Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Introduction:
MYTH AND REALITY OF THE PONY EXPRESS

INTRODUCTION

Perhaps no event in Western American history has captured the imagination and held the interest of people as the story of the Pony Express. Since this episode of transportation history blazed across our frontier past (in service only eighteen months), many participants, eyewitnesses, as well as Western writers, authors, and scholars have written about it with great admiration in popular books, and scholarly monographs and journal articles. Even motion pictures [1] and television have adopted the heroic saga as their own, depicting the young men on horseback withstanding weather, enduring fatigue, and facing danger from attack by Indians, in order to carry the nation's mail as rapidly as possible across the nineteen hundred miles between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Today, this saga is deeply ingrained in our American heritage, and has become a symbol of our western past.

However, after 134 years in the saddle of history, the story of the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company (C.O.C. & P.P. Express Co.), otherwise known as the Pony Express has become entangled in a web of myth and reality. With limited available primary research material, amateur and professional historians, western writers, reporters, as well as motion picture and television producers have embroidered the truth, passing along a new "romantic" version of the history of the Pony Express to the next generation as if it were fact. Expanding on the same limited factual record, many authors passed on the previous generation's version of the history of the Pony Express, using similar routine phrases and descriptive adjectives of factual matters.

A majority of the works on the Pony Express have popularized its lore over the realities and hardships of the operation. From the start, literary writers depicted Express riders in gallant, adventurous terms. For instance, in August of 1860, one newspaper writer described the "journey of the Pony" this way:

Bang goes the signal gun, and away flies the Express pony with news of all nations lumbering on his back." But wither flies this furious rider on his nimble steed? It is no holiday scamper or gallop that this young John is bent upon. His journey has two thousand miles across a great continent, and beyond the rivers, plains and mountains that must be passed; a little world of civilization is waiting for the contents of his wallet. He and his successors must hurry on through every danger and difficulty, and bring the Atlantic and the Pacific shores within a week of each other. No stop, no stay, no turning aside for rest, shelter or safety, but right forward. By sun-light, and moon-light, and starlight, and through the darkness of the midnight storms, he must still fly on and on toward the distant goal. Now skimming along the emerald sea, now laboring through the sandy track, now plunging headlong into the swollen flood, now wending his way through the dark canon [sic], or climbing the rocky steep, and now picking his way through or around an ambuscade of murderous savages. No danger or difficulty must check his speed or change his route, for the world is waiting for the news he shall fetch and carry God speed to the boy and the pony." [2]

Using a good thesaurus, a little imagination, and a flair for the written word, many authors simply rewrote, reorganized, and re-romanticized manuscripts about the Pony Express, such as the above quotation. Over the years, they have added little insight into the history of the Pony Express. Other sources tell the story of the Pony Express fairly accurately, however they provide little or no documentation to support their statements.

This process has gone on so long that the nexus of myth and fact has become too strong to break. To sift and sort all the fiction from fact regarding the Pony Express would take years of careful study and research of a tremendous number of sources. Unfortunately, this type of research is not within the scope of work or the budget for this Historic Resource Study (HRS). One intent of this HRS conducted for the National Park Service (NPS) for the Pony Express National Historic Trail is to provide basic information to assist the preparation of the trail comprehensive management plan (CMP) and to manage and interpret the trail. Another intent is to provide NPS managers and planners, state and local authorities, private landowners, and cooperating groups with an extensive trail database for action plans and implementation activities for the Pony Express Trail. A third intent is to give to the public a good general history of the Pony Express under one cover. Accordingly, this HRS should not be considered a definitive history of the Pony Express, but instead be thought of as a planning study.

Extensive but not exhaustive archival research for this HRS was conducted in a number of collections and repositories nationwide. This research included trips to libraries, repositories, and archives in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, as well as the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The research for this project was designed to provide adequate documentation for NPS personnel, scholars, and other individuals outside the federal government on a number of general research themes. They include (1) an account of the development of the Pony Express, (2) discussion of its operation, personnel, and management, taking into account day-to-day routines, (3) a description of the demise and significance of the Pony Express, as well as recommendations for further study, and (4) a historic base map of the route, historical photographs and illustrations, and an annotated bibliography.

The HRS of the Pony Express Trail, which follows, begins with Chapter One: "By Ocean or By Land: Roots of the Pony Express," which outlines the antecedents and historical context for the Pony Express, including the history of ocean and overland mail service to California from the late 1840s to 1859. Chapter Two: "The Great Race Against Time: Birth of the Pony Express," looks at the biographies of the founders of the Pony Express, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, and how their relationship, partnerships, and experience in the freighting and express business culminated in the birth of the Pony Express and the "Great Race Against Time." The actual organization, general operation, and ultimately the demise of the Pony Express during its existence from April 1860 to October 1861 are the subjects of Chapter Three. The next five chapters then address the individual divisions of the Pony Express enterprise, giving details of the history, location, and operation of each station site along the route. The divisions of the Pony Express were Division One: St. Joseph to Fort Kearney; Division Two: Fort Kearney to Horseshoe Station (above Fort Laramie); Division Three: Horseshoe Station to Salt Lake City; Division Four: Salt Lake City to Robert's Creek; and Division Five: Robert's Creek to Sacramento and then on to San Francisco.

The concluding chapter examines the significance of the Pony Express in American history, a brief discussion of the anniversaries and organizations dedicated to commemorating the Pony Express, as well as recommendations for further research to preserve and interpret the Pony Express National Historic Trail for the general public. Following this last chapter, the reader will find an annotated bibliography regarding the historical resources pertaining to the Pony Express.

Alexander Majors
Alexander Majors. Courtesy of Pony Express National Memorial, St. Joseph, MO

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008