The Pony Express: History and Myth
Nearly 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Orphans Preferred: the Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express
- Historic resource study: Pony Express National Historic Trail (includes detailed information on each station, and also a number of images) Online here.
- The overland stage to California: personal reminiscences and authentic history of the great overland stage line and pony express from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean
- Seventy years on the frontier: Alexander Majors' memoirs of a lifetime on the border
- Bronco Charlie: rider of the Pony Express (children's book)
- A thrilling and truthful history of the Pony Express: or, Blazing the westward way, and other sketches and incidents of those stirring times