Although it ran only briefly 150 years ago, the Pony Express still defines our understanding of the Old West
Shortly before last Christmas, a prominent New York auction house put up for bid a collection of 63 postmarked envelopes and stamps that the daring riders of the Pony Express had carried 150 years ago. Experts estimated that the rare collection, owned by Thurston Twigg-Smith, an 88-year-old philanthropist and former publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser, might net $2.5 million. It drew $4 million.
That the Pony Express generated such income would have gladdened the hearts of the venture’s original founders—William Hepburn Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Bradford Waddell—who never made a dime from the business. The heroic, nearly 2,000-mile delivery of mail across the country hemorrhaged money, from the first day a rider saddled up until the click of the transcontinental telegraph shut it down 78 weeks later.
The Pony Express was one of the most colossal and celebrated failures in American business history, but its legacy, as the sale at Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries suggests, remains an enduring and revered piece of the Old West myth. Even today, old-timers in the remotest parts of the American West still speak of “the days of the Pony.” Few figures in that region’s history loom larger than those true riders of the purple sage, whom Mark Twain called “the swift phantoms of the desert.”
In its own day, the Express caused quite a stir. By beginning where the train and the telegraph line stopped at St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1860, the service closed an information gap that had long frustrated both coasts. The Pacific slope was a far country in those days: mail from the East took not days or weeks but many months to cross the nation by stagecoach or to be shipped around the stormy Cape Horn or through the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama.
The Pony cut the time of moving information overland to 10 days or less, and on this count at least it proved a spectacular success. It initially cost customers $5 to send one letter, although rates would crumble as the firm desperately tried to generate business. Still, that was a lot of money in 1860, when a laborer in Kansas might make only that in a week. Patrons of the fast service thus tended to be banks, newspapers, and officials, including diplomats. “[The riders] got but little frivolous correspondence to carry,” noted Mark Twain.
“No enterprise of the kind in its day was ever celebrated on the Pacific coast with more enthusiasm than the arrival of the first pony express,” wrote historians Frank A. Root and William E. Connelley in The Overland Stage to California (1901). “News of the arrival of the first mail across the continent by the fleet pony was published with flaming head-lines in a number of the coast evening papers.” Huge crowds assembled in San Francisco to welcome the brave rider who had brought news so quickly from so far. Only a few observers made negative comments, claiming that the entire venture was a mere publicity stunt designed to drum up more lucrative mail contracts.
The privately financed Pony Express was hastily thrown together in late 1859 and began operations on the evening of April 3, 1860. After the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad train arrived late that day with the mail, a rider and his horse were ferried across the Missouri, heading west into history. That cargo’s goal was Sacramento, capital of the state of California, which had been rocketed into the Union on the heels of the gold rush just 10 years before. At the same time, another rider had set out eastward from California.
Piggybacking on existing posts along the Oregon Trail and other established overland routes, the Pony Express set up operations with approximately 190 way stations about 10 to 12 miles apart. Someone had been hired to feed and care for the horses at each stop. The average station, wrote the celebrated British explorer Richard Burton, who followed the route while the Pony was running, “is about as civilized as the Galway shanty [Burton loathed the Irish], or the normal dwelling-place in Central Equatorial Africa.” The floor of the “Robber’s Roost” station in present-day eastern Nevada was “a mass of soppy black soil strewed with ashes, gobs of meat offals, and other delicacies,” and the roof leaked, too. There were no real windows but what he described as “portholes.” “Beneath the framework were heaps of rubbish, saddles, cloths, harness, and straps, sacks of wheat, oats, meal, and potatoes, defended from the ground by underlying logs, and dogs nestled where they found room.” The station had running water, he noted—an actual spring leaked continually inside, maintaining “a state of eternal mud.”
Riders frequently changed horses at most stations, usually riding no more than 100 miles before being relieved. Though speed was required, they rarely galloped, an activity particularly hazardous when traversing deserts pocked with prairie-dog holes that could easily break a horse’s leg. On the plains the riders often had to navigate around the still enormous herds of buffalo. Keep moving, the riders were instructed, but take no unnecessary risks.
The 2,000-mile route touched eight present states. Starting in Missouri, it crossed the rolling prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, clipped a corner of Colorado before trailing back into the lonely grasslands of western Nebraska near Scotts Bluff, and then crossed Wyoming (to avoid the then impenetrable Rocky Mountains in Colorado) before dipping down into Utah at Salt Lake City “of the Latter-Day Saints,” as Burton called it. From here the riders faced one of the bleakest stretches of the continent, the near-lunar landscape of Utah and Nevada, where water was scarce and hostile Paiute raiders were plentiful. Then the trail headed up and over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada at Lake Tahoe and into California, before snaking down to Sacramento and on to San Francisco. It took a brave, resourceful man to ride through such rugged country.
Veteran riders interviewed in their dotage never complained about road agents or Indians, recalling instead the hardships of winter and the dangers of losing the trail at night. Twenty-year-old Thomas Owen King rode for the Pony Express in present-day Utah, blackening his face with gunpowder to reduce the risk of snow blindness. Popular legend to the contrary, riders were not heavily armed—and the firm did not issue firearms. Management understandably directed that riders should outrun interlopers, not engage them.
The undertaking was thrown together so quickly that riders seem often to have been simply drafted on a temporary basis. Alexander Majors wrote that the Pony had 80 riders in the saddle, generally well-mounted, lightweight young men and boys. All told, perhaps slightly more than 300 trips were made.
Few bits of Pony Express lore are better known or more beloved than the famous advertisement for riders that allegedly ran in California newspapers at the time:
Young, skinny, wiry fellows,
not over eighteen.
Must be expert riders, willing
to risk death daily.
Orphans preferred. Wages: $25
Apply: Central Overland Pony
Alta Building Montgomery Street
Hardly a gift shop or historic shrine exists between St. Joe and Old Sac that doesn’t offer “an authentic reproduction” thereof. Alas, it seems that no such notice ever ran in any newspaper. Its earliest source appears to have been an imaginative scribe at Sunset magazine in the 1920s.
Perhaps the most famous rider was Robert Haslam, an Englishman who rode the Nevada route in 1860 and 1861 when he was 18 or 19 years old. Haslam was no character out of a dime novel but the real thing, known as “Pony Bob” across the American West. Newspapers in the 1860s recalled his extraordinary record for the Express, including what was believed to be the longest and surely the most dangerous passage across Nevada—a trip of some 400 miles, the equivalent of riding from Boston to Baltimore, which he achieved without relief at the height of the Paiute War. The Indian uprising shut down the routes in Nevada and Utah for a number of weeks and brought destruction of stations and stock, further expenses for the foundering Pony.
Haslam’s celebrated ride would become part of Express lore. Despite his fame, he died forgotten in a coldwater flat on the South Side of Chicago, having ended his days as a porter at the Congress Hotel. Newspapers in the West eulogized Pony Bob with headlines that acclaimed him as “the man who knew no fear.”
Equally tough were the riders’ mounts. The horses (they were not ponies) were critical to the endeavor, and the firm invested in good horseflesh. Burton noted that the horses were considered so valuable that it was they who often slept inside the station, not the rider. “He rode a splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like a gentleman,” wrote Twain. He “kept him at his utmost speed for ten miles, and then, as he came crashing up to the station where stood two men holding fast a fresh, impatient steed, the transfer of rider and mail-bag was made in the twinkling of an eye, and away flew the eager pair and were out of sight before the spectator could get hardly the ghost of a look.”
Russell, Majors, and Waddell were even more colorful characters than their riders. Russell, a high roller who liked good times, linen shirts, fine cigars, and life back East, was more comfortable in a hotel drawing room than on the frontier. In contrast, Majors was a deeply religious bullwhacker and freighting entrepreneur, famous for helping to open the Santa Fe Trail. He kept the Sabbath on the road and read the Bible to his employees. In photographs he resembles an Old Testament prophet. Waddell was a dour bookkeeper, plain and simple. He worried about the accounts—and had a lot to worry about.
The Express left virtually no records of its short life span—and that’s where myth has stepped in to fill in the blanks. Although we have scraps of information about the business from its start, the first book-length examination was published nearly a half century after the venture folded. A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express with Other Sketches and Incidents of Those Stirring Times was the imaginative effort of one Col. William Lightfoot Visscher, an alcoholic journalist whose legal address on occasion was the bar at the Chicago Press Club.
Visscher was only one in a long line of showmen, hucksters, and tale-tellers who saved—and inflated—the memory of this American icon. In the summer of 1861, Mark Twain, then just plain Sam Clemens, left St. Joseph with his brother Orion in a Concord coach headed for the Territory of Nevada, where Orion had been appointed secretary to the territorial governor. Young Sam had just deserted the Confederate army—after some two weeks of constant retreating, he would later quip. He had never seen a Union soldier, and that was fine with him. He had saved some money from his days as a riverboat pilot (the Mississippi was closed to commercial navigation by the Civil War). He went west, he noted in Roughing It , because he wanted to have an adventure.
In early August 1861, near what is now Mud Springs in remote western Nebraska, Twain saw an Express rider. The stagecoach driver had been promising him that he would see one, and Twain had taken to riding on top of the coach to take in the view, wearing only his long underwear. The entire encounter took less than two minutes. Writing entirely from memory (with his brother’s diary to stimulate him) in Hartford, Connecticut, 10 years later, Twain wrung an entire chapter of Roughing It from that moment. He thus initiated what many a chronicler would continue after him: he preserved the memory of the Pony, with perhaps a little embellishment.
About a decade after Roughing It , William “Buffalo Bill” Cody took things a step further with his show, known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (he did not like the word “show”). From opening day in 1883 until its final performances just prior to the First World War, the show permanently featured the Pony Express, essentially as a sketch demonstrating how the mail was carried across the now conquered wilderness. Cody threw in some painted, hostile, and whooping Indians for good measure. Millions of Americans and Europeans would see this depiction of a Pony Express rider crossing the countryside, often with an Indian hot on his trail. In reality, Indians rarely bothered the riders after the Paiute War in the spring and summer of 1860. (What would they want with a three-week-old copy of a Horace Greeley editorial?)
Buffalo Bill, of course, was never a man to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Many Americans believe that Cody himself rode for the Pony Express (books regularly recall this information), but that is highly improbable. In memory—and in many of his “autobiographies,” none of which he wrote—Cody was a legendary rider who had endured the longest stages for the Express. Whether he rode or not, Cody’s great service to the Pony was that his show and writings remain the chief reasons why Americans can still hear the hoofbeats a century and a half after its brief, brave, and somewhat baffling life came to an end.
Countless paintings of the Express help Americans remember, too, particularly those by famous illustrators such as Frederic Remington and N. C. Wyeth. None of these artists ever actually saw an Express rider, although Remington’s famous The Coming and Going of the Pony Express is fairly accurate, based on what’s known about the service. Other illustrations feature imagination run wild. One French illustration pictures a rider wearing what looks like a raccoon or small fox on his head. A St. Joseph brewery commissioned a painting of a handsome rider at full gallop, a crowd cheering, and the sun shining. Alas, the first rider of the Pony Express always left St. Joseph after dark, when most of the crowd had gone home.
Hollywood also knew a good story when it saw one. Virtually every film or television program, from the silent film to technicolor blockbusters, has gotten the facts wrong. John Ford’s classic Fort Apache begins with the fort’s beleaguered garrison learning from a brave Express rider that Custer and his men have been massacred at the Little Big Horn, a catastrophe that took place 15 years after the Pony went out of business. And Fort Apache was in the Arizona desert, hundreds of miles south of the Express route. The Pony Express , which featured Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill in buckskins, is one of Heston’s most preposterous performances.
Ultimately, the Pony became an American epic along the lines of Paul Revere’s ride, a tale rooted in fact but layered with a century and a half of embellishments, fabrications, and outright lies. There is still no agreement even on the identity of the first rider. William Floyd, an early 20th-century chronicler of the Pony from St. Joseph, once called it “a tale of truth, half-truth and no truth at all.”
But what a story; what an American memory. The legend of the Pony Express was worth every nickel generated by that fancy stamp auction in New York City last December. On that count Russell, Majors, and Waddell would be in solemn agreement. Its memory remains priceless.