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The Pony Express: History and Myth

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A scrimmage with the Indians., Digital ID 1192594, New York Public LibraryNearly everything you thought you knew about the Pony Express is wrong. Well, perhaps not wrong, but exaggerated or romanticized. If you’re like me, you’re probably imagining men dressed in fringed leather uniform on horses, riding at break-neck speeds to carry important business and love letters hundreds of miles, perhaps while simultaneously shooting their Wincester rifles in the air. When not dashing across the prairie, the riders would be found roping cattle, drinking and playing cards in saloons, hunting buffalo, and dodging Black-Hatted Bandits and Indians.

The popular image of the Pony Express was carefully cultivated by Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, feathered by countless amateur historians, then carried on by Hollywood in numerous spaghetti westerns. Additional confusion was created by the fact that the Express ended in bankruptcy and a bond scandal that ruined the reputation of the founders. To clinch the difficulty in studying the Express, the business records of the Pony’s parent company, which would be able to shine light on the Express for historians, have never been found.

W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill)., Digital ID 1214851, New York Public Library

It might surprise you to know that the Express operated for only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861, when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph put it out of business. In addition, the “men” were usually teenaged boys, the “horses” were sometimes mules, and they almost never carried anything other than business correspondence and newspapers printed on tissue-thin paper. I’m sorry to disappoint the romantics in the audience, but during the Civil War era, $5 an ounce would make for an awfully expensive love letter!

Also counter to general understanding, except in instances where the replacement rider was unable to ride, the men generally traveled less than 20 miles at a go. When hired, they were given a bible and were required to sign a statement committing to refrain from drinking, gambling and swearing (this promise was generally ignored in practice). Oh, and that rifle? Try a small pistol or knife—rifles are heavy, and every ounce counted when you were aiming for speed.

The Pony Express, more officially known as the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express, was an outgrowth of the wagon freight company of Russell, Majors and Waddell, who were the pre-eminent shipping company west of the Mississippi up to that time. Prior to the Civil War, mail deliveries from the east could take months to arrive in California, and one route even included a detour by ship down to Panama, overland travel across, and then another ship voyage back up to California.

[Conestoga wagon with horse team], Digital ID 93903, New York Public Library

 In 1860, Russell, Majors and Waddell laid out their daring plan: to cut the travel time for mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California to less than 10 days. The route covered a distance of approximately 2,000 miles one way, and was managed by approximately 75 horses. Each man and horse would ride their fastest between stations and transfer the leather satchel of letters, called a mochila, on to the next rider, who was then off like a shot to the next station. Neither rain nor blizzard was to prevent them, and making their time slot with the mail was of utmost importance. There are, however, several accounts from former riders of having to make heroic rides due to sick, killed or errant replacements.

The stereotypes about the dangers of the job do hold some water. In addition to the possibility of accidents, lengthened routes, and vagaries of weather, for some of the period of the Express there was indeed conflict between U.S. representatives and Native Americans. The story of the Pyramid Lake, or Paiute Indian War is a case in point: in Nevada in May of 1860, in retribution for the kidnapping and rape of two Paiute girls by men at Williams Station, Southern Paiutes killed three or four of the station men and burned the station down in the process. The ensuing regional panic led to several violent clashes and the involvement of the U.S. Army. The Pony Express continued to ride right on through this volatile environment.

Returning to the mysteries surrounding "The Pony," there are many reports that the company posted ads for riders that read, “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.” Historians suspect that these accounts are apocryphal, as searches for these ads in newspapers from the era turn up not a one.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Digital ID 115094, New York Public Library

Even more entertaining is the tale of “Broncho Charlie” Miller, who presented his life in Broncho Charlie: A Saga of the Saddle, and whose story was increasingly embellished over the years. While it’s unlikely he was a Pony Express rider, we do know that Broncho Charlie was actually a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, performed for the Queen of England, and carried the razzle-dazzle and lasso skills he honed with Buffalo Bill into fabricating his own improbable life story.

By his own accounts Charlie was born on a buffalo robe, “delivered by an Indian squaw” in Hat Creek, California in 1849 or 1850, and lived to 105. We know from the New York Times online archives that he died in Glen Falls, NY in 1955, but a birth certificate has not been found.

In the best vaudeville-style manner, Charlie credited himself as a rider with the Pony, although even if he were born in 1849 he would’ve been a mite young for the Express at age 11. Various accounts of Broncho Charlie’s life include assertions that he was a Texas Ranger, fought with Jesse James, supped with Teddy Roosevelt on his North Dakota ranch and won $120 in gold pieces off of a bet with General Grant. Charlie claimed to have met everyone from Bat Masterson (he said they were friends) to President Lincoln, General Custer and Davy Crockett (who died in 1836, prior to Charlie's birth). Charlie Miller did crack a mean whip and kept the romance of the Pony Express and the Old West alive for a modern audience, even if he didn’t ride with the Pony.

While the popular conception of the Pony Express is significantly different than the reality, the reality is pretty entertaining too. For a solid history on the Express and to learn more about the amazing men who carried the mails, see some of the following books:

 

 

 

Subject headings:

Pony Express--History

Pony Express--Maps

West (U.S.)—Description and travel

Frontier and pioneer life—West (U.S.)

 

 

Comments

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Next Day Horse. Two Day Mule.

What can Pony do for you? Ahh. Such memories. No, I don't mean as a rider. My 8th grade history project was on the Pony Express. I found the subject fascinating and as part of my project I created a topographic model of the Pony Express depicting all the stations on the trail. And if you get the chance to venture out of NYC, there's a sesquicentennial going on this year in St. Joseph, Missouri. http://www.ponyexpress.org/

I'm sure that topographic

I'm sure that topographic model was pretty amazing. What a great project for an 8th grader! The Historic Resource Study I cited above also has a listing and brief history of each of the stations. It includes information on the managers of each station (when known), what type of station they were (merely relay, home, also for teamsters and stage lines, etc), and even includes photographs of several of them. When there is some question whether a building was actually a station, the Study examines the evidence for and against this claim. If you decide to go to the sesquicentennial celebration in St. Joe, make sure and let us know how it goes!

Orphans Preferred

The story of the Pony Express is one of the most endearing and enduring memories of the 19th century West. It is - as you correctly note - a tale that is rooted in fact and layered with a century and a half of fabrication, embellishment and outright lies. An early historian of the Pony Express, William Floyd called it a tale of "truth, half-truth and no truth at all." I hope that Americans will remember "our little friend the Pony" as they called the venture in 1860-61 this year as we celebrate its 150th birthday. Christopher Corbett Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (Random House/Broadway Books) www.orphanspreferred.com

Pony Express Anniversary Events

Thank you for your comment, Professor Corbett! Readers should also note that for the 150th anniversary this year, each state along the route is hosting commemorative events. There will be a Re-Ride of the Express from California to Missouri in June, and I also see that Mr. Corbett will be speaking about the Pony at the Patee House Museum in St. Joseph, MO on April 1. For more info, see: http://www.xphomestation.com/150th-Anniversary.html http://www.xphomestation.com/150th-AnnEvents.pdf http://www.nps.gov/poex/planyourvisit/index.htm

St. Joseph Sesquicentennial Events in 2010

The link below will provide you with a description of all of the Sesquicentennial Events in the St. Joseph area during 2010. We hope to see you there! http://www.stjomo.com/uploadedFiles/Content/Things_To_Do/Sesquicentennial%20Events%201%2025%2010.pdf

Pony Express

Revisionist? Where are your sources?

Pony Express sources

Anonymous, I researched much of the information from this post from the sources listed above. I'd gently argue that this is not a Revisionist post, as I'm not challenging the historians' view with my own alternate one, merely sharing what I learned from the collections with all of you. If you'd like to learn more about the Express, I'd encourage you to use the subject headings above to locate books in the library's holdings. While I'm no longer at the library, my colleagues would be happy to set you up with newspaper databases and microfilm as well. You'd be amazed what resources you can find at NYPL, and how much fun you'll have doing it!

Pony Express

I am sure you have already been asked a million times this question: Dot and dash made the service created by the COCPPEXPCO (COCPPEXCO-Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Company-Pony Express) old news. In what city and on what day of the week was the final drop made? There is a discrepancy some say the final was in October, but the mail continued on through November. Then there is the one missing mochila that a letter was found in years later....too many dates to narrow this down..need someone who knows the history of the Pony Express to give me advice. To let you know this is a question from Marlboro for their OutWit the west the Contest 4. Thank you for you help!!!

missing mochila

There is a discrepancy some say the final was in October, but the mail continued on through November. Then there is the one missing mochila that a letter was found in years later.... I would like to learn more about this for an article I am doing, What is the source of this information? Sandy

Help!!

I am doing a project on the pony Express and i was wondering what would be a primary and secondary sources for this topic??? Thanks!

Pony Express resources

If you want general information on the Pony Express, NYPL has a database U.S. History in Context that may be of help. This database is accessible from home. A quick search "Pony Express" indicated excellent descriptions about the Pony Express. There is also an audio re-enacting the Pony Express Experience.

Money per Ounce

It wasn't actually $5 per ounce, but I think it was $5 per half ounce, then $1 for every extra half ounce. I may be incorrect, but I know it wasn't $5 per ounce.

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