The Actual History of the Pony Express

is as sketchy as it was brief; Its place in

America memory has been huge!


the one-car Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad train bringing the mail from back East was more than two hours late getting into St. Joseph, Missouri, even though its engineer, Addison Clark, set what railroad men would later claim was a speed record that stood for half a century. The few passengers on board the special train, dignitaries who arrived soot-flecked and frightened in St. Joseph, swore later that they’d feared for their lives. Ad Clark made the 206-mile run down from Hannibal in 4 hours and 51 minutes.

At 7:15 that evening, depending on whose version of the story you prefer, Johnny Frey (or Freye, or Fry, or Frye), or Billy Richardson, sometimes called Johnson Richardson (he was said to be a sailor, but what a sailor was doing in the heart of the heart of the country is never explained), or Alex Carlyle, or Henry Wallace (that’s according to The Century magazine in 1898) leaped into the saddle and began to gallop west across the continent, carrying mail from the train. That historic gallop began in front of Patee House, the grandest hotel west of the Mississippi River in that day. Or it started in front of Pikes Peak Stables, about three blocks west. Or the stables weren’t there but were someplace else. Or it happened over on the other side of town at the telegraph office on the east side of Third Street, or maybe Second Street, between Felix and Edmond Streets. Or was it some other place altogether? We do know with complete certainty that the rider left from St. Joseph.

The St. Joseph newspaper was not much help about this, however; the reporter neglected to mention who the first rider was. Newspapers were very different then, but it does seem odd down these long years that a reporter sent to cover such an event would not have said who was on the horse. Long after a panel of St. Joseph residents was convened to determine just who he had been. After lengthy delibera- tion and even a $100 reward, they announced that they could come to no conclus-ion. We know that the rider was wearing a bright red shirt and blue trousers and a yellow kerchief—or that he wore a kind of military getup like a drum major’s uniform, or that he was clad in buckskin. He was carrying two Colt revolvers and a Sharp’s rifle (or, it could have been a Spencer), or he was unarmed, or he was carrying two pistols. He had a horn to blow to announce his arrival in stations down the line, though maybe not. For certain he had a Bible. Alexander Majors, of the freight-hauling firm of Russell, Majors & Waddcll, which underwrote the venture, gave every employee a little calfskin-bound Bible. Well, whoever was riding, we are certain he was on a horse, although some of the riders did use mules. It was either sorrel, black, hay, or.... . .The horse and rider traveled to the Banks of the Missouri River, where the steamboat Ebenzer ferried them across into the Kansas Territory. However, it’s possible it wasn’t really the Ebenezer, but the Denver

W E KNOW THERE WAS MUSIC; ROSENBLATT’S five-piece German brass band had come down from Nebraska City on the river-boat, and the musicians played “Skip-a to My Lou” and “What Was Your Name in the States.” There was a big crowd on hand, and it plucked the poor horse’s tail hairs for souvenirs. You could still buy those horsehair woven into finger rings for a long, long time after that, or so they say. Ask around St. Joseph enough, and you’ll find someone who has one of those horsehair rings, or used to. True enthusiasts know the name of the horse: Sylph.

Alternatively, because the train was late and dusk was coming on, the crowd had dwindled to a handful, so there was hardly anyone there to see the first rider off. Illustrations—perhaps the most famous one was commissioned long years after by a St. Joseph brewery—always show a crowd on hand, a handsome rider in the saddle at full gallop, and the sun shining. The sun set at 6:46 P.M. on April 3, 1860, but it shines forever in the work of illustrators, none of whom were present on the great day. About 8 hours after leaving St. Joseph, or maybe 10 or 12, with at least one change of rider and many fresh horses, the mail pouch, called a miochila, reached Marysville, Kansas. A girl in Marysville who lived to he a very old lady would in the l930s tell a historian about witnessing the first rider come in. She said he was Johnny Fry. She was there. She heard the horn blow too

Also on April 3, but actually a bit earlier that afternoon, another rider, Harry Roff, had left Sacramento, California, racing east. Everyone seems to agree it was Harry Roff. Alexander Majors says it was, and William Lightfoot the first historian of the event, and W. F Bailey, writing in The Century magazine in 1898, say so too It’s nice to have some agreement. Alas, there are now those who believe it was not Harry Roff but William Fisher. Still, they all agree that the horse was white. Its name is not mentioned. We know that the riders east and west would change about every 100 miles, with fresh riders resuming the race, and that all those riders changed horses about every 10 to 15 miles of the 2,000 miles between St. Joseph and Sacramento. We know that the mochila going west from St. Joe that first day was carrying” 49 letters and a few newspapers and telegrams. It cost five dollars ($5.00) to send a letter across the country. The first riders passed each other, one heading east and one heading west, a few days later somewhere east of what is today Salt Lake City, Utah. We don’t know what they said to each other or whether they stopped and chatted at all. We know that one eastbound rider would later claim he rode so far and for long without relief that he often slept in the saddle and passed the westbound rider without realizing it. We also know that about 18 months later—October 26, 1861, is widely accepted—the riders stopped setting off east and west. Notices in the California newspapers announced that the horses would race no more. By then the transcontinental telegraph was fully strung; the East and West Coasts of America were linked by a new technology. And that spelled the end of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, which we remember as the Pony Express, a term that remains as endearing as it is enduring.

It had begun as a matter of supply and demand. The California Gold Rush had drawn West nearly half a million Americans by 1860, and they were hungry for news of home. Twenty-one days was considered good time to move mail across the country, and that time could quadruple if the mail traveled by ship via Panama or around Cape Horn. Before the Pony Express a variety of odd attempts were made to deliver the mail quickly, ranging from camels to a Norwegian immigrant on cross-country skis. They all failed. The Pony Express, too, ended as suddenly as it began, strapped with debt and put out of business virtually overnight by the transcontinental telegraph, which had been strung overland in record time. When it went out of business, in the fall of 1861, the United States was in the throes of the Civil War. The subsidiary company of Russell, Majors & Waddell had fallen upon hard times and owed a lot of money; published reports said it ranged from $200,000 to $500,000, maybe even $700,000. The records of the Pony Express, such as they might have been, were lost or stolen or destroyed. There were scandals too. Two of the three principals in the venture, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell, died financially ruined. Russell nearly went to jail in connection with a bond fraud, a reckless attempt to bail out the foundering Pony Express. The third partner, Alexander Majors, who looks in yellowed photographs like images of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, lived a long, long time. He had pioneered trading along the Santa Fe Trail in the I 840s and would be there the day they drove the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in Utah, completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The man got around. Majors lived to see the twentieth century, and he didn’t write his memoirs until more than 30 years after the last rider of the Pony Express had galloped across the continent.

When Majors did finally settle down to chronicling the days of the Pony Express, his account was complicated by some creative assistance. Buffalo Bill was the de facto publisher; he paid Rand McNally to print the memoir. He also obtained the services of Col. Prentiss Ingrahain, a public relations man and one of the most prolific dime novelists ever to take up the pen on behalf of Buffalo Bill and the American West. Majors said afterward with some alarm that Colonel Ingraham had taken liberties with the facts; there were embellishments. The colonel said Majors was too modest and he was just trying to tell a good story. And what a story it was: Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors’ Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border. Whatever else it accomplished, Majors’s book firmly established the vital role played in the Pony Express by William Frederick Cody, known better as Buffalo Bill. it was not Buffalo Bill’s first effort to enshrine the legacy of the Pony Express. From 1883, when the first of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows opened in Omaha, until the final season of 1916, when Cody was an old man, broke and sick, and needing to be hoisted onto a horse so that he could briefly ride around the ring and wave to his fans, wherever he went touring on the North American continent or in Europe, the memory of the Pony Express went with him.


B UFFALO BILL TOOK THE PONY EXPRESS AROUND the world. He trouped his show from Pope Leo XIII in Rome to Queen Victoria in London to the kaiser in Berlin (Annie Oakley shot a cigarette out of the German monarch’s mouth on a dare). He toured from Baraboo, Wisconsin, to Lewiston, Maine, from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Goshen, Indiana, year after year, in rain or in shine, in sickness and in health, triumphant and broke. No one did more to permanently brand into the minds of American and European spectators the days of the Pony Express and the image of the brave horseman whom Mark Twain (he had seen a Pony rider) had called “the swift phantom of the desert.” Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show changed from year to year. New acts came and old acts left—a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand replaced by Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill—but the Pony rider was always on the program, generally right after Annie Oakley’s stunning display of marksmanship and before the prairie emigrant train had to be rescued from “red savages” by Buffalo Bill himself. No one, from penniless orphans (allowed in free because Buffalo Bill had a good heart) to kings and Presi dents ever left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World without seeing that one irre- placeable fixture of the Old West. For decades the program note never varied; it read simply, “Pony Express: A former Pony Post-Rider will show how the letters and telegrams of the Republic were distributed across the immense Continent previous to the building of railways and telegraphs.”

Nearly half a century passed before the first book-length work about the Pony Express was published. It was produced by Col. William Lightfoot. Visschei; an alcoholic and rambling newspaperman who had drifted across the American West. There is no index in his masterwork on the Pony Express, and there are no footnotes or bibliography, no indication whatsoever of where he got his informat-ion. Much of his research appears to have been done at the Chicago Press Club’s bar, his legal address for a number of years. No one wrote much about the Pony Express before him, but he himself knew Alexander Majors and Buffalo Bill Cody and Robert (“Pony Bob”) Haslam, perhaps the bravest and must famous courier to ride for the overland mail. Visscher titled his book A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express. He certainly got the thrilling part down right. Every hook published about the Pony Express since has owed some debt to that first lively chronicle. Of course, serious historians and academics have ridden wide of the quick-sand of the legendary cross-country mail service for more than a century. Americans do not suffer failure gladly, but they forgive and they forget. And so the story of the Pony Express, lost in the hard years of the Civil War, became in time a recovered memory.

First America forgot the story of the Pony Express.

Later America remembered, and then some.

In the retelling, the story of the Pony Express was not, as its critics charged, an eccentric publicity stunt aimed at securing lucrative government mail contracts but a Pegasus for all time. In memory, there were no squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, bankruptcy, and shame. No unpaid employees. No congressional inquiry. In memory the Pony Express became triumphant, victorious, its riders heroic.

Many Westerners, famous and infamous, helped turn the story into myth. Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock (he was merely James Butler Hickok when Russell, Majors & Waddell hired him as a stock tender in Rock Creek Station, Nebraska Territory) were among the principals. The roving dime novelist Ned Buntline, who conspired in the invention of Buffalo Bill, and his successor, Col. Prentiss Ingraham, played supporting roles. Eyewitnesses to “the great gamble” helped, too, including Mark Twain, who was merely Samuel Clemens, a recent Confederate army deserter, when he watched a pony rider flash by his rocking stagecoach. So, too, did the great British explorer Sir Richard Burton, who was on his way to have a look at the Mormons when he crossed a Pony rider’s path.

Down the years, the riders of the Pony Express galloped across the paintings of Frederic Remington and many a painter who wished to be Frederic Remington. They galloped, too, across the motion-picture screen, in the films of John Ford and those who) wished to be John Ford. One of the best known of the films, The Pony Express, made in 1953, starring Charlton Heston, had Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok teaming up in “Old Californy” to start the Pony.

Pony Express History

Saved from failure and forgetting, the Pony Express world become a memory of the vanished West that Americans would be very proud to recall. It would take its place alongside other American sagas, actual events that were much embellished, from Paul Revere’s ride to the defense of the Alamo and Custer’s last stand. It would nearly become another sort of American story, the tall tale, in the tradition of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry. But even if the facts have never been quite right, there is an essential truth about the Pony Express. it was a splendid moment of history, a are one in which the taming of the West took no victims. It remains forever fond and familiar because it is not the West of the slaughter of the buffalo, the decimation of the Indian, or the exploitation of the land. It is not the West of gunfighters or cattle rustlers.

The story of the Pony Express is about a lone rider facing the elements, racing time, and racing the transcontinental telegraph. it’s the story of an audacious adventure and the bravura involved in crossing the country, night and day, in all kinds of weather, alone on the back of a galloping horse. It’s a story of chance and courage. It’s a story of the West that might have been, the West that should have been. Americans love a race, and they also really love a winner. They have loved that man on the horse. No memory of the vanished nineteenth-century West is more revered and few are more cherished. Some of those memories are even true.

(They knew they could have been that man–if only.....)

Every spring the National Pony Express Association stages a scrupulously authenic re-enactment of the cross-country mail relay. Alas, since no one actually knows what really happened on that day in April 3, 1860, that scrupulous authenticity is a slight problem. In the West of the twenty-first century, riders get a hometown welcome with hot coffee and barbecue in places like Cozad and Gothenburg, Nebraska, although at those towns were founded long after the horsemen of 1860-61 passed by. Both communities today maintain historic Pony Express stations to attract tourists traveling along Interstate 80, hut the provenance of these shrines is best left unquestioned.

The re-riders wear uniforms—bright red shirts, yellow kerchiefs, brown vests all emblazoned with insignia, blue leans, and cowboy hats—that bear absolutely no resemblance to the clothing worn in the days of the Pony. Pony Express riders interviewed decades after their service not only said nothing about uniforms hut hardly mentioned Indians or bandits They all complained bitterly about the cold weather, the punishing ride, and the company, which often cheated them. St. Joseph and Sacramento take tuns staging the annual re-ride. The riders leave one year from Missouri and the next from California. In the east, the re-ride always begins at Patee House, the magnificent four-story brick building that is one of the few sites along the route unchanged from the days of Russell, Majors & Waddell. The riders of old would still recognize it.

One year “Good Morning America” showed up in St. Joseph to view the pageant, and in order to he carried live on national television, the filming of the re-ride was scheduled for 6:00 A.M. local time, eight hours before the actual re-ride was to begin. Television and authenticity had reached an accommodation. Another year, in a testimony to the odd international appeal of the Pony Express, ten (10) Czechoslovakian cowboys dressed like Marlboro men, only one of whom appeared to speak rudimentary English, showed up. The Czech cowboys, members of some-thing they called the Wells Fargo Corral, were not allowed to ride, thwarted by modern American liability laws, but they did get to hold the horse’s reins, and there were many photo opportunities.

Americans are still glad to see the Pony Express, from St.Joseph to Marysville, Kansas (where Richard Burton first saw a Pony rider in the summer of 1860), to the lunar landscape of central Nevada and to the California hill country above Sacra-.mento, now a grim sprawl of subdivisions. It is still inspiring to see a lone rider streak overland... In modern times the story of the Pony Express has settled into what the Western critic Bernard DeVoto called “the borderland of fable,” rooted in fact and freighted with nearly a.century-and-a-half of embellishments, fabrications, and outright whoppers. Devotees understand that too. They do not care if the Pony Express was in business for a mere 78 weeks, roughly, and hemorrhaged money. It little troubles the annual re-riders that the actual Pony probably made by one good guess no more than 308 crossings of the country and delivered by another good guess a mere 34,753 pieces of mail.

THE RANKS OF THOSE WHO CARRIED THE MAIL have not thinned with time. Alexander Majors said, for the record, that he employed 80 riders. In modern times vast numbers of Americans have claimed that their kin were in the saddle for the Pony. More and more do so every year. The new riders don’t much care if Buffalo Bill, who swore that he was a Pony Express rider and rode the longest, too, never really was one. (He probably wasn’t, though he did work for Russell, Majors & Waddell as a messenger boy when he was 11 or 12.) They understand the larger truth: that Buffalo Bill, a buffalo hunter, an Army scout, and a great showman in the tradition of P. T. Barnum, saved the memory of the Pony Express for America.

The re-riders don’t much care on reaching Rock Creek Station that Wild Bill Hickok never sat on the back of a Pony Express mount there either. The celebrated gunslinger merely appears to have fed the horses in his quiet corner of southern Nebraska. In western Nebraska the re-ride stops at Mud Spring Station, near where Sam Clemens saw a Pony Express rider. The actual contact between the man who became Mark Twain and the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company took less than two minutes, but Twain showed America’s writers how to make good use of their material. Although he took no notes, he got two chapters out of the encounter in Roughing it and, like Buffalo Bill, contributed immensely to the legend.

So much of the Pony Express is legend. There is hardly a gift shop, historic shrine, or “authentic” station from Old St. Joe to Old Sac that doesn’t sell a version of the recruiting notice said to have run in California newspapers in 1860:  WANTED

young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen.

Must he expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.

Apply, Central Overland Express,

Alta Bldg., Montgomery St. San Franciso, California

The notice appears to have been the work of a magazine writer in the 1920s. But Americans who revere the Pony understand that there may be things bigger than the truth. As the veteran re-rider Augie Bjorklun, of Haxtun, Colorado, whose business card describes him as “a collector of antique spurs & bridal bits, sophisticated junk,” noted one morning near Chimney Rock, a famous landmark for travelers into the West: “We don’t lie out here. We just remember big.”

         This article is adapted from Christopher Corbett’s book

         Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of

         the Pony Express, published this fall by Broadway Books.



November/December, 2003, (pgs. 42-49)

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