Majors' Efforts

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Alexander Majors, date unknown
Alexander Majors, date unknown
Birthplace of the Pony Express in Saint Joseph, Mo, at Pikes Peak Stables
Birthplace of the Pony Express in Saint Joseph, Mo, at Pikes Peak Stables

Alexander Majors, was born to a farming family on October 4, 1814 near the town of Franklin, Kentucky. He eventually became one of the most important freight-haulers on the Santa Fe Trail, bringing him considerable fame and fortune in the 1850s. Today, however, Alexander Majors is best remembered as one of the founders of the Pony Express.

Majors spent most of his childhood at the edge of the frontier in Missouri. At the age of 20, he married and settled on a farm in Independence, Missouri, where he would become a full-time trader in the late-1840s. In 1848, he set out with ox-drawn wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. The trail had extended from northwestern Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico since 1825 and had fueled the growth of the settlements at its eastern edge; especially Independence, Westport, and the Town of Kansas (now Kansas City, Mo).

On Majors' first Santa Fe excursion, he made the 1,600-mile round-trip in just 92 days, a record-breaking feat. He built on his newfound reputation, and by the mid-1850s he was guiding trade expeditions made up of more than a hundred of wagons and men, and more than a thousand mules.

In 1854, a minor change in government policy brought Majors into a partnership that would later result in the creation of the Pony Express. Military contracts for overland freight to the Southwest had become increasingly larger and more lucrative after the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. In place of the existing patchwork of small freighters, the federal government sought one large company that would sign a two-year contract for overland freight.

Seeking a monopoly over western trade, Alexander Majors merged his company with former competitors William Bradford Waddell and William H. Russell. Together they won the two-year contract, and Russell, Majors & Waddell became the largest and most profitable freighting company that had ever been organized in the West. It employed more than 1,000 men, operated 5,000 wagons, and maintained a stock of 40,000 oxen.

As quickly as Russell, Majors & Waddell arose, however, it ran into financial difficulties. Heavy losses of freight, workers, and livestock resulted in the late-1850s from severe weather, raids from Native Americans, and the 1857-1858 armed conflict between U.S. soldiers and Mormon settlers in Utah. The massive profits quickly evaporated, leaving the company in debt.

William Russell sought to alleviate this grim outlook by winning a contract to deliver United States mail to the west coast. Waddell and Majors were hesitant to support a venture that required such lofty overhead costs as 500 horses, but they eventually went along with it. When the Pony Express opened in April, 1860, horse riders carried light loads of mail at rapid speeds to stations along the route. The riders would change horses at these stations and continue on their journey.

Because no railroads or telegraphs yet connected the East with the West, the Pony Express was the fastest way for the government or private citizens to send mail to settlers in California or anywhere along a route that roughly followed today's U.S. Highway 36, from St. Joseph, Missouri through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada to San Francisco, California. Many detractors had argued that such a system could not be used during the harsh winter months, but in practice the Pony Express proved that it was a practical mail service year-round.

Financially, on the other hand, the Pony Express was a complete disaster. It failed to win the government contract that Russell had counted on, leaving the entire enterprise undercapitalized. The final blow came on October 18, 1861, when the Pacific Telegraph Company opened the first transcontinental telegraph line. Riders on the Pony Express delivered mail sporadically for a few weeks, but horseback riders simply couldn't compete with the speed of the telegraph. The Pony Express consequently closed after just 18 months in operation.

Ironically, Majors, Waddell, and Russell are rarely remembered today except as the founders of the Pony Express—perhaps their single greatest failure. Majors estimated the total losses to be roughly $300,000. Outside of those three individuals, though, hardly anyone remembered the Pony Express as a failure. Thanks to sensationalizing fiction writers, former riders, and sideshow performers such as William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the image of lone riders struggling against the elements to deliver the mail on the Pony Express became a highly-romanticized Western legend.

Sadly, Alexander Majors, one of Kansas City's most important early businessmen, could not fully share in the making of this legend. He lost his entire fortune when Russell, Majors & Waddell folded due to competition from the transcontinental railroads. He lived out the rest of his life on modest royalties from his autobiography and died in 1900 with relatively little money or renown to his name.

 

Read full biographical sketches of Alexander Majors, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Visit the Pony Express National Museum at 914 Penn St., Saint Joseph, Missouri; (800) 530-5930.

Check out the Pony Express National Historic Trail, operated by the U.S. National Park Service, call (801) 741-1012 ext. 119 to request a brochure.

 

View images relating to the Pony Express that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books, articles, and films about Alexander Majors and the Pony Express, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Search the Kansas City Public Library catalog for dozens of other books and videos about the Pony Express, especially including many children's books.

 

Continue researching Alexander Majors and the Pony Express using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka, KS: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 771, 808, 968, 1011, 1178, 1200, 1206.

Roy S. Bloss, Pony Express - The Great Gamble (Berkeley, California: Howell-North, 1959), 80-85, 96-97, 136-139.

Daniel Coleman, Biography of Alexander Majors (1914-1900), founder of the Pony Express, Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.

Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 5-9, 17-19, 22-23, 27, 50.

Henry C. Haskell, Jr. & Richard B. Fowler, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: Frank Glenn Publishing, 1950), 34.

Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 29, 39.

Raymond W. Settle, Mary Lund Settle, Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1955), 6-10, 29-51.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

I find the story of Alexander

I find the story of Alexander Majors fascinating. Also, the story of R.A. Long, a former Kansas City resident. What happened to Kansas City? With such pillars of society and great men and historical accomplishments of the Pony Express, the stockyards, TWA....how did Kansas city fall from its lofty position?

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