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After 150 Years, Pony Express Legend Gets Another Look

Pony Express Reenactor Justin Rother
Frank Morris
Pony Express Reenactor Justin Rother


St. Joseph, Mo. – In 1860 the American west was booming, and the east was boiling. Civil war was at hand. A vast wilderness and high mountains blocked the rich west from the rest of the country. Rail and telegraph lines stopped in St. Joseph.

Cindy Daffron with the Pony Express museum here says that meant it took a month for news reports and government dispatches to cross that information abyss.

"This is what people didn't like. They were living out there with money. The fastest means was four weeks. So the idea became, how do we do it, how do we do it faster."

The Butterfield Stage line ran south through country increasingly hostile to the Union. Butterfield had a government contract to carry mail, and GOLD back from California. A shorter, but rougher trail took a northerly route over the mountains.

Historian Gerry Chilcote says struggling freight company called Russell, Majors and Waddell was already using it and wanted to prove it could work year-around.

"And so they came up with the idea of, why not carry the mail and get a government contract. Unfortunately for Russell Majors and Waddell, they started the Pony Express to demonstrate it," says Chilcote.

The mail delivery wasn't the only thing hurried about this venture. Chilcote says they managed to establish more than 150 stations, buy houses and hire riders and handlers in less than three months.

"To me, the amazing thing is that these guys, Russell, Majors and Waddell, could put together the Pony Express in January, February and March of 1860. And the first thing they did was announce they were going to leave on April 3rd, and by golly that's when they started!"

Riders galloping 24/7, relaying a mail bag from horse to horse and man to man, could cover the almost 2,000 mile trail in 10 days. They took a real pounding. Riders had to be tough and fit like reenactor Justin Rother. Rother says he leaps, rather than steps, into the saddle.

"I don't use stirrups whenever I get on, I just hop right up, that's the way they would have done it. Everything was speed," says Rother.

That meant cutting weight. Dispatches were on tissue paper. Riders couldn't be much more than 120 pounds. They rode day and night across the wilderness with little more than a mail bag and a pistol.

"What I got here is an 1851 Colt, model Navy," says Rother. "Black powder, and it took forever to load one, so once you got it loaded you better hit what you're shooting at, because you've only got six shots before your done, hahaha, and they're coming after you!"

Like many people, Rother likes to quote a famous advertisement for Pony Express riders. It calls for "skinny, wiry fellows," "orphans preferred." But Chilcote says it's not authentic. "They've traced that back to about 1923 in a magazine, and we think some public relations guy wrote that," says Chilcote.

Gerry Chilcote says lots of "facts" about the Pony Express and the riders' daring deeds are somewhat suspect.

"This is a company that kept no records whatsoever. They didn't know who the riders were, two years afterwards, so a lot of this is "fakelore," we call it."

Chilcote says stories about losing only one bag of mail and keeping the service running on time are also somewhat disputed. According to Chilcote, "They advertised 10 days, usually it took 12 or 14, winter time it was a lot longer. After the first six weeks they ran into trouble out in Utah with the Piute Indian wars."

Several Pony Express employees were killed. The service collapsed for a month and a half while U.S. troops rode in to suppress the fighting. And the whole time, telegraph wires were advancing, closing the gap between east and west.

"The Pony Express was riding by as the telegraph was extending across. Everybody knew that the P.E. was going to go out of business because of the telegraph, but they also knew that right behind it was the stagecoach," says Chilcote.

Stagecoaches began leaving every day for destinations along the Pony Express trail. Pony express riders left only once a week, more and more of the mail was transported part of the way by stage. The government contract Russell, Majors and Waddell were counting on never came. The pony rides got shorter and shorter until, in October 1861, a couple of days after the telegraph wires connected coast to coast, new technology won, and the Pony Express folded.

It lasted a year and a half, about half as long as the folks in St. Joe have been planning the sesquicentennial celebrations.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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