Communication was difficult on the western frontier, especially in the early days. Mail delivery was a slow, undependable process fraught with danger from nature and Indian attack. From Apr. 1860 until Oct. 1861, the Pony Express tackled the problem with a relay system of horseback riders who covered the distance between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California in about 10 days.
Famous for their bravery and riding skills, the famous Pony Express riders have been immortalized in countless books, movies and TV productions. The Young Riders, a series focusing on the daredevils who signed on for the hazardous job ran from 1989 through 1991. It was a hit at my house!
The Pony Express National Museum, located in St. Joseph, MO, commemorates the iconic mail service, and if you’re ever in Jacksonville, Oregon, be sure to see this dramatic statue of a hell-bent-for-leather rider. My author friend Rain Trueax took these photos and kindly gave me permission to post them. She says Jacksonville is a very historic town, probably explaining the statue’s presence there.
The legendary mail delivery system was replaced by the telegraph, making it far easier and faster to send important messages across the rolling plains and mountains. However, letters to friends and family weren’t, in most cases, such a high priority. Dependent upon horse-drawn stagecoaches, riverboats and rail service, it could still take weeks, even months for a letter to reach its destination, if it wasn’t lost or destroyed along the way.
What about pen and paper to write those letters? Did you ever wonder how easy, or difficult, it was to obtain such items in isolated western towns, ranches and farms? Prior to the 1840s in the United States, paper was made from recycled rags. The process was slow, tedious and expensive, making paper beyond the means of many people.
In 1840 Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented wood pulp paper, much less expensive to create and purchase. However, it still cost money to transport paper journals and stationary to far-flung western locals. Pioneers didn’t scribble on a sheet of paper and toss it out the way we do in out throw-away society. When they wrote a letter, they took their time composing it. The same undoubtedly applied to those who kept diaries, such a valuable resource for historical researchers.
Pens were also precious possessions for our pioneer ancestors. Steel pens were introduced in France, in 1748, and cylindrical steel pens cut like quills in 1780. The first plunger-filled fountain pen was invented in 1833, but the first practical version didn’t come along until the 1880s. You can be sure if a frontiersman or woman owned one, it was well guarded.
Pencils evolved later than pens. Not until 1795 did a graphite pencil come into existence. How easy they were to come by on the frontier, I haven’t yet discovered, but I suspect they, too, were horded as long as possible.
All of which just reminds us how lucky we are today. A century or two ago computers and the internet would have been seen as fanciful dreams, possibly even works of the devil.