By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Listen my child and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of...Alexander Todd??
Most of us have heard about American patriot Paul Revere’s critical role as a messenger who rode by horseback from Boston to Lexington, warning his countrymen about the British Army and their imminent attack. Not only did the Battle of Lexington and Concord become the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War, but the midnight ride of Paul Revere has become almost legendary. In fact, on the 85th anniversary of Revere’s ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was still so inspired he wrote a poem about it.
Throughout history, messengers on horseback have played key roles in the development of this country. One such messenger was an East coast bookkeeper named Alexander Todd who found his destiny in a rather roundabout way. You see, had it not been for an acute case of ‘gold fever’, he never would have made the 170-day sea voyage around Cape Horn to reach San Francisco. That’s right…170 days at sea to reach California. Hard to fathom, isn’t it?
But, as fate would have it, Todd soon realized he didn’t have the stamina to be a prospector. Wading about in icy streams searching for bits of gold was quickly ruining his health. Thinking about a better way to make a living, it didn’t take him long to recognize how the isolated miles of wilderness in the gold field were also affecting the miners.
Cold, often sick, and working to the verge of exhaustion, they longed to hear from the world they left behind – hoping in vain for a letter from their wives, children, sweethearts, family and friends. But the only way a miner could get mail was if he made the arduous trek to San Francisco, a journey that would not only take weeks to accomplish but leave his dig site unprotected against claim jumpers.
Alexander Todd decided he could provide a humane service and make a profit. Although the United States government held a monopoly over the flow of mail, he rightfully suspected they wouldn’t mind some help with certain deliveries. At the time, the Post Office charged five cents for a half-ounce letter traveling a distance less than 300 miles; 10 cents for more than 300 miles. In addition to these fees, Todd devised a system of three fees for his personal mail delivery. For carrying a letter from the gold fields to San Francisco’s post office, he charged $2.50. Incoming mail was more prized and more expensive; after all, he had to make inquiries at the post office for each individual miner’s mail. A fee of $1.00 was established, and the miner’s name was placed on a subscription list. If he found mail for the subscriber, the price for bringing that mail back would be exactly one ounce of gold dust (worth about $16.00 at the time).
Without blinking an eye, hundreds of prospectors handed Todd their letters, signed up for his subscription list, and paid the required fees. With an investment of two horses – one for him and the other for the sacks of mail – Todd rode from the Sierra foothills to Stockton, then a sprawl of tents beside the San Joaquin River. There he planned to board a boat and travel down to San Francisco. But in Stockton, some merchants heard of his trip and asked him – a total stranger, mind you – to deliver $150,000.00 in gold dust to a company in San Francisco. Todd was willing to accept the responsibility, but not before negotiating a price granting him five percent of the value of the dust, or $7.500.00. Having no other alternative, the merchants agreed.
After stowing the gold dust in a discarded butter keg, Todd boarded his horses and found a boat headed toward San Francisco. Without trouble, he delivered the gold dust for the merchants then went to the post office. There he encountered chaos. Imagine if you will, people standing in line up to half a mile long just waiting to reach the postal clerk’s window. Way back then, with each individual’s inquiry the clerk had to go through stacks of unsorted envelopes by hand. When Alexander Todd reached the window, he turned over his sack of outgoing mail and explained his subscription list. Fortunately for him, the postmaster had an entrepreneurial spirit. In exchange for swearing in Alexander Todd as a postal clerk and allowing him to sift through the mountains of mail from the East, he levied a kickback fee of 25 cents for each letter Todd found for one of his clients. Wanting to repair the small dent in his profits, Todd quickly developed some sidelines, one of which was to buy a load of weeks-old New York newspapers, knowing he could sell them at a healthy profit back in the gold fields. Needless to say, the miners not only embraced their mail but bought the newspapers on the spot for $8.00 a copy.
Soon, Todd had 2,000 clients on his mail subscription list and was earning $1,000 per day for both mail delivery and safeguarding gold dust from his clients in the field to their bank. And so it was that in 1852, the West’s first major express agency was established by Alexander Todd.
Other express companies were started, among them Wells, Fargo & Company, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, and The Pony Express. By 1860, Pony Express riders were relaying mail across more than half the United States in as little as ten days. Using what could only be described as a cross-country relay race, couriers changed horses about every 12 miles, riding so hard and fast they exhausted as many as six mounts before passing their mail to the next relay rider. Among its early riders, The Pony Express employed a then unknown William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody.
Another important rider for The Pony Express was William Campbell, who not only carried a copy of Lincoln’s first message to Congress in 1861 to California, but in 1932, at 90 years of age, became the last living Pony Express rider.
Eventually, the railroad and telegraph service replaced the need for Expressmen, but there is no mistaking that they provided a much needed service and played an important role in the development of this country’s means of communication. From lone riders like Alexander Todd and later the men of The Pony Express, to The Wells Fargo and Overland stagecoaches, delivery of the mail (and at times passengers) was so dangerous that often an escort of cavalry was necessary. Yet, before the stagecoach became involved, there was the Expressmen, lone riders facing the elements -- relentless heat, rugged countryside, lonely plains, swollen rivers, flash floods, snowstorms and sleet, as well as unfriendly Native American Indians
We often take for granted how easy it is to instantly communicate with loved ones and friends these days. We live in an age where you can call anywhere in the world by telephone in seconds. Emails and texting have become a norm for communicating in writing. Still, I personally still love to get cards and letters in the mail. There is just something more personal, more 'connected' about that piece of correspondence you hold in your hand.
Needless to say, I can only imagine how it must have felt for those miners when Alexander Todd rode back into camp after that first trip and said, ‘You got mail’.