The Pony Express was fast in its day, but its day was short. That overland express-mail service, or fast-mail relay, brought letters and telegrams to California in 10 days instead of weeks or months, thanks to expert wiry riders (none of whom were named Wild Bill Hickok or Buffalo Bill Cody), fresh horses (or exceptional mules), 190 way station tenders who could work well without supervision, William H. Russell’s chutzpah, Alexander Majors’ calfskin-bound Bibles, William B. Waddell’s creative bookkeeping and boatloads of national impatience. Alas, the Pony became obsolete quicker than you can say “personal computer.” Would you believe the whole operation lasted only 18 months, April 1860 to October 1861?
I certainly couldn’t believe that fact when I was an 8-year-old Maverick junkie, about the time of the Pony’s centennial celebration. I was absolutely convinced that those heroic couriers on horseback must have operated all through the cool cowboy era or at least as long (seven years) as that crummy kids’-stuff Western Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok—starring Guy Madison in the title role and his decidedly nonwiry sidekick Jingles (Andy “Hey, Wild Bill, wait for me!” Devine)—lasted on television. Being a betting boy, I put my money where my mouth was, wagering a dollar to that effect with a neighborhood brat. Finding out the truth from the World Book Encyclopedia about the Pony Express’ incredibly short run was nearly as traumatic as an earlier-learned shocker—that the Indians really did “beat” the soldiers at Custer’s Last Stand— and potentially more costly. “Pony up,” said the neighborhood brat. I never handed over the buck, though (on the grounds that he had welshed on earlier bets), and, yes, I do feel ashamed. So if you’re reading this, brat, let me assure you, the check is in the mail.
After years of snidely saying, “How’d you send it, by Pony Express?” whenever I didn’t receive checks in the mail or other important correspondence in timely fashion, I eventually became wiser to the ways of the Western world. For instance, I came to realize that word of Custer’s shocking defeat was not brought to the questionable citizens of Deadwood by Pony Express. Wild West legends that capture our collective imagination tend to become larger than life—that went without saying once I had become so wise. I accepted the fact that Wild Bill made the same number of legit Pony rides as Guy Madison and Jingles combined and that Buffalo Bill’s best—and probably only—Pony rides came on stage. I began to inform even total strangers that the Pony Express came to a screeching halt when the transcontinental telegraph was completed on October 24, 1861. “Wow, you are so wise,” they all said. Then, a couple of years ago, along came a book by Christopher Corbett that made me feel young and stupid all over again…but it was done in such entertaining fashion that I really didn’t mind. Corbett’s Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express told me everything I didn’t know or had wrong about Russell, Majors & Waddell’s bold experiment across the purple sage.
Corbett’s “Riders of Destiny: The Pony Express” in this issue (our 15th annual art special) not only reminds me of how much I don’t know or have forgotten but also is bound to entertain and enlighten Wild West readers. “The story of the Pony Express is a bit like the story of Paul Revere’s ride—an actual historic event, rooted in fact and layered with centuries of fabrications, embellishments and outright lies,” Corbett writes. For instance, and I hope this doesn’t shock anyone as much as it did me, that famous notice about the Pony wanting “young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18…Orphans preferred” (which inspired the title of his book) could not have caught the eye of 1860 teenagers, parentless or otherwise. The first mention of the Pony trying to recruit orphans, according to Corbett, seems to have been made in “Eleven Days to Saint Joe!”—an article by John L. Considine that appeared in the October 1923 issue of Sunset magazine. “Orphans preferred is a tall tale,” Corbett says. Wow, he is so wise.
Also in this issue, see a related article about Three Crossings Station, which was one of the Pony Express relay stops and more. Nobody seems to agree exactly how long this station (or was it stations?) operated along the Sweetwater River in what is now Wyoming. The story of Three Crossings, which is most closely identified with a Pony rider (Buffalo Bill Cody) who probably never even rode, reminds us that the wisest Western historians and writers know how much they don’t really know. Should that old neighborhood brat look me up and want to make a wager about Three Crossings or anything else Pony Express related, I would wisely say, “Forget about it, kid.” As I recall, he was an orphan.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.