The Pony Rides Again (and Again)

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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.