Recalling the Runs of Fastest Mail in the West

Article excerpt


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. …