Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

In the spring of 1860, the courier service known as the Pony Express was the talk of the nation. For the occasion of its first run, from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco, a few newspapers were specially printed on ultra-lightweight paper to comply with the delivery service’s strict weight standards. The mail train that conveyed the inaugural items from the East was greeted by cheering crowds from Hannibal all the way to St. Joseph. Editorialists from coast to coast filled column upon column with enthusiastic paeans to the conquest of the American continent.

Before railroad tracks or telegraph wires connected the coasts, the Pony Express made it possible to believe that all of America—its desert wastes and mining shantytowns, its flat prairies and rising cities—was now just one big country. In the St. Joseph Free Democrat, the significance of the courier was explained thus:

The courser has unrolled to us the great American panorama, allowed us to glance at the home of one million people, and has put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes. Verily the riding is like the riding of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, for he rideth furiously. Take out your watch. We are eight days from New York, eighteen from London. The race is to the swift.

For all that, the Pony Express is a footnote in the annals of communications. It ran for only 18 months, folding in October 1861. A single man on horseback is not a viable means of mass information exchange. In the parlance of the modern corporation, “the Pony” did not scale. And it was prohibitively expensive; at $10 per ounce of mail, only the most critical business communications merited the Express treatment. Most of the newspapers, their huzzahs and three cheers notwithstanding, could not afford its services. The expansion of telegraphy and the rails spelled a quick end for the Pony.

But the real story of the Pony Express isn’t about when it started or why it failed, but how it came to be remembered. And that’s the story journalist Christopher Corbett tells in Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.

When Corbett investigated the history of the enterprise, he found a trail that had mostly gone cold. The records of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Co. are lost to history, and secondary sources are murky. But this much is certain: The Pony was the brainchild of one William Hepburn Russell, described by Corbett as “a bit of a dude, an opportunist, a fancy dresser and self-made city slicker.” Russell’s chief interest was long-distance ox-train hauling. His partners were a former grocery clerk named William Bradford Waddell and a seasoned bullwhacker named Alexander Majors. “Very little went west,” Corbett writes, “if it did not travel on an ox-drawn wagon owned by Russell, Majors & Waddell.” With a network of transfer stations and established overland routes across the country, Russell and his partners were likely candidates to operate the nationwide messenger service. Why they did so is another matter. The Pony was the very small tail that wagged this enormous company all the way to the poorhouse. Corbett cites reports of miners paying freelance pony messengers up to $18 ($300 in today’s money) for a single letter, but the business was obviously risky and labor-intensive.

To his credit, Corbett does not waste too much space trying to speculate on the founders’ motives. The history of the Pony Express is a lattice of shaggy-dog stories about brave riders, Indian attacks, hyper-sensationalist journalism, and a harsh, treacherous landscape. Corbett lends his account an avuncular, fireside style that is suitable to a tale with so many loose ends. And he weaves in accounts of some of the period’s most famous and lyrical commentators: The droll observations of the young Sam Clemens, the sarcastic laments of Sir Richard Burton, the magisterial wonder of Horace Greeley bring the landscapes and characters of the Old West to life.

The book’s title comes from an advertisement for Pony Express riders seeking “young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” It’s a telling and perfect detail, one that is cited in nearly every history of the Pony Express. There’s only one thing wrong with it, as Corbett discovers: There’s no evidence the ad ever ran.

But then, there’s a great deal of mythologizing attached to the history of the Pony Express, as the legendary status of one Joseph Slade attests. Slade was a true bad man; one account has him brutally murdering French fur trader Jules Bernard, with whom he’d gotten into a tiff. According to Corbett, the “short version of this yarn is that Jules got the drop on Slade, wounded him badly with a shotgun in the stomach, took pity on the injured man,” and got Slade to a doctor. Rather than reciprocate Bernard’s good will, Slade waited until after his recovery and then kidnapped Bernard and tied him up. “Slade shot at him for a while, aiming as near he could without hitting him, finally shooting off one of his ears; and then he ordered his twenty-five men to empty the contents of their revolvers into him. Then they threw his body into a hole…” And Slade, Corbett notes, worked as “the supervisor along a substantial portion of the route.”

In Roughing It, Clemens wrote that “From Fort Kearny, west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty.” And although company honcho Majors had a reputation for upholding strict Calvinist standards of behavior—new hires were forced to pledge, under pain of termination, “not to use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, nor to treat the animals cruelly, and not to do anything incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman”—few accounts of Slade’s life would have him heeding such a pledge, if indeed he ever signed it. “Like the story of the Pony Express,” Corbett writes, “the life of Jack Slade is one of many contradictions and confusions.”

Indeed, Corbett’s work is as much a study of the limitations of using 19th-century journalism as source material as it is of the Pony Express itself. Newspaper accounts of the first Pony rides fail to mention such crucial details as the names of the riders. Corbett cites one book on the courier that warns the reader,”No representations are made as to the historical accuracy of these anecdotes” noting that “most of them appeared in newspaper articles.” The only firsthand account of the Pony’s early days comes down from Majors, who wrote his memoirs at the behest (and expense) of Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show, which featured cowboys and Indians, gunfights, sharpshooting exhibitions, and trick riding, cast a Pony rider in a starring role.

It is because of Cody and, to a lesser extent, Clemens, that the Pony Express is accorded historical significance that far outstrips its actual influence. The myth that its services spurred a critical stage in the settlement of the West was in fact crafted on eastern stages—and managed to endure long after the Wild West Show went dark. Corbett writes:

The subject provided a powerful lure to eccentrics throughout the twentieth century, and the books they produced wildly complicated an already wildly complicated and confusing episode of western history. Each book piggy-backed on the previous one, piling one bit of apocrypha upon another, producing over a century a crazy quilt of folklore, legends, and outright lies. In the end, no one would be entirely certain what was true or what was not true. It would be impossible to gauge much of the story of the story of the Pony Express. In the end, it no longer mattered.

Corbett’s point is well-taken. Even if the records of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Co. were to miraculously emerge from some attic chest, their account would be dwarfed by the tale of how a year-and-a-half-long project became a metaphor for the conquest of the American West. It is this story behind the story that is the true legacy of the Pony Express. CP