Sunday, April 8, 2012
The Pony Express
The scarves at left are souvenirs of a Pony Express mail service that runs through Payson, AZ. It's one of the reminders our enduring love for the Pony Express.
I've been interested in the Pony Express since I was a little kid. I remember reading a children's book about it that belonged to my father when he was little. Of course, in high school, I enjoyed watching The Young Riders on television.
When I heard about a lecture on the Pony Express at the National Postal Museum last year, I knew I wanted to attend. The lecture took place close to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Pony Express. The lecture was a talk by Christopher Corbett about his book Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. I bought the book, and got it signed by Mr. Corbett after the lecture.
Basically, everything we know about the Pony Express is wrong. Most of what we remember is myth and legend passed down across generations. The Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company (the Pony Express) was a private operation fast mail service of Russell, Majors & Waddell. It began in 1860 and was over and done with by 1861. The central overland route went from St. Joseph, MO through Kansas and Utah territories (never Arizona) and on to Sacramento, CA. The riders generally were not orphans. Even though it cost $5 an ounce (in 1860 dollars) to mail a letter, the operation never made any money, and the telegraph put an end to any need for it.
Accurate records are few, but Corbett does a good job of sifting through all that's been written about the Pony Express and figuring out what's probably true and what couldn't be true and how we got to the current story we all know. In addition, he looks at how the legend grew. Buffalo Bill Cody, never a rider - he was 11 or 12 at the time - did a lot with his Wild West Show to secure a place for the fast mail service in our collective memory. There were also many books and inaccurate movies and TV shows. Of The Young Riders, Corbett said it was "a farrago of nonsense" (a phrase I really need to use whenever I can). But, I'm sure I wasn't watching it for its historical accuracy.
Corbett does a good job bringing the characters associated with the Pony Express, either truthfully or fraudulently, to life. It was an exciting time in history, and an amazing feat to carry mail by horse and rider across half the country in ten days. And, it was fun to read about it. This much I know to be true.