- Historic Sites
The Pony Rides Again (and Again)
Although it ran only briefly 150 years ago, the Pony Express still defines our understanding of the Old West
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
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.