Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The freighting and staging firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, formed in 1854 to supply military posts in the American West and Southwest, played a significant role in the history of transportation in the Great Plains. Among the firm's achievements was the creation of the legendary Pony Express.

The founding of Russell, Majors and Waddell was rooted in the U.S. Army's need for an efficient means of transporting military supplies between a new depot in Santa Fe and six new army posts in New Mexico Territory, all established at the end of the Mexican War in 1848. In 1854 the War Department decided the best way to efficiently supply these and other posts would be to award two-year contracts to private freighting companies. The quartermaster awarded the first of these contracts to the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, a partnership of William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, headquartered in Leavenworth, Kansas. They also transported civilian freight on a large scale.

The company’s dealings with the government, rewarding at the start, eventually cost them financially. This downward financial spiral began in 1857, a busy year during which the firm moved nearly five million pounds of supplies to army depots and military posts across Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah. At the outbreak of the 1857 Mormon War, the quartermaster at Fort Leavenworth requested that Russell, Majors and Waddell move some 2.5 million pounds of freight to Salt Lake City, a load far exceeding the firm’s contractual obligations for the year. Rather than jeopardize its position as chief army contractor in the West by refusing the excess freight, Russell, Majors and Waddell borrowed to fulfill the request and incurred heavy losses waiting for future reimbursement from the government. A series of transactions in 1858 put the company in debt, and the decision to launch the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express, a staging and express concern, further eroded the firm's finances.

In 1860, despite growing financial trouble, Russell created the firm's most enduring legacy by convincing his two reluctant partners to support the establishment of the Pony Express as a means of publicizing the superiority of the central route over the lengthier southern route then employed in the trans-Mississippi West by the Overland Mail Company. That same year, Russell found that he could no longer honor his financial obligations. He became entangled in the most serious financial scandal of the period, a scheme involving high-level Interior and War Department officials. Indicted in the scandal, Russell's involvement effectively destroyed the financial standing of all three partners, and Russell, Majors and Waddell went out of business in 1862.

Derrick S. Ward Ventura, California

Settle, Raymond W., and Mary Lund Settle. War Drums and Wagon Wheels: The Story of Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

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