One of many little-known facts about Brigham Young is that he established a pioneer mail system. It was called the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company, and included a “swift pony express” that predated the legendary Pony Express by several years. In this interview, Devan Jensen explains that the company was a contributing factor to the Utah War—and that it could have transformed the American West if not stopped by the federal government.
Read “The Mail the Trail, and the War: The Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company” by Devan Jensen.
When did Brigham Young first make plans for developing a Latter-day Saint mail service?
The first US Post Office in Salt Lake City was established in 1849. By the 1850s, fast, reliable delivery of people, food, supplies, and mail became top priorities in Utah Territory, and Governor Brigham Young and other territorial leaders gathered in February 1856 to propose an express line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast.
Why was mail service so important to Brigham Young?
Because so many Latter-day Saint emigrants came from the eastern United States or the United Kingdom, the mail was an emotional lifeline to the families left behind, as well as a source of news that was vital to immigration.
Brigham Young proposed a “swift pony express” to travel during the winter and summer in less than twenty days between Independence, Missouri and Salt Lake City.
This was a major innovation well ahead of its time—three years before the government-sanctioned Pony Express of the same name.
What was the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company?
It was a tremendously costly express and transportation company that transported food, supplies, mail, and people across the Great Plains from Missouri to Utah Territory. It was approved about the same time as the Martin and Willie handcart tragedies, which gave poignant incentive to transport people safely across the plains.
Why was it typically called the “Y. X. Company”?
Brigham Young used Hiram Kimball as his undisclosed agent to win the mail contract from the US Post Office Department, and he wanted to mute his ownership role by calling it the “Y. X. Company.”
What were the four branches of the company?
The four parts of the Brigham Young Express and Carrying company were:
- A “swift pony express” to deliver mail.
- Stagecoaches to transport emigrants quickly across the plains.
- Wagons to deliver freight.
- Way stations to outfit and feed western- and eastern-bound emigrants.
Young said a stagecoach service would invite “Priests, Editors, and the great ones of the earth who are so much concerned about the affairs of Utah” to travel to the territory to “learn the truth relative to the Latter-day Saints and their institutions.”
Hence, the company would satisfy a missionary motivation as well.
Where did Brigham Young get the idea for a “swift pony express” three years before the actual Pony Express?
That idea of a pony express was likely already in circulation. However, Brigham Young was probably the first person documented to use that precise wording (in 1856).
How did Brigham Young fund his express mail company?
Under President Young’s direction, the Church began to expend large amounts of scarce capital to build and maintain existing way stations and farming settlements, buy teams and wagons, and buy supplies and equipment and seed to plant crops to feed the emigrant companies.
To provide supplies, the Church immediately borrowed $12,000. The ledger of the Y. X. Company is filled with hundreds of pages of purchases of clothing, equipment, food, horses, livestock, and seed.
As a matter of duty, members were asked to donate labor, livestock, and equipment with the expectation of sharing some of the dividends resulting from the enterprise. Between February and July 1857, members donated a total of $107,000 worth of livestock, equipment, and supplies—in today’s dollars, more than $3 million.
These donations came from members who were both unselfishly promoting safe emigrant travel for their fellow members and seeking money from the mail express, the freight business, and overland traffic to California for their own interests.
Did he ever mention it in general conference?
Acting in his dual role as Church President and president of the Y. X. Company, Young took time in the Church’s general conference of 6–7 April 1857 to promote the company as a missionary-run business enterprise.
That April, Church leaders called nineteen missionaries in April to serve in the company.
What did the United States government think of the Y. X. Company?
The Y. X. Company was approved just as a hornets’ nest was poked in Washington, D.C. James Buchanan, the president-elect, made his way to the White House on a train furnished by Robert Magraw, brother of disgruntled mail carrier James Magraw, who along with John Hockaday had lost the bid to renew their mail contract.
On 6 January 1857, Utah legislators approved provocative memorials to Washington, arguing for rejection of federal officials who did not reflect local values. President Buchanan was vexed over polygamy, poor treatment of appointed federal officials, and tampering with American Indians, and he decided to replace Governor Young.
In May, while Congress was adjourned, Buchanan ordered 2,500 United States soldiers to escort and install a new territorial governor (Alfred Cumming of Georgia was later appointed).
Just after the president sent US troops to Utah Territory, the Post Office Department annulled the mail contract on 10 June. Mail conductors Abraham O. Smoot and Nicholas Groesbeck arrived in Independence about 1 July and were denied the westbound mail.
How did Brigham Young learn that the federal government had canceled the pioneer express service?
On 24 July (ten years after a vanguard company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley), Abraham Smoot, Porter Rockwell, and Judson Stoddard dramatically shared alarming news with people gathered for a pioneer celebration in Big Cottonwood Canyon that the United States Army was marching on Utah Territory.
Governor Brigham Young reported:
The Utah mail contract had been taken from us—on the pretext of the unsettled state of things in this Territory.
Governor Young activated the territorial militia to defend Utah’s borders and asked Lieutenant General Daniel H. Wells to draft a declaration of martial law on 29 August. The territorial militia equipped itself with express company supplies, and the Church public works system that had previously outfitted the express company began manufacturing “guns, bullets, cannon balls, and canister shot.”
Is the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Service responsible for the Utah War?
The transportation company was just one of many factors leading to federal distrust of affairs in Utah Territory. Polygamy, treatment of federal officials, Indian affairs, and the conflict of interests of church and state were much larger concerns.
Did the government allow Latter-day Saints to revamp the Y. X. Company after the Utah War?
No. After months of campaigning during the Utah War, Magraw’s former partner John Hockaday secured the lucrative mail contract—now worth $190,000—and rebuilt dismantled way stations.
Latter-day Saints were hired to help with the mail. Henry Wells Jackson, my third-great-grandfather, began working for pioneering mail delivery agent George Chorpenning in 1858. He ran “Jackson’s station,” a mail station in Utah’s west desert on the Overland Route between Salt Lake City and Placerville, California.
How did the mail-and-war episode impact Latter-day Saint relationships with outside entrepreneurs?
Losing the contract was a bitter pill for the Latter-day Saints to swallow. Ironically, Hockaday’s stations were soon taken over by the Pony Express in 1860, then largely outmoded in 1861 by the transcontinental telegraph system—connected, of all places, at the crossroads of the West: Salt Lake City.
Could you say something about the irony of Brigham Young establishing a unit to protect government telegraph stations during the Civil War?
In an inaugural telegram delivered after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Brigham Young affirmed:
Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the constitution and laws of our once happy country, and is warmly interested in such useful enterprises as the one so far completed.
Young formed a military unit to project the telegraph lines and overland mail as a way of reaffirming the Saints’ loyalty to the Union. Ironically, Lot Smith, who previously burned federal supply wagons during the Utah War, now guarded the overland mail and telegraph lines.
To add further irony to the situation, many federal soldiers left Camp Floyd in Utah to join the southern rebellion, including Albert Sidney Johnston, who became the highest-ranking soldier to die in battle during the Civil War.
How did Leonard Arrington think the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company could have impacted the West if it had been allowed to continue?
According to Leonard J. Arrington, the express company was:
The largest single venture yet tackled by the Mormons in the Great Basin . . . [and] a bold and well-conceived enterprise, which if ‘war’ had not been its outcome, would undoubtedly have changed the whole structure of Mormon, and perhaps Western, economic development.Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 162.
What does Devan Jensen most wish people knew about the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company?
I wish people knew that Brigham Young proposed the idea for this precursor to the Pony Express.
I wish that both federal and state officials had used this blossoming communication network to build bridges of trust rather than shut down the enterprise and send a federal army, which caused unnecessary deaths on both sides.
Building mutual trust, sharing accurate information, and dispelling disinformation are equally important today.
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Pony Express and Latter-day Saints resources
- The Mail, the Trail, and the War: The Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Picturing History: The Pony Express and Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trails (Deseret News)
- The Frontier Guardian: Exploring the Latter-day Saint Experience at Missouri, 1849–1851 (BYU Studies Quarterly)
- Utah’s Role in Protecting the Mormon Trail during the Civil War (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- “I Was Not Ready to Die Yet”: William Stowell’s Utah War Ordeal (BYU Studies Quarterly)