Johnson William “Billy” Richardson was born around 1834 in Virginia.
It seems that at a fairly young age, Billy was shanghaied (kidnapped) to serve as a sailor on a seagoing freighter in the North Atlantic.
Some years later he found an opportunity to escape and ventured to St. Joseph, Missouri.
There, Billy went to work for Fish and Robidoux in 1859 as a hostler (someone who takes care of horses in a stable).
He found that he had a knack for riding horses and ended up racing them at a popular track on Sparta Road on his off time before being hired on as one of the first Pony Express riders.
In 1859, the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company was owned by William Russell, Alexander Majors & William Waddell.
The company held government contracts for delivering army supplies to the Western frontier. They employed more than 4,000 men, owned some 3,500 wagons and over 40,000 oxen.
Sometime late in 1859, partner William Russell had the idea of contracting with the U.S. Government for fast mail delivery.
By having short routes and using mounted riders rather than traditional stagecoaches, Russell proposed to establish a fast mail service from St. Joseph, Missouri, across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento, California using a series of relay stations.
Over the winter of 1859-1860, Russell Majors and Waddell organized a new company they named the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company with the goal of landing an exclusive government mail contract.
They planned a 1,900 mile “Pony Express” route roughly following the Oregon and California Trails to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, and then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City where it picked up the Central Nevada Route to Carson City before passing over the Sierras into Sacramento.
These Pony Express stations would be about 10 miles apart based on the distance a horse could gallop before tiring. At each station stop the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch with him.
The new company promised its Pony Express could deliver letters over this route in 10 days, a duration many said was impossible.
In January of 1860, Alexander Majors purchased over 400 horses at about $200 per horse. These horses averaged about 14 1/2 hands (4 feet 10 inches tall) and averaged 900 pounds each, thus the name pony was somewhat appropriate.
In February of 1860, Pony Express hired some 120 riders in addition to several hundred support staff.
They set up 157 Pony Express stations in preparation for the first delivery run scheduled in early spring of 1860.
First Pony Express Trips
James Randall is credited as the first eastbound rider from the San Francisco Alta telegraph office. since he was on the steamship Antelope to go to Sacramento. Mail for the Pony Express left San Francisco at 4:00 pm on April 3, 1860, carried by horse and rider to the waterfront, and then on-board the steamship “Antelope” to Sacramento where it was picked up by the Pony Express rider. At 2:45 a.m., William (Sam) Hamilton was the first Pony Express rider to begin the journey from Sacramento.
Also on April 3, 1860, the first westbound rider was to depart from St. Joseph for the A.E. Lewis Pony Express division which ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas, a distance of some 80 miles including all the stops.
Pony Express Riders Billy Richardson, Johnny Fry, Charlie Cliff and Gus Cliff apparently drew straws to determine who would make the inaugural ride.
Johnny Fry drew the shortest straw but had injured himself the day before and turned down the ride. Billy Richardson had the next shortest straw, so he replaced Fry for the first run.
However, the mail for the first run coming from New York and Washington, DC had not arrive yet, so they all sat around waiting.
It had missed a connection in Detroit and arrived in Hannibal, Missouri two hours late. The railroad cleared the track and dispatched a special locomotive called “Missouri” with a one-car train to make the 206 mile trip across the state in a record 4 hours 51 minutes, an average of 40 miles per hour.
The mail arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri at Olive and 8th Street, a few blocks from the Pony Express office in a hotel at Patee House at 12th Street and Pennsylvania. Billy was called up from the stables on Pennsylvania and the inaugural celebration began.
First, Mayor M. Jeff Thompson gave a brief speech on the significance of the event for St. Joseph.
Then William H. Russell and Alexander Majors addressed the gala crowd about how the Pony Express was just a “precursor” to the construction of a transcontinental railroad.
At the conclusion of all the speeches, approximately 7:15 p.m., William Russell turned the mail pouch over to the first rider Billy Richardson. The first pouch contained 49 letters, five private telegrams. One newspaper “The St. Joseph Gazette” was added along with some company papers for San Francisco as well as intermediate points.
A cannon fired, the large assembled crowd cheered, and Billy dashed to the landing at the foot of Jules Street where the ferry boat Denver, alerted by the signal cannon, waited to carry the horse and rider across the Missouri River to Elwood, Kansas Territory.
The contemporaneous newspaper account (written within hours of the actual event) as it appeared on April 4, 1860 in the St. Joseph Daily West, recorded him as the first Pony Express rider on April 3, 1860, “The rider is a Mr. Richardson, formerly a sailor, and a man accustomed to every description of hardship, having sailed for years amid the snows and icebergs of the Northern ocean.” The article was reprinted in The Weekly West.
Then on April 9 at 6:45 p.m., the first rider from the east reached Salt Lake City, Utah. Then, on April 12, the mail pouch reached Carson City, Nevada at 2:30 p.m. The riders raced over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through Placerville, California and on to Sacramento.
Around midnight on April 14, 1860, the first mail pouch was delivered via the Pony Express to San Francisco.
Today, there is only a single letter known to exist from the inaugural westbound trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California.
The first eastbound Pony Express trip that had left San Francisco, California, on April 3, 1860 and arrived some ten days later in St. Joseph, Missouri.
There are only two letters known to exist from the inaugural eastbound trip from San Francisco to St. Joseph.
From April 3, 1860, to October 1861, the Pony Express became the West’s most direct means of east–west communication before the telegraph was established and was vital for tying the new state of California with the rest of the country.
Billy Richardson rode for the company until the Transcontinental Telegraph went into service. According to his relatives he rode on to Fort Laramie and died in 1862.
Now WE know em