drawing by George M. Ottinger, appeared  in Harper's Weekly, 1867.

The Pony Express was running while the telegraph lines were being built. This drawing by George M. Ottinger, appeared in Harper’s Weekly, 1867.

The extending of the telegraph line across the continent, under the management of Edward Creighton, in 1861, was the undoing of the Pony Express, which had been inaugurated in order to have a better and more rapid mail service from the Missouri River to San Francisco. The telegraph was put into operation on October 24, 1861, when the first transcontinental message was flashed over the line. Thus, a distinctive step was taken in the binding and uniting of the Missouri River with the Pacific Ocean. This telegraph line ran parallel with and over the Oregon Trail, and soon became to the Indians a symbol of the white man’s despotism and his determination to finally possess the country through which the singing wires had spun their way to the lands of the mining camps and new mountain homes.

There were established two stage and telegraph lines from the Missouri River, one running from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Fort Kearny, Nebraska and the other going from Omaha to Fort Kearny, Nebraska.

At Fort Kearny, the lines consolidated, going up the Platte Valley as far as Julesburg, Colorado, a conspicuous stage station near the mouth of Lodge Pole Creek, where it emptied into the Platte River. At this characteristically — alive border town the lines again separated, the main telegraph line going north-westward to Fort Laramie, Wyoming and beyond to South Pass and Utah, while the stage line went southwestward to Denver, Colorado by the way of the South Platte River. From Denver, the coaches went north to Fort Collins, then to Virginia Dale, Colorado, across the Laramie Plains, Fort Halleck, Elk Mountain, Bridger’s Pass, Bitter Creek, out to Fort Bridger, on to Utah, California, Oregon, and Montana. Just east of Fort Bridger the Oregon Trail and the Overland Trail united and became one.

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company in Denver, Colorado, about 1865

Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company in Denver, Colorado, about 1865

The route of the stage lines crossing these savagely contested lands had stage stations situated about every 12 miles along their length, while the government troops were posted along the route at specially constructed forts or blockhouses at intervals of about 100 miles. The scarcity of soldiers, particularly during the Civil War, available for this dangerous duty, made the lives of the few who served one of extreme danger. Only a few armed and trained men were distributed at each station. In addition to these fortified buildings along the way, were the occasional farmer and ranchman, the relay stations for changing horses and the eating houses.

The shrewd Ben Holladay maintained a virtual monopoly of the Overland Stage line until 1866 when he decided to sell out. Well aware that the inevitable completion of the new Transcontinental Railroad would eliminate the need for stagecoach transportation, Holladay was fortunate to be able to sell the route, the equipment, and the contracts to Wells-Fargo. The overland mail continued on for another 2 1/2 years along the Overland Trail, until the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, eliminating the need for mail service via the stagecoach.

The Overland Trail was most heavily used in the 1860s as an alternative route to the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails through central Wyoming.

It was a colossal business to supply those things most needed for the towns and cities that were springing into existence in the West, and the Oregon Trail became wider and deeper. This mighty traffic scarred the face of the trail to the West so deep that in many places, for miles, there remained discernible traces of the heavy traffic of this period, even after more than 50 years of disuse.

Oregon Trail Ruts in Wyoming

Oregon Trail Ruts in Wyoming By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

Adventures & Tragedies on the Overland Trail

Stagecoaches of the American West

Stagecoach Kings (Lines) & Drivers

Wagons and Stagecoaches Photo Gallery

Primary Source: Much of this article was written by Grace Raymond Hebard and Earl Alonzo Brininstool who were western historians in the early 20th century. This account was excerpted from their book, The Bozeman Trail: Historical Accounts of the Blazing of the Overland Routes Into the Northwest, published by the Arthur H. Clark Company in 1922. However, the article as it appears here has been heavily edited for spelling and grammatical corrections, truncated, and additional information has been added.

Other Sources:

Overland Trail

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