The Pony Express Before the Pony Express

Growing up in Utah, I remember a time when my parents took me out to a remote location where there was a reenactment of the Pony Express, a famous mail system in the western United States of America that facilitated fast communication. As noted in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, however, it wasn’t the first time that an attempt was made to create a mail system that used riders passing mail across the western United States. Years before the Pony Express started, Brigham Young initiated his own “Swift Pony Express” system to facilitate delivery from the east. Devan Jensen discussed some of the details about the mail system. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

Called the “Y. X. Company”, the initiative predated the more famous Pony Express by three years. The venture came about because of conditions in the west. As Jensen explained:

By the 1850s, fast, reliable delivery of people, food, supplies, and mail became top priorities in Utah Territory, and Governor Brigham Young and other territorial leaders gathered in February 1856 to propose an express line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. …

Because so many Latter-day Saint emigrants came from the eastern United States or the United Kingdom, the mail was an emotional lifeline to the families left behind, as well as a source of news that was vital to immigration.

Brigham Young proposed a “swift pony express” to travel during the winter and summer in less than twenty days between Independence, Missouri and Salt Lake City.

Agents were sent east to secure a government contract and were initially successful.

The company was an ambitious and expensive venture that had a few different goals:

The four parts of the Brigham Young Express and Carrying company were:

  • A “swift pony express” to deliver mail.
  • Stagecoaches to transport emigrants quickly across the plains.
  • Wagons to deliver freight.
  • Way stations to outfit and feed western- and eastern-bound emigrants.

Young said a stagecoach service would invite “Priests, Editors, and the great ones of the earth who are so much concerned about the affairs of Utah” to travel to the territory to “learn the truth relative to the Latter-day Saints and their institutions.”
Hence, the company would satisfy a missionary motivation as well.

Thus, in addition to mail, the Y.X. Company aspired to transport goods and people across the Western United States.

After sinking in a considerable investment to set the company up, however, events conspired to prevent it from fulfilling its goals:

The Y. X. Company was approved just as a hornets’ nest was poked in Washington, D.C. James Buchanan, the president-elect, made his way to the White House on a train furnished by Robert Magraw, brother of disgruntled mail carrier James Magraw, who along with John Hockaday had lost the bid to renew their mail contract.

On 6 January 1857, Utah legislators approved provocative memorials to Washington, arguing for rejection of federal officials who did not reflect local values. President Buchanan was vexed over polygamy, poor treatment of appointed federal officials, and tampering with American Indians, and he decided to replace Governor Young.

In May, while Congress was adjourned, Buchanan ordered 2,500 United States soldiers to escort and install a new territorial governor (Alfred Cumming of Georgia was later appointed).

Just after the president sent US troops to Utah Territory, the Post Office Department annulled the mail contract on 10 June. Mail conductors Abraham O. Smoot and Nicholas Groesbeck arrived in Independence about 1 July and were denied the westbound mail.

Smoot, Porter Rockwell, and Judson Stoddard returned to Utah Territory with the news of both the canceled mail contract and coming of the U.S. Army, effectively announcing the start of the Utah War to the Saints when they arrived at a Pioneer Day celebration on 24 July 1857.

Even after the dust settled, the company was never revived, with the contacts going to other people and eventually being made obsolete by the construction of the telegraph system.

For more information about the Y.X. Company (including info about an ironic moment in the U.S. Civil War, the reason the company was called what it was, and what Devan Jensen wishes people knew about it), head on over to From the Desk.