The First Pony Express?

This article has been written by Trooper Ralph Whitney of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons

Various books and accounts have mentioned the 2nd Dragoons as having provided courier service. John Hays book gives some info as to when and where, but not much details. So I did a little looking on the Library of Congress website in Washington’s papers. I found the orders to establish a line of communication from Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh to Boston. Lt. Mix was sent to establish the line on August 11 1782. The 2nd Dragoons were to provide 12 riders for the section from King’s Ferry (on the Hudson river) to Hartford. Here’s the orders. Try reading them from the point of view of the guy who has to do this job.

The orders to Mix:

To Lieut. Mix 1 Instructions

Head Quarters, Newburgh, August 11, 1782.


You will proceed forthwith to establish a Line of communication between Kings ferry and Boston; You will wait upon Col. Sheldon with the inclosed Order for 12 Dragoons to form the Chain from Kings ferry to Hartford inclusive; these you will post at or in the neighbourhood of the places mentioned in the Margin (two at each), and will make effectual provision for their accommodation and subsistence.

1 Haight’s

2 Danbury

3 Carletons Bridge

4 Breakneck

5 Southington

6 Hartford

From Hartford to Boston you will continue the line of Expresses by persons retained for the purpose by the Qr Mastr Department. These you will station at the distance of 15 or 18 Miles from each other as the state of the roads and other circumstances shall point out; and you will make efficacious Arrangements with the Dy Qr Mastrs of the States in which the Expresses are stationed, for paying and supporting them while in service, or at least for securing, in a satisfactory manner the future payment, to them. Should any difficulties arise on this account I will ultimately see that these expences are defrayed.

You will after having made proper provision for the Dragoons and Expresses abovementioned, give each post of them a Copy of the instruction accompanying this, certified by you and inforce the strictest attention to their duty. On your return you will make a Report of your doing to Head Quarters. I am etc.2

[Note 1: Lieut. and Adjt. John Mix, of the Second Connecticut Regiment. He retired in June, 1783.]

[Note 2: The draft is in the writing of David Humphreys.

Instructions to the Dragoons to be posted by Mr. Mix on the Road from Headquarters to Boston:

Orders for the Dragoons and Expresses posted on the Line of Communication between King’s Ferry and Boston.

August 11th 1782

1st Every Dragoon or Express will hold himself in constant readiness by night and by day to perform the service expected of him.

2nd The Dragoons or Expresses will not commence the journey purposely to forward any dispatches, except such only as are franked by the commander in Chief, or are from the commanding Land or Naval Officers of His Most Christian Majesty, but other letters may be sent by this conveyance whenever the line is put in motion for the before mentioned purposes.

3rd Dragoons or Expresses are always to note on the outside of the Letters, the hour they receive them, and the exact time they deliver them to at the next stage. If the covers of Dispatches should be broken or in bad condition from any casualty what ever, it must be attested by a Magistrate or two respectable inhabitants that this was the case before the Dispatches arrived at stage where the Certificate was given. Otherwise the person in whose possession they are found will be considered as the Delinquent and treated accordingly.

4th Dragoons or Expresses being charged with Dispatches of the foregoing description must carry them their stage with the greatest diligence, but whenever it is mentioned on the Letters themselves that they are to be forwarded with greatest dispatch, they must then ride Night and Day without one moments cessation (the time of receipt and delivery being marked on the letter.) The fidelity and exertion of every individual may be judged of and should any be guilty of negligence they must abide the consequences.

[The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.]

And the orders to Sheldon:

To Colo. Elisa Sheldon 2d L Dr Newtown

Head Quarters, Newburgh, August 12, 1782.


You will please to furnish twelve Dragoons, who are well mounted to form a Chain of Communication from Hartford to Peekskill. Mr. Mix who is the bearer of this, has Orders to post them and make provision for their accommodation and subsistence. The service is temporary, and if the Horses are well supplied with forage and taken proper care of, they may be kept in good condition for the future purposes of the Campaign; [as it is not probable they will perform much duty on the Service they are order’d upon]; you will also have it at your option to relieve them as frequently as you judge proper. I am etc.

P.S. Untill you shall hear that my Head Quarters are removed from this place, you will send the Dispatches which may be brought from the Eastward by the chain of Expresses, by a Dragoon directly to Newburgh.3

[Note 3: The draft is in the writing of David Humphreys. The words in brackets are in the writing of Washington.]

Ok, besides the convoluted phrasing, what can these documents tell us about the riders and the assignment?

The dragoons are assigned to the most hazardous section of the route, that section closest to the enemy. There had been problems in the past with express riders being caught by Tories or bandits. That’s why the dragoons are used near New York.

Sheldon’s orders are to provide12 riders, in pairs, to cover from Hartford to the Kings Ferry in 6 stages. That’s approx 15 miles on average, and up to 20 for some stages. This was considered “light service”, probably more for the number of messages than for the distance traveled. By way of comparison, the 1860 pony express started with 25-mile stages and ended with 10-15 mile but they were averaging approx. 10 mph.

Washington’s orders to Sheldon give a warning to not use up the horses. This wasn’t new. It was a recurrent theme found in many of his orders to dragoon units. The costs to obtain and maintain horses was high and Washington would often “scold” dragoon officers for wearing out the animals too rapidly.

The courier system was only to be used for Washington’s dispatches only. But other mail could go along with them. One could guess that some lower level officers had previously been clogging up the line of communication with their stuff.

I wonder how many dragoons did a little business on the side by carrying mail to make some extra money? Or payoff a bar bill, or as a favor for better treatment where they were quartered? The possibilities for getting into mischief on this assignment are boundless. Two dragoons stationed at a tavern with nothing to do for days on end AND no officers! Obviously these riders were selected carefully and as in prior lines of communication, the riders were probably relived frequently, to keep them from becoming too comfortable with the locals and to save the horses.

The only rider selection criteria is that they be “well mounted”. Literacy was not even a consideration to Washington. It’s assumed that the rider could read and write, at least well enough to do signature custody of the dispatches. Not bad for a time when the literacy rate was 50% or less. It could have been that Washington knew there would be plenty of literate dragoons or that Sheldon would only select men that were. In either case headquarters didn’t feel it was something they had to address.

The instructions call for dragoons to “note on the outside ? the hour they receive them, and the exact time they deliver them”. A simple enough direction, but one that requires a timepiece. It doesn’t seem possible that an army that couldn’t feed or clothe itself or mount more than half the dragoons, would be issuing expensive pocket watches. A better guess would be they counted on the clocks in the town or tavern they were posted at. One more reason to stay at a tavern! Speaking of time, what time did they use? Standard time zones weren’t invented until the late 19th century by the railroads. Prior to that most towns ran on local sun time (highest sun angle is noon). The sun’s apparent motion is 15 degrees per hour making Philadelphia about a half hour behind Boston. In most cases the difference wouldn’t mater at those distances and rates of travel. But when you start logging exact times on dispatches, local time variations could lead to some interesting results.

So, where does this lead us?

We have a lone dragoon, probably a reliable veteran, on a horse he must not wear out but still travel 20 miles “with all dispatch”. Traveling on roads that are best described as poor, while finding his way at night in bad weather. He is carrying dispatches that are to be kept in good condition and are worth gold to Tories or cowboys that can get them from him. (to say nothing of his expensive horse). He’s required to record the time of transfers, probably with out a watch. Not the most glamorous of tasks, but one that the dragoons were called upon to do repeatedly.