Frederic Remington’s 1901 oil, The Coming and Going of the Pony Express depicts riders in buckskin clothing. In reality, buckskin would have been too heavy. Light clothing and shoes with no heavy pistols were preferred. The riders were young and small. Letters were written on light tissue paper. Courtesy of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Henry Avis, One of the Last Pony Express Survivors

“When I rode my first ninety miles on the mail route it nearly killed me,”

By Diane Euston  

  Starting in the late 1840s and spawned by the Gold Rush, approximately 250,000 tenacious pioneers left western Missouri and headed to California to claim their fortune. On average, the journey took between four and six months – and the dangers encountered in this 2,000-mile journey were countless.

  The increase in the population in Oregon and California required a reliable means of communication past the Rocky Mountains. This need was seen by three men who launched the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company in 1859. Their subsidiary company – the Pony Express – became a national symbol of progress in the Wild West.

  Using a relay system, young men rode fast thoroughbred horses and carried mail 1,966 miles from St. Joseph, Mo. all the way to California. The journey that took a wagon train four to six months took these men only 10 days! 

  Even though the Pony Express was in operation for a short amount of time, the fascination with this once innovative mail system increased at the turn of the 20th century. The young men who once rode a portion of this route were then older, wiser and willing to share their stories of this interesting period of American history.

  One of these old men, Henry Avis, was a resident of Kansas City, Mo. and led an interesting life which included 18 months running mail along the Pony Express route, horse training and intermingling with some of Kansas City’s most well known businessmen.

Henry Avis (1840-1927), rider on the Pony Express and resident of Kansas City.

Henry Avis’ Early Life

 Born most likely in St. Louis in 1840, Henry Avis was the first American-born member of his family. His parents, Joseph and Ellen, immigrated from London, England, through New Orleans in 1839. His father was a coach smith, skilled at building coaches that were certainly in need as the United States expanded west.

  By 1840, the family settled in St. Louis, but tragedy struck when Henry’s father passed away. His mother remarried and moved to New Orleans with young Henry in tow. Henry’s mother most likely passed away shortly after, leaving Henry an orphan at a young age.

  Henry would later claim that when he was nine years old, he came up the Missouri River from St. Louis “as a cabin boy on a side-wheeler.” Once here, he claimed he ran the steamboat “Lucas” from Westport Landing to St. Louis. 

  Although his early life is somewhat a mystery, what is clear is that Henry was left, for the most part, to fend for himself. He kept in contact with his sisters who lived in Texas and New Orleans, but he chose a nomadic life that led him across the plains and into the Rocky Mountains.

  Some have suggested that Henry Avis used Kansas City as a home base as he “developed a reputation as an expert breaker of wild horses” in Leavenworth and Atchison. A well known old mountain man took notice.

  In 1858, Henry joined Major Andrew Drips (1789-1860) on a trip west on the Santa Fe Trail to deliver supplies. Drips was a well known early fur trader who settled in the West Bottoms with French traders and trappers before 1840. Drips married two different Native American women and continued trading expeditions late in his life. 

  Drips had a trading post 20 miles from Fort Laramie, Wyo. where the goods were to be delivered. In Fort Laramie, the government had a mail service to Salt Lake City running three days a week, and Henry noticed that they paid double the wages he was earning working for Drips.

  Henry wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity to make more money, so he packed up his limited supplies and entered into a quick career delivering mail for Hockaday & Company. At the time, the Laramie agent was Seth Ward (1820-1903), namesake of Ward Parkway. 

  While riding into Fort Laramie, Henry had about two minutes to get any mail and change horses. “Many a time I woke [Seth Ward] up in the middle of the night to come out and unlock the mail pouches and sign my waybill,” Henry later recalled. “It was hurry, hurry all the time.”

Alexander Majors (1814-1900)

The Founding of the Pony Express

  Alexander Majors (1814-1900) was a well known entrepreneur who started several business ventures that paid him handsomely. In the late 1840s, Majors began hauling overland freight, and by 1853, he landed government contracts to supply military forts.

  William Waddell, a store owner from Lexington, Mo. partnered up with William Russell in 1852 with the hopes of landing military contracts. Three years later, they brought on Alexander Majors as a partner. The new partnership was able to land a government contract to supply all military posts west of the Mississippi River.

  In 1859, their company, Russell, Majors & Waddell, started a subsidiary company known as Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. Originally intending to operate as a stagecoach line, the need for efficient express mail service west inspired the men to go after mail contracts. Their plan worked, and the company purchased Hockaday & Company that had the contract for mail service from Missouri to Salt Lake City.

  St. Joseph, Mo. was the chosen starting point for this new mail route service, then called the Pony Express, because it was the ending point at the time of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. Mail could be taken off the railroad and then be delivered by the Pony Express to the west.

  The Pony Express was organized to have over 120 stations along the route, and they supplied horses, stationmasters, mail agents and riders. The route was divided into five stations with each route having its own superintendent.

  The first run of this new express mail service between St. Joseph and San Francisco began on April 3, 1860. The first ride included “a mail pouch containing 49 letters, five telegrams and miscellaneous papers.” According to the National Parks Service, the Pony Express riders rode 75 to 100 miles and were provided a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles. A one-way trip took 75 horses to run, and the average speed was 10 miles per hour.

  The first ride of the Pony Express took 11 days to deliver mail to San Francisco.

: A map of the Pony Express. The red box indicates the portion of the route that Henry Avis ran. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Henry Avis’ Heroic Rides on the Pony Express

  Young men like Henry Avis who was already delivering mail three days a week moved to daily service for the Pony Express. At 20 years old, Henry was given the run from Mud Springs in Nebraska through Fort Laramie to Horseshoe Creek in Wyoming – a 90-mile route. On that first Pony Express run, Henry was handed mail on April 5, and in less than two minutes, he sped off on his run up the North Platte River.

  “When I rode my first ninety miles on the mail route it nearly killed me,” Henry later explained to the Kansas City Star. “The first 70 miles weren’t so bad; I got along in fine shape, but those last 20 were misery. . . It felt like most of my bones were breaking before I got there. And it was a few days before I could go the route without being tortured.” 

  Riders couldn’t keep their feet in the stirrups because it would break the animal down. “We had to swing along with the motion of the horse, sort of like a jockey riding in a race,” Henry said. “And that took training, I can tell you.”

A rider’s mochila which draped over the saddles. Courtesy Smithsonian Postal Museum.

  There were many dangers for these young riders of the Pony Express. The uneven terrain, threat of attack by Native Americans and the weather all made for difficulties. But, for a young, 20-year-old man like Henry Avis, the pay of $25 per week was worth the sacrifice.

  On one ride, the Sioux Indians were threatening the area and marauding riders and travelers. Henry Avis arrived at Horseshoe Station and found that his relief rider was refusing to carry the mail. Exhausted but unwilling to miss a deadline, Henry grabbed a fresh horse and rode all night long.

  When he reached Deer Creek, he found that the station was abandoned and the fresh horses had been stolen. Undaunted, Henry Avis got back into the saddle and continued. In all, he covered 220 miles.

  His courage wasn’t unseen by the owners of the Pony Express. They paid him a bonus of $300 “for exceptional bravery.”

  One of his most memorable moments riding for the Pony Express occurred when he was tasked with being one of the riders carrying President Lincoln’s inaugural address. Instead of taking the normal 10 days to make it to the west coast from St. Joseph, Mo., they delivered it in the record time of seven days, 17 hours. 

  “Our regular schedule was 240 miles a day, an average of 10 miles an hour,” Henry recalled. “But when we were carrying Lincoln’s message we did better than 18 [miles] on some of the divisions.”

  Once the riders were used to their route and developed a routine, they could arrive exactly on time. But time was running out. Telegraph lines were being run all the way to the west coast, and on October 26, 1861, the lines were in operation. The last run on the Pony Express occurred just one month later.

  In total, the Pony Express was in operation for 18 short months.

This 1867 engraving by George M. Ottinger shows a Pony Express rider passing workers constructing the telegraph lines that would replace the need for the express route in 1861. Courtesy Library of Congress.

From the Pony Express to Horse Training

  When Henry Avis returned to Kansas City, he began working as a railroad contractor, helping build those railroad tracks that would replace overland stagecoach travel. 

  He lived with William Mulkey (1824-1907), a wealthy real estate dealer who married Catherine Drips, Major Andrew Drips’ daughter. Mulkey was a well known gambler and breeder of racehorses; an old friend once said, “In the early days Mulkey loved his racehorses next to his wife.” They had an impressive brick home at current-day 13th and Summit.

  Henry Avis’ talent with fast horses wasn’t lost on William Mulkey. In 1873, Mulkey attended a horse race in St. Joseph where a thoroughbred horse named Chiquita from Seneca, Kan. caught his eye. He bought the horse for a whopping $1,000. 

  Mulkey put a “flat broke man” from California in charge of Chiquita, but the man only knew of quarter horses. When that arrangement didn’t work out, he turned to his friend, Henry Avis, and told him he would give him meals and “let him sleep out in the barn if he would help tend the horses.”

  Chiquita’s training went well, and she placed in many races. Mulkey began to trust Henry’s opinion on all his thoroughbred horses, and his training was one of the biggest factors in the success of Mulkey’s horse racing business.

  Mulkey told the Kansas City Times in 1893, “Henry has brought home from $2,000 to $26,000 every year.” 

  In about 1885, Henry married a widow named Mollie Snell, and the couple resided on William Mulkey’s horse farm 40 miles north of Kansas City in Ray County. 

Henry Avis (1840-1927). Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star

  Henry Avis traveled the racing circuit throughout the country and in Mexico, but his old age was catching up to him. In 1905, William Mulkey announced he was reluctantly selling his race horses because “his trainer, Henry Avis, is in very poor health and cannot look after them.” 

  What was wrong with Henry is unknown, but he had many more successful years of life in him. In fact, when Mulkey sold his horses, he gifted his farm in Ray County to Henry. When Mulkey died in 1907, Henry was an honorary pallbearer. 

  As Henry crept into his 80s, he kept a radio set by his chair, went “motor car riding” with his friends, would go to the movies, and shoot pool against the youngsters in an area saloon.

  In March 1927 at the age of 86, the last Pony Express rider in Kansas City died at his home at 12th and Prospect. He claimed he lived a long life because he kept active. “Got to keep my arteries from hardening,” he once said. “These modern doctors have found out a lot since the days when men died of arrow wounds out on the western plains.”

Headline in the Kansas City Star, March 21, 1927.

The Pony Express Lives On

  During the Missouri State Fair in 1921, Henry Avis rode through the streets of Kansas City in a commemorative parade to celebrate the state centennial as one of the “last of the living Pony Express riders.”

  The obsession with the lore of the Pony Express was oftentimes quoted in newspaper headlines, and early-on, groups of people would come together annually to recreate the famous 2,000-mile journey from St. Joseph to California. The goal, it was said, was to beat the original times.

  In 1923, one such “re-ride” occurred, and Henry Avis balked at their efforts. While the original Pony Express riders ventured 90-plus miles with a leather mochila (mail pouch) attached to the saddle, these riders traveled less than a third of the distance. “If they let a man ride only 10 or 15 miles at a stretch, maybe they’ll make the time we did,” Henry told the Kansas City Star in 1923. “But not if they try to go 80 or 90 [miles].”

  June 7 through the 17th of this year, the National Pony Express Association hosted their annual “re-ride” from Sacramento to St. Joseph. Retracing the original route eastbound, each rider was responsible for two to five miles. They successfully made it to St. Joseph in 10 days.

  Henry Avis would not be impressed; regardless, the reenactment only solidifies our obsession with the Wild West and showcases the progress that has been made over time.

  Even Henry recognized how quickly technology overtook the Pony Express. “Excitement seems to be all in speed nowadays,” he explained in 1923. “We used to think we were traveling fast on the old Pony Express. But no, they’re carrying mail across the country in airplanes in less than 30 hours.”

  I’m sure Henry wouldn’t be surprised to learn we move even faster a century later. He continued, “It’s awful to think about it. We used to move slower, but we got there just the same. I’m telling you that we’d all live longer and better without all the speed.”


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