No story of our West would be complete without including the story of the Pony Express.
*Edit: This post was updated April, 2020 with video, below, and additional learning resources at the end of this post.*
On April 3, 1860, history was made as the first Pony Express riders left St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California simultaneously, each carrying a mochila filled with mail and news, bound in opposite directions and with a deadline of just 10 days to reach their destinations! Let me introduce you to one of our local heroes…
Warren Fremont “Boston” Upson was born in Marion, Alabama and moved with his parents to Sacramento, CA in 1851 when his father Lauren Upson became Editor of the Sacramento Union newspaper. Upson learned his horsemanship skills from the local vaqueros and soon surpassed their skills as well as becoming an excellent marksman. The outdoors was his passion and he loved adventure.
In March of 1860, the 25-year-old replied to route superintendent Bolivar Roberts’ request to ride for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company (the Pony Express) delivering mail, messages and express between Sportsman’s Hall at Pollock Pines, CA and initially Genoa, Utah Territory, then later only to Friday’s Station at Lake Tahoe’s Stateline. He was the ideal man for the job due to his skills, love of the outdoors and sense of adventure. Unlike most Pony Express riders who chose their horses for endurance and speed, Upson chose his horses for surefootedness. Many times he would be forced to dismount and walk his horse through the treacherous Sierra terrain in blinding snowstorms, while near the sides of canyons.
On April 4th of 1860, Upson was to begin his first ride of what was then, and still is, the most treacherous section of the nearly 2,000-mile Pony Express trail. Out of Sacramento, William “Sam” Hamilton turned the mochila over to Upson at Sportsman’s Hall. Upson would then change mounts at Moss’ (Riverton), Webster’s (Sugarloaf) and Strawberry Station where he was led in a blinding snowstorm to Johnson’s Summit by Bolivar Roberts and his pack of mules. He then dropped down the 2 miles of Hawley Grade to change mounts again at Lake Valley House. After which, he was off over Luther Pass’ Grass Lake, down through the aspens to Hope Valley, changing mounts again at the last California station – Woodford’s and eventually ending his ride in Genoa. This first ride found Upson in driving snow for most of his trip up to Woodford’s Station, a scenario he would endure time and again.
Upson laid over in Genoa and then accepted the westbound mochila on April 13th of 1860. He arrived at Lake Valley House at the bottom of Hawley Grade around midnight, once again in a blinding snowstorm. As he made his way up the narrow grade, Upson encountered a pack of mules at about the halfway mark. The snow was several feet deep and he had to break the snow for his own horse around every mule in his path. After 3 ½ hours, he reached the summit where he encountered the party who had abandoned their attempt to go down the grade and were camping the night. Having no such luxury, he forged ahead. Inevitably, he was late delivering the mochila to Sam Hamilton at Sportsman’s Hall and therefore the mochila was late into Sacramento, missing the boat and had to be ridden all the way into Oakland, CA. Despite the delay, the mail arrived in 10 days-time at both St. Joseph and San Francisco, thus accomplishing what was thought by many to be the impossible!
Upson, who rode his route the entire 18 months of the endeavor, also participated in carrying the news west of President Lincoln’s Inauguration in March of 1861, the fastest entire ride of the Pony Express at 7 days and 17 hours time. Equally important, he participated in the delivery west of the news that Fort Sumter had been fired upon on April 14th of 1861 and the War Between the States had begun.
The spirit of Warren Upson and every rider lives on today with the NPEA – National Pony Express Association. The Nevada Division, founded in 1983, is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the Pony Express in our great state. For more information on the NPEA Nevada Division, you can email [email protected] or visit their website here.
Story by Kim Harris, a local historian and historical re-enactor, who passionately shares her love of Carson Valley history at every opportunity afforded to her. Find out more at Western History ALIVE!
Here are some additional learning resources, with all the answers found in this blog post and video.