Pony Express
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Two:


William H. Russell

The consummate western entrepreneurial maverick best describes William H. Russell. This man, who clearly led the firm and masterminded the firm's activities in the express business, had many supporters and opponents. Those that backed Russell saw him as a true "visionary" and willingly invested their fortunes with him. On the other hand, Russell's detractors labeled him a "plunger" and criticized him for recklessly gambling with the fortunes of his partners without their consultation or approval. [2]

William H. Russell came from western Missouri, where his parents had moved in the late 1820s from Vermont. Little is known about his early life except that he had no formal education. Evidently, in his teens, Russell started out as a clerk for several frontier merchants in Liberty, Lexington, and Independence, Missouri, learning the "frontier mercantile business from the ground up." In 1835 he married Harriet Eliot, the daughter of a preacher. This alliance gave him social recognition and respect, and thereafter he began to rise up the social and civic ladder in the community. Starting in 1837, he gave up clerking to form limited partnerships that operated merchandise stores in Lexington, Missouri. However, for a variety of reasons, all of these ventures eventually ended in failure. Despite his setbacks, in the 1840s, Russell's luck suddenly changed. With borrowed money, he formed the partnership of Bullard & Russell, which ran a successful general store in Lexington. He them went on to become a partner in the established firm of Waddell, Ramsey, & Company. By 1848 and the outbreak of war with Mexico, Russell had enough money to build himself a twenty-room mansion in Lexington. [3]

The Mexican War marked the beginning of the great military freighting operations to western outposts on the frontier by civilian contractors. During the war, the War Department faced the difficult task of systematically supplying its troops in the Southwest by military wagon trains. To meet this objective, they hired civilian contractors who had considerable experience on the Santa Fe Trail to help. Following the Mexican War, the War Department decided that these civilian contractors could better conduct the business of supplying freight to the frontier posts scattered throughout the Southwest than the military could with it's own wagon trains. [4]

Contracting to freight supplies to military posts was at best a speculative venture for civilian contractors. Depending on one's fortune, the venture could be profitable or an utter disaster for the contractor. With the award of a military contract, the civilian contractor first had to find bankers, investors, and backers to provide ample funding on good terms in order to purchase the necessary equipment for the work. Next, with available funding, the contractor had to assemble the necessary wagons, oxen, equipment, and teamsters before the contractor could set out. The contractor usually had very little advance notice of contract award, and very little time to gather enough men and equipment for the task ahead. The risks did not end here, for once on the trail, the freighter faced unpredictable weather conditions, difficult terrain, and the possibility of depredations by Indians. Upon returning to Fort Leavenworth in the fall, freighters paid off their creditors, and then usually sold everything because there was no assurance of receiving another military contract the following year. Whatever amount was left after the equipment was sold and the creditors paid was considered the profit for that year. Considering the initial start up expense, the potential for loss or damage of equipment and supplies due to inclement weather conditions, Indian depredations, and other variables, it is clear that the size of each year's windfall or liability depended largely on chance rather than skill. [5]

Weighing the risks involved in contracting, perhaps lightly, given the nature of his character, William Russell entered the merchandise and military supply trade between Westport Landing (Kansas City) and Santa Fe. In 1849, following the Mexican War, Russell attempted to capitalize on the new development of military contracting by joining in a partnership with James Brown of Independence, Missouri, to carry freight for the War Department between Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. James Brown had been an army train wagonmaster on the Santa Fe Trail beforehand and was the first civilian contractor to carry military freight to Santa Fe. With this kind of experience backing him, Russell fortunately succeeded in his first attempt at backing the transportation of military supplies to Santa Fe. The firm of Brown and Russell had little trouble along the trail that year. [6]

The following year presented a different story. Together with John S. Jones as his partner, the firm of Brown, Russell & Company, against the better judgment of wiser contractors, gambled on transporting military freight in midwinter between Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. Not only did the contractors lose their gamble with the weather, Russell's partner Brown died on the trip from typhoid fever. Brown, Russell & Company (which included Jones) was forced to ask Congress for relief, claiming a deficit of $39,800, which they eventually received in installments. Subsequently, the surviving contractors formed a new company called simply Jones & Russell. [7]

Having made two trips to Santa Fe, one successful and the other not, William H. Russell's accomplishments and failures were regarded and perceived in different ways by individual people. Some admired him as one of the foremost freighters engaged in business at that time, [8] while others thought of him as an "incorrigible, wheeler and dealer." One historian aptly characterized him this way:

Although his formal education was slight, his appearance, speech, and bearing were those of a cultured gentleman. He had a brilliant mind in many respects and considerable personal charm, and was animated by infinite confidence in his own judgment and ability. He was, however, extremely impulsive, improvident as a grasshopper, sanguine beyond all reason, and actuated in his business dealings by wishful desire rather than considered reasoning. The former characteristics made him promoter pre-eminent on the western frontier, enabling him to make friends among high-ranking Government officials in Washington and wealthy financiers throughout the East, to acquire monopolistic Government contracts, and to float enormous loans. The latter characteristics made him an extremely dangerous business associate. [9]

Russell's life followed one business venture after another—gambling that he could beat the odds in his business dealings, usually with other people's money. By 1854, William H. Russell held extensive financial connections in military freight contracting, and he engaged in numerous other diverse business ventures as well. [10]

Alexander Majors

Of the three members of the firm, Alexander Majors could be said to be the only "frontiersman" among them. In 1819, Majors' family migrated by covered wagon from Kentucky to the western frontier of Missouri, where Alexander Majors grew up. In 1834, he married Catherine Stalcup, had a large family of mostly daughters, and achieved limited success for his hard work at farming. Without sons to work the farm, in 1847, Majors turned to freighting in order to supplement his income. That year, he successfully traded a wagonload of cheap merchandise to the Indians living on the Potawatomi Reservation in Kansas territory. A long career of freighting followed this auspicious beginning. [11]

In 1848, after the war with Mexico, Alexander Majors entered the burgeoning Santa Fe Trail freighting business. With limited experience, Alexander Majors became one of the first western Missouri traders to participate in freighting supplies to Santa Fe after the Mexican War. He started out with six wagons and freighted goods for other merchants. On his first trip, he set a record of ninety-two days for a round trip, making a profit of $650.00 per wagonload. The following year, Majors set out with twenty wagons and grossed a profit of $13,000, and in 1851, Majors set out from Fort Leavenworth with a train of twenty-five wagons, three hundred oxen and thirty teamsters. Two years later, he took a train of private merchandise to Santa Fe, returned and then transported a train of military freight to Fort Union, making $28,000 in profit for his services that year. [12]

Majors ran a very tight outfit, hiring only reliable and trustworthy teamsters, whom he required to sign a pledge to "treat animals in his care with kindness, use no profanity, stay sober at all times, and behave like a gentleman while in his employ." Majors also rested his oxen and men from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, and held worship services for his men on Sunday. Because of his own practical first-hand experience and his hard work ethic, his outfits were very efficient since he himself had performed each task from driving oxen in searing summer heat and numbing winter cold to cooking under the stars over a campfire of cow-chips. [13]

Through skillful business practices and conservative investments in land purchased to provide pasture for his oxen, Majors developed an important freighting business and without forming any partnerships. By 1854, Majors earned and enjoyed a respectable reputation as a successful freighter on the western Missouri frontier. With his 100 wagons, 1,200 oxen and 120 employees, many considered Majors one of the foremost freighters west of the Missouri. This independent success ended in 1854, as we shall see, when changing circumstances in the freighting business prompted the individualistic Majors to seek out partners in the freighting business. [14]

William B. Waddell

In personality, William B. Waddell was the complete opposite of his partner William H. Russell. One source fittingly compared the two men in this way: "Whereas Russell was quick-thinking, dynamic, impulsive, sanguinary, wildly extravagant, and a compulsive gambler who was nothing short of reckless in business ventures, Waddell was phlegmatic, stoical, inclined to sulk if displeased, a cautious penny-pincher, and unable to reach a decision without ponderous deliberation." [15]

William Bradford Waddell was born in 1807 to parents of Scottish descent living and farming in Mason County, Kentucky. At the age of seventeen he ventured from home to first work in the lead mines at Galena, Illinois, and then later clerked for a time in a St. Louis dry goods store. In 1829, he returned to Kentucky, married and settled down to farm. But farming did not suit Waddell. Instead, he quit farming and opened a successful dry goods store in Mayslick, Kentucky. Then, in 1835, Waddell uprooted his family moving them to Lexington, Missouri, where he opened a dry goods store on the waterfront near Jack's Ferry. Over time and with hard work, he eventually built a brick store and a hemp warehouse. [16]

Waddell first became partners with Russell in Lexington in the early 1840s, when Russell associated himself with Waddell, Ramsey & Company. Waddell and Russell were members of the same Baptist church where they may have met. In 1853, they formed a large retail—wholesale—commission trading firm called Waddell & Russell. That year, they hauled military supplies by wagon train to Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Union, New Mexico. This was Waddell's first experience in freighting military supplies. The following year they failed in their effort to obtain a contract. [17]

Mildly successful in his business ventures, Waddell, in a move uncharacteristic of his cautious nature, joined his brother, William H. Russell, and another partner in 1854 to outfit a party of Lexington men going to the California gold fields. That venture proved unprofitable for all involved. The group reached Sacramento, but along the way they "lost one man and twenty per cent of their oxen." Following this failure, William Waddell appeared to take a more conservative approach to his investments. [18]

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Last Updated: 17-Jan-2008