How The Pony Express Galloped Into History

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"West Like Lightning," by Jim DeFelice. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"West Like Lightning," by Jim DeFelice. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Pony Express only lasted 18 months, but the mail delivery service remains one of the most enduring icons of the American West — its story told in dime novels and in Westerns like the 1990s TV show "The Young Riders."

The Pony Express used horse-and-rider relay teams to speed letters across the West just before the start of the Civil War. The 2,000-mile route went from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California — and the Pony could do it in just 10 days.

"These guys are the rock stars, the athletes of the day, and everybody lionized them," Jim DeFelice (@JimDeFelice), author of "West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express," tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd. "When they came into town, they didn't have to pay for their drinks, we'll put it that way."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "West Like Lightning"
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Interview Highlights

On how big companies like Wells Fargo and American Express got their start with the Pony Express

"When we think of the Pony Express now, we think of horses and young men racing across all sorts of different terrain. But that wasn't entirely the plan that William Russell and his two partners, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, were after. They wanted to do that, but that was going to be part of this entire empire to get goods, information, money and just about anything else that had to move from the Missouri River all the way to California. Not only did they have the Pony Express, they had a stagecoach line, actually they had several stagecoach lines, they had oxcarts, they had a bank, they had an insurance company. They were basically trying to create an empire.

"Now, that same plan had been used to great effect less than two decades before in upper New York when the Erie Canal opened and connected New York City to what was then the West and what was then the frontier. That company is still with us — it's American Express. So very possibly had the Pony succeeded, we wouldn't be leaving home without the Pony, rather than American Express."

"These guys are the rock stars, the athletes of the day, and everybody lionized them. When they came into town, they didn't have to pay for their drinks, we'll put it that way."

Jim DeFelice

On the men who rode the Pony Express

"They're basically 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds. They are on the thin side. In a lot of cases they're fairly short, because the lesser load that would be on the horse, the better and the faster — at least in theory — the faster the horse can go. And they're being paid incredibly well, $100 a month in many instances, and that was when $100 was actually real money.

" ... When they would stay at one of the stations, they would take generally two runs a week. They'd sleep in a stable, more often than not, or if they were really lucky, in an attic. So they were earning their money."

On why speed and dependability were the most important factors

"They want the fastest horses that they can possibly get. They're paying $400 a horse, and that's quite a lot of money at the time ... [Only] one bag of mail that disappeared somewhere, probably ... we'll let you read the book to get the details, but it turns up later on. So really these guys were, like, perfect. They always delivered the mail — maybe a little late, but, you know, that happens."

On its financial issues

"If your business plan calls on counting on the government, on a government contract, you may run into a little bit of trouble fulfilling it. And if you're really counting on being able to borrow money from the government that the government doesn't actually have, that also can be a big problem.

"That actually ends up helping William Russell, who's the one who, let's face it, he was cutting checks, and we're not talking about cutting $10 checks — these are thousands and thousands and thousands of dollar checks, and he's defrauding people on Wall Street as well as the U.S. government. If he had done it at any other time, he probably would have gone to jail for the rest of his life. But he was fortunate enough, if that's the right word, to do it at a time that the government was in flux, and there were also maybe some congressmen who didn't want all of the details to come out."

"Really these guys were, like, perfect. They always delivered the mail — maybe a little late, but, you know, that happens."

Jim DeFelice

On why the Pony Express collapsed

"It was the finances, and there's this little thing called the Civil War that does disrupt things. The Pony was seen as kind of a short-term venture. Russell and his partners wanted to do something really big to capture the imagination of the people in the West and also to get a lot of support from Congress to get a million-dollar contract from the government to deliver the mail, which would help them build their infrastructure and actually pay a lot of their bills. The plan succeeded in terms of being able to deliver the mail — as we say, they didn't really lose anything. In terms of PR, it was huge. Everybody knew what the Pony Express was. We still do."

On Buffalo Bill Cody and the myth of the Pony Express

"Buffalo Bill Cody was the greatest rider of the Pony Express ever. The problem is he never actually rode. But you know it's a little technicality ... There's a lot of legends that are related to the old West and to the Pony Express, specifically. I do try to separate fact from fiction, but I still want to celebrate the legends. I mean first of all, they're fun, for the most part, and they also speak to kind of a greater truth for us. They tell us about what's important to our country, the distance and speed, but also perseverance. When the riders are bragging, they're not bragging about how fast they went 10 miles or 100 miles. They brag about their endurance. They brag about how far they went; the time that they went 360 miles or 380, enduring hardship and just kind of getting through."

Book Excerpt: 'West Like Lightning'

by Jim DeFelice

The one fact known about that first run is that it was late. Because of a train.

The launch of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860, was a huge affair in St. Jo. The riders had been the toast of the town the night before, with a ball in the Patee House’s expansive second floor ballroom. A huge crowd gathered to see the horse and rider off at 4 p.m. They were so boisterous they spooked the horse; the rider had to take him down the street to the Pony stables to get away from the crowd. More than one onlooker filched a hair from the poor pony’s tail as a souvenir.

Speeches were made; the mayor predicted great things, for the service, for the country, and most especially the city. The crowd cheered. All was ready.

The only problem: the mail wasn’t ready. And the Pony couldn’t leave until it was.

A small stack of mail for California was due to come on the train from Hannibal, but the mail had been delayed at Detroit. Despite speed that had even veteran passengers closing their eyes and hanging on for dear life around curves, the train was two and a half hours late. Scheduled to leave at four, the rider didn’t get off until a quarter past seven.

Frye – or whoever the first rider was – beat his time allotment; between him and the men who followed, they managed to make up enough time to get the mail across country on schedule. It was not the last time that man and beast would be called on to make up for the shortcomings of machines, nor would it be the only irony involved in the Pony’s history.

About that first rider: Most historians have settled on Frye citing the memories of St. Jo residents, which were recorded years after the fact.

But Alex Carlyle is another strong candidate, and one I prefer. The best testimony in his favor is a letter from Jack Keetley, another rider for the line. Keetley in a letter dated August 21, 1907 from Salt Lake City talked about the first ride, with a mixture of details correct and less so. He noted that Carlyle was the nephew of Ben Ficklin, the company’s superintendent; if Ficklin had any say on who would have the honor of riding out of St. Jo – and he had all the say – it would be hard to imagine him passing over his nephew.

Keetley notes that the first runs were to Guittard’s; the line was subsequently shortened to Seneca. He says that Carlyle only lasted about two months, leaving because he had consumption; Frye took his place. Keetley, who was riding on another section at the start of the service, eventually came east to replace him, with Gus Cliff the very last rider on that leg of the route.

The biggest knock on Keeley’s testimony is that it was printed in the very first book on the Pony, written by William Lightfoot Visscher. Visscher, described by one historian as an alcoholic who liked to give temperance lectures – quite a few did – was not a stickler for accuracy, and much of what he writes in the book can be sourced to his imagination.

But the exaggerations and errors in Keetley’s letter argue that he’s authentic, and telling the truth as he remembers it – whether accurately or not. Historians who have questioned his veracity like to point out that he gets the time wrong for the start of the first ride: but what he reports was the time when it was supposed to start, something a rider elsewhere on the line would have known. He boasts that he had the longest ride – a boast common to authentic Pony riders. He mentions Frye as the next rider in line, and had nothing to gain or lose by giving Carlyle credit. He also has many details about the Pony correct, most especially the fact that it was seen by its owners as a money loser from the start.

There are other candidates – Johnson William Richardson, who was mentioned in a St. Jo’s newspaper that week would be the best, and one accepted by the most thorough historians of the service, Raymond and Mary Settle . But that’s part of the fun of the Pony – you never know anything for one hundred percent certain. Just like real life.

From West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express by Jim DeFeliece, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Jim DeFelice. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2018.

This segment aired on May 16, 2018.



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