- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

RENO, Nev. - Christopher Corbett was chasing down the truth about the Pony Express one day near Mud Springs, Neb., when a local shared some words of wisdom:

“We don’t lie out here. We just remember big.”

In “Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express,” Mr. Corbett examines fact and fiction about the short-lived mail relay that captured the expanding nation’s imagination.

While carrying mail along the 1,950-mile route between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif., in 1860 and 1861, wiry horsemen fought Indians, the elements, barren deserts and desperadoes.

Their grit is not in dispute.

“What I was trying to do was celebrate the genius of an American legend and, if possible, separate fact from fiction, which in the case of the Pony isn’t always easy to do,” Mr. Corbett said by telephone from his home in Baltimore.

“This is a little like Paul Revere’s ride. It’s rooted in fact, but it’s layered with 150 years of embellishment, fabrication and outright lies,” he said.

Mr. Corbett’s book is the first major examination of the Pony Express in 50 years.

Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a history professor at the University of New Orleans, brands it “a first-rate narrative history.” Dale Ryan of Carson City, former president of the National Pony Express Association, calls it “one of the most authoritative books ever written” on the subject.

Not bad for a Maine native who knew nothing about the Pony Express until stumbling across an old station in 1996 at Fort Churchill, 50 miles southeast of Reno.

In more than five years of research, Mr. Corbett visited research facilities in eight states along the route of “the Pony,” as it was known in its time.

“The more I researched the Pony, the more I loved it,” said Mr. Corbett, 51, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County journalism lecturer and former Associated Press reporter and news editor.

But Mr. Corbett also found that the story had been embellished over the years by Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Frederic Remington and others. Dime novels and Hollywood had added to the lore.

Cody immortalized the fast-mail service by making it a fixture in his popular Wild West shows from 1883 to 1916, Mr. Corbett said, although he doubts stories that Cody was a Pony rider at a tender age.

“It’s apparent that other people didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Mr. Corbett said. “It was the golden age of prevaricators, and these guys were masters. I believe Buffalo Bill was just a messenger for the Pony.”

Mr. Corbett challenges the wholesome image that stems from the oath signed by all Pony employees stating that they would not drink, gamble or swear. He cites accounts to the contrary by travelers of the time and archaeological digs that uncovered hundreds of fragments of liquor bottles at two Nevada express stations.

“The myth is that they were choirboys, but they weren’t. These were tough guys,” Mr. Corbett said.

Despite the legends, the fact remains that the Pony’s unprecedented mail service of 10 days or less was an amazing feat that helped link the young country, he said.

Mr. Corbett praises the grit of riders such as Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, widely credited with making the Pony’s longest ride, a 40-hour, 380-mile round trip — from Lake Tahoe to central Nevada and back — at the height of the Paiute Indian War.

Although the mail service lasted only 18 months, folding after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, the lone rider on the plains remains one of the most enduring images of the Old West.

“No memory of the vanished 19th century West is more revered, and few are more beloved and cherished, than that of the long-ago riders,” Mr. Corbett wrote. “And some of those memories are even true.”


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