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Horse and Rider: The Pony Express (Grades 6-8)

Grade Levels

6 - 8

Purpose

Students explore the role horses played in the settlement and expansion of the American West by mapping Pony Express stations.

Estimated Time

2 hours

Materials Needed

Interest Approach — Engagement:

Activity 1: Mapping the Pony Express

Activity 2: The Pony Express Horses

Activity 3: Addressing a Letter

  • Envelope, 1 per student
  • Postage stamps, 1 per student
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
Vocabulary Words

horsepower: a unit used to measure the power of engines

Pony Express: mail route between Missouri and California (1860-61)

telegraph: a system for transmitting messages from a distance along a wire, especially one creating signals by making and breaking an electrical connection

Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
  • Horsepower is a measure of work. It was created by James Watt who lived from 1736 until 1819. Watt wanted to measure the amount of energy required to raise coal out of a coal mine, so he created "horsepower" as the unit of measurement. How much is one horsepower? One horsepower is equivalent to 33,000 foot-pounds of work performed in one minute, which can be achieved in many different combinations of feet and pounds.1 
    One horsepower equals all of the following:
    • Lifting 33,000 pounds up 1 foot in 1 minute
    • Lifting 1 pound up 33,000 feet in 1 minute
    • Lifting 1,000 pounds up 33 feet in 1 minute
    • Lifting 1,000 pounds up 330 feet in 10 minutes
    • Lifting 100 pounds up 33 feet in 6 seconds
  • Since speed was its main goal, there was a weight limit for Pony Express riders. Most were small, wiry men who weighed between 100 and 125 pounds—roughly the same size as a modern horse-racing jockey.2
  • Ordinary people almost never used the Pony Express because the price of the service was so high. In the early days, a half-ounce of mail cost $5, the equivalent of $130 today. The service was mainly used to deliver newspaper reports, government dispatches, and business documents, most of which were printed on thin tissue paper to keep costs down.2
Background Agricultural Connections

Horses played an important role in the settlement and expansion of the American West. These hardy animals were the primary mode of transportation. Horses and mules were also used extensively on farms, in mines and forests, and later in building railroads and roads that were eventually used by trains and automobiles. The term horsepower is a reminder of a horse's ability to perform hard work day after day in a variety of conditions.

The Pony Express depended on fast horses and was an important piece of the history of the American West. The Pony Express was a mail delivery service founded, owned, and operated by the freighting firm of William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell.3 It was very different from how we receive mail today. Beginning in 1860, young men on horseback carried letters from Missouri to California as fast as they could ride. Riding in the Pony Express across the western United States was very dangerous for the horses and the riders. Many of the men who rode in the Express were orphans or didn't have parents to worry about their safety.

The Pony Express trail went through eight present-day states (some of the states had not yet entered the Union at the time of the Pony Express)—Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Before the telegraph, this mail relay system was the most direct and practical means of east-west communication.4 

Between 400-500 horses were used by the Pony Express for mail delivery. Horses were selected for swiftness and endurance. On the eastern end of the Pony Express route, the horses were usually selected from US Calvary units and included Morgans and Thoroughbreds. In the west, mustangs were used to navigate the harsh terrain.5 During the 80-100 mile route, a Pony Express rider would change horses 8 to 10 times. The horses were ridden quickly between stations at a fast trot or canter, around 10-15 miles per hour. Sometimes the horses were galloped at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.5 The Pony Express had 190 stations. At each relay station, tired horses were exchanged for a fresh horse. Each station had a corral and barn. A keeper and stablehand were responsible for having a rested horse saddled and ready when a rider arrived. Home stations housed the riders between trips.4

The Pony Express generally provided excellent service, covering the 1,966-mile one-way distance in 10 days or less. It was the quickest form of mail delivery at that time, but was very expensive—nearly $5 to send a letter. At its peak, the service employed 80 riders and 400 horses. In October 1861, the Pacific Telegraph line, joining Carson City, Nevada to St. Joseph, Missouri, was completed, and messages could be relayed almost instantaneously. The Pony Express became obsolete overnight. In the short life of the Pony Express, only 18 months, 37,753 letters were delivered and only one mail pouch was lost.

Interest Approach - Engagement
  1. Explain to the students that the period between 1829-1870, when settlers moved to the American West, is known as westward expansion.
  2. Ask the class to consider what animals they think were most useful to the settlers.
  3. Show The Cowboy's Horse video.
  4. Discuss the importance of the horse to the settlement of the West. Include the following points in the discussion:
    • Horses were used as a main mode of transportation.
    • Horses performed farm duties, such as pulling plows and gathering cattle.
    • Horses were used to pull wagons.
  5. Explain to the students that they will be learning about another important service horses provided during westward expansion—The Pony Express.
Procedures

Activity 1: Mapping the Pony Express

  1. Show The Pony Express video.
  2. Ask the students to consider the unique challenges of riding a horse as a Pony Express rider. (lack of water, extreme temperatures, Indian encounters, steep mountain ranges, lack of populated areas, dangerous wildlife, exhaustion)
  3. Explain to the students that they are going to use a satellite imagery map to determine the topography of the Pony Express stations and explore what it may have been like to pass through these areas. Each student will need access to a computer (students can be paired if technology is limited), or the map can be projected and completed as a class activity. 
  4. Provide each student or group a link to the Pony Express Station Map (use Chrome browser for this Google Earth map). Explain to the students that this map shows the locations of 149 stations. At each relay station, a tired horse was exchanged for a fresh horse. Each station had a corral and barn. A keeper and stablehand were responsible for having a rested horse saddled and ready when a rider arrived. Home stations housed the riders between trips.
  5. Explain that the Pony Express trail went through eight present-day states (some of the states had not yet entered the Union at the time of the Pony Express)—Missouri (1821) and California (1850) had already entered the Union. Kansas (1861) entered while the Pony Express was active, and Nevada (1864), Nebraska (1867), Colorado (1876), Wyoming (1890), and Utah (1896) entered the Union after the Pony Express ceased service.
  6. Have the students choose two stations, click on the pins and read the information, and identify any landmarks, streams, roads, forests, mountains, or other indicating features of the landscape.
  7. Emphasize that the climate varies greatly along the Pony Express trail. Climates can be affected by latitude, elevation, and distance from the ocean. In general, the climates along the Pony Express trail can be grouped as steppe, desert, and mountain. The steppe climate is temperate with warm to hot summers and cool to very cold winters and favors the growth of grasses and shrubs. Deserts are defined by very low levels of precipitation. Mountain climates receive relatively high levels of precipitation and have very cold winters and cool summers.
  8. Have the students complete the Pony Express Station Activity Sheet for their chosen locations.
  9. As a class, discuss some of the possible challenges horses, riders, and station keepers may have had at the different station locations.

Activity 2: The Pony Express Horses

  1. Organize the class into small groups. Provide each group with a Pony Express Horse Breed Card
  2. Have each group watch one of the following videos and take notes about the characteristics of their assigned horse breed.
  3. Have the groups share some of the characteristics they noted with the class. Discuss reasons why these horse breeds might have been selected for the Pony Express.

Activity 3: Addressing a Letter

  1. Ask the students if they have ever received a letter in the mail. Show the students a piece of mail that has been postmarked. Ask them to identify the elements of the postmark (i.e., the stamp, address, city, state, ZIP code, postmark date, and location). Have the students identify how long it took for the mail to be sent from one location to the next. Tell them that generally mail can be received within a couple of days, or even overnight if a person is willing to pay an additional fee.
  2. Have the students identify other forms of communication that are widely used today (e.g., email, telephone, text messaging, social media). Discuss how we communicate today and the advantages and disadvantages of each method. Emphasize the role of penmanship, spelling, and composition in conveying an effective message.
  3. Instruct students on how to address an envelope and send a letter. Students should then write a letter to a friend or relative that describes, in their own words, the adventures and experiences of a Pony Express rider. Have the students mail their letters from the school to their homes. Students may want to predict how many days it will take for their letters to be delivered.

This lesson explores the importance of the Pony Express during westward expansion. If you live in the following states, refer to your local agricultural literacy resources about the Pony Express:

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Horses played an important role in the settlement and expansion of the American West.
  • Historically, horses were indispensable to agricultural production and for transportation.
  • The Pony Express was a mail delivery service used from 1860 to 1861. At this time, the fastest way to travel or send a message across the country was by horse.
Acknowledgements

Pony Express Horse Breeds Cards Photo Credits:

Author

Debra Spielmaker & Lynn Wallin

Organization Affiliation

National Center for Agricultural Literacy

Powered by the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (agclassroom.org)