- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003


By Christopher Corbett

Broadway Books, $23.95, 270 pages


California’s elevation to statehood in 1850 meant that it was geographically isolated by 2,000 miles from the rest of the Union. This fact presented communications problems as mail was sent overland by wagon trains or by sea around South America’s Cape Horn. In either case delivery took months.

In 1860, the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell started a light mail relay service between St. Joseph, Mo. and Sacramento, Calif. that has come down to us as the “Pony Express.” It’s brief 18-month history is chronicled in Christopher Corbett’s “Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.” Mr. Corbett has worked for the Associated Press and various newspapers, and this accounts for his lively and well written book.

The title — “Orphans Preferred” — is taken from an 1860 newspaper advertisement seeking riders. Russell, Majors and Waddell hired 80 young men “built like jockeys, weighing an average of 100 to 120 pounds,” and supplied them with the fastest horses kept at over150 waystations along the route. The average age of a rider was 19; the average ride was 100 miles, with a change of mounts every 15 miles. They carried a “mochila,” a saddlebag filled with just a few pounds of mail.

Joseph Frey, the first westbound rider, left St. Joseph on the evening of April 3, 1860. Early the next morning the first eastbound rider, William Hamilton, left Sacramento. This constant around-the-clock crisscrossing of the route continued for those 18 months. The Pony Express is famous for its personalities and incidents, and that has given it its legendary romantic allure in the history of the American West. Without those dashing young men on their wild rides it would have been just another mail service.

One of those legends was Buffalo Bill Cody, who at age 15 was already employed by Russell, Majors and Waddell as a messenger, then assigned a 116 mile section of the route in Nebraska. Once, he discovered that his replacement rider had been killed (Mr. Corbett doesn’t say by whom), and young Cody soldiered on, riding a total of 384 miles “without a stop, except for meals and to change horses, and every station on the route was entered on time.”

Another storied rider was Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, who during the Paiute Indian War of May, 1860 did a 380-mile round trip in Nevada in 36 hours, encountering burned waystations, murdered station masters and very few fresh mounts along the way. Despite all this and a major battle at nearby Pyramid Lake, the mail got through. Pony Bob went on to a colorful career as an army scout, and even nearing 60 served in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. When he died penniless in Chicago in 1912, a local newspaper obituary called him one of “the last of the old scouts.” Buffalo Bill paid for a headstone.

Joseph “Jack” Slade was not a rider, but had been hired by Russell, Majors and Waddell to clean up the “Sweetwater Division” of the route from western Nebraska to central Wyoming, a distance of 500 miles and covering some 50 stations. That section was plagued by outlaw and Indian depredations, and Slade —a sociopath himself — with a hand-picked posse of 25, simply hunted down and murdered all the bad guys they could find along the way.

Not counting the death toll amassed by his cronies, Slade is reputed to have personally killed 20 men. In fact, he did his job so well that he was the only law in the area for most of the Pony Express period. Mark Twain wrote about Slade in “Roughing It”, after having met him at a station in Nebraska while traveling west with his brother Orion. Young Sam Clemens had heard all the stories, and when Slade offered the future author the last cup of a pot of coffee, he politely declined. Twain later wrote: “I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion.”

“The Pony” (as it came to be called in the newspapers) was shortlived due to the building of the transcontinental telegraph system in 1861, making that lightning fast 10-day ride seem endlessly slow. The railroads spanning the nation by 1869 quickened the delivery of bulk mail and freight. Russell, Majors and Waddell went broke, and the Pony Express became the stuff of historians and Hollywood westerns.

The Pony made its last runs in the closing days of October 1861. It had made “308 runs each way, a distance of 616,000 miles” (equal to 24 circumnavigations of the globe). It lost its backers “at least $500,000.” Maybe the Pony will be remembered as a jump starter for a few famous careers. Buffalo Bill Cody and Mark Twain in particular. Cody highlighted it in his future Wild West Shows and hired many of its alumni, including Pony Bob Haslam for a time in the mid-1880s.

Twain wrote about it periodically throughout his long career. Experiences like his meeting Jack Slade were the touchstones of his life in the West as a young man. Wild Bill Hickok worked at a waystation. Horace Greeley and the English explorer Sir Richard Burton both wrote about the Pony in detail, the result of contemporary travels.

Though in some ways the old Pony Express is still with us. Every time you drive on Interstate 80 or ride an Amtrak train nearby on the Union Pacific line, you are traversing long stretches of it. All follow the first direct route to California. You can look out the window and imagine a swift horseman making dust for the horizon. Christopher Corbett’s fine book makes that imagining easy.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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