Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week.
This classified advertisement, allegedly published in a California newspaper in the spring of 1860, is one of the most recognized and highly disputed relics from the Pony Express. The frontier mail carrier operated only 19 months, leaving in the dust a trail of myth and contradiction.
The oft-quoted ad has since been published in publications ranging from National Geographic to The New York Times. Reproduction parchment posters, passed off as originals, have fetched small fortunes on eBay. But nobody has confirmed how or where the ad originated. Nevertheless, it offers a glimpse of what the fleet messengers were like.
Or does it?
Articles, eyewitness accounts and journals provide reasonably accurate descriptions of the brave Pony Express riders, but little evidence supports that the young men were orphans. That term was first coined with Pony Express riders in a 1923 article that appeared in Sunset magazine, and it wasn’t referenced again until the 1940s.
This is a classic example of how the legend and lore of the Pony Express is “rooted in fact, but layered with a century-and-a-half of fabrication, embellishment and outright lies,” says Christopher Corbett, author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.
We’ll explore the paradox and mystery behind some of the riders who galloped into Old West history, detail their inspiring tales of heroism, and give an overview of the Pony Express operation and origins. Like barstool stories passed down through generations, the yarns spun of the Pony Express have been tangled with fact and folklore, and historians have dug up contradicting information, so it’s difficult to determine what’s real and what isn’t.
The Pony Express was a brotherhood of dedicated horsemen made famous by a brief chapter in history. “I have yet to see an account where the rider wasn’t really proud of being a part of the Pony Express. They loved to tell of their worst experiences,” notes Jackie Lewin assistant director of external affairs for Missouri’s St. Joseph Museum and author of On the Winds of Destiny: A Biographical Look at Pony Express Riders.
To date, records from the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, owned by William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, are nonexistent, but historians have compiled a list of 180 supposed riders using census records, first-person accounts, journals, articles and genealogy reports.
Many people claim to have relatives who rode for the Pony Express. Some leads have credence, while others are dead ends. The confusion lies in the fact that “pony express rider” was used as a generic title for any horseback mail carrier. It’s reasonably certain that the daredevils hired by the real Pony Express were single, gritty men in their late teens or early 20s, weighing less than 135 pounds. But Lewin adds that she believes there were riders as young as 11 and as old as 45. “They seemed to be on their way somewhere, and they stopped for a period of time and rode for the Pony Express,” Lewin says.
In his 1872 book Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the Pony Express rider as “a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance.” In October 1932, William Campbell’s personal account of riding for the Pony Express was published. “I was a bullwhacker, hauling provisions and military supplies by wagon to forts in the West in the Spring of 1860, when Russell, Majors and Waddell decided to establish the Pony Express. … I was feet tall, weighed 140 pounds, and was too large, but many riders could not stand the grind, and more were needed.”
Considering the nature of the occupation, such characteristics made sense. The riders transported mail along the desolate route. Hollywood’s portrayal of fleet-footed horses and riders flying through the wind is fabrication. Riders actually averaged eight to 10 miles per hour,20 miles per hour along some areas. Under these conditions, a jockey-like build was a plus. “The lighter the man, the better for the horse,” said Majors, one of the three partners in the Pony Express. Riders were paid $ 50 per month — high compensation for the time, but the job came with inherent risks. Along the trail, riders encountered extreme weather, prolonged periods without water, varied terrain, wild animals and, occasionally, hostile American Indians. Blizzards, not the natives, were the riders’ primary concern. Rider William Frederick “Billy” Fisher related his experience in The Pony Express Goes Through.
“I hadn’t gone more’n a mile when a storm struck me; wind and blindin’ desert dust at first, then snow,” Fisher wrote. “It was about the fiercest blizzard I ever faced. … Then I found myself in a tangle of troubles. I was somewhere in the hills among cedar trees, plumb lost.” The Pony Express dress code included a buckskin shirt, cloth trousers tucked into high riding boots, and a jockey cap or slouch hat. St. Joseph riders supposedly wore decorated attire when they rode out of the Pike’s Peak Stables (now the Pony Express Museum), then changed clothes aboard a ferry that transported the horses and riders across the Missouri River. Riders sat astride lightweight (13-pound), stripped-down A fork saddles. A mochila was placed over the saddle. This leather satchel had four mail pouches, and fit over the pommel and cantle of the saddle. This design allowed it to be transferred in less than two minutes from one saddle to another. Majors, a man of high faith, gave each rider a pocket Bible. They also carried an 1851 Navy Colt pistol and a pocketknife. Some stories say that the riders carried trumpets to alert station keepers of their arrival. It’s said riders also took an oath of good behavior and honesty, swearing they wouldn’t use profanity, drink alcohol (some accounts read “get drunk”) or fight with other employees.
“I think the oath might’ve been used in some places, but way out west, I doubt every agent knew of the oath,” Lewin says. “Plus, some riders rode only once and probably didn’t take the oath.”
The 100-Year Debate
Johnny Fry (also spelled Frey and Frye in historical documents) was one of the riders who took the oath of conduct. Born in 1840 in Kentucky, Fry and his family settled south of St. Joseph in 1849. Fry was a scout and messenger for the Union Army during the Civil War. He was killed at 21 in a surprise attack by Quantrill’s guerrillas. Most credit the skilled horseman and jockey as the first rider to leave St. Joseph carrying mail for the Pony Express. But an article documenting the inaugural ride, published in The Weekly West in St. Joseph on April 4, 1860, cited that Billy Richardson was the first rider.
Adding to the confusion, Charles Cliff, one of the last documented riders from St. Joseph, said that Fry made the first ride. “I ought to know,” Cliff said. “I was right here. We lived just across the street from the stable.” In 1960, the Pony Express’ centennial, St. Joseph Historical Society President Bartlett Boder and artist Lee Starnes announced that they had eyewitness evidence that Richardson was the first rider. “Johnny Fry was selected (to be the first Pony Express rider), but sprained his wrist attempting to ride an unbroke horse the day before the Pony Express was to start;’ Starnes explained. “At the last minute, Billy Richardson was substituted.”
Lewin’s research shows that Richardson was a young boy who worked at the Pony Express stables, where he met Johnny Fry. A 1938 St. Joseph newspaper article in which Richardson admitted before his death that he carried the mail pouch on his horse from the barn to the ferry, then gave it to Johnny Fry, backs her research. “I rode with it down to the river and gave it to Fry,” asserted Richardson. “He was the first rider. All this about me being the first rider is bunk, junk and rubbish.”
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock are the most noted Pony Express riders, but it’s doubtful either served that role. Buffalo Bill, born Feb. 26, 1846 (some accounts say 1845), would’ve been 13 or 14 years old when the Pony Express was established. It’s known that Cody was hired as a messenger for the Majors and Russell freight-hauling firm (predecessor to Russell, Majors & Waddell), but some say the larger-than-life legend probably wasn’t a Pony Express rider.
“Buffalo Bill was a figure of myth, rooted in fact, a stage persona spun out of the real-life exploits of an actual scout and buffalo hunter,” says Corbett. “Cody’s most thorough biographers and sympathetic critics admit that it’s impossible to entirely sort out the real from the fantastic in his complex and controversial life. …Even Cody himself may not have been entirely sure in the end what was true and what was not.” Whether Cody was an actual Pony Express rider or not, his glamorized renditions of the Express became an integral part of his Wild West Shows.
“From the day his show opened to the day it closed, Cody took the ride of the Pony Express with him,” says Corbett. “Tens of thousands of people remember the Pony Express because of Buffalo Bill.”
The Pony Express company purchased 400 high-quality horses for $200 apiece from various points along the trail. That was four times the price of an average mount. The types of horses used varied tyby region. Horses used on the eastern leg of the route were typically Thoroughbred or Morgan crosses, purchased from the United States Army. The western division relied on California stock horses crossbred stock and Cayuse ponies. The result was a string of strong, hardy trail horses that could withstand the perils of crossing the Sierra Nevada range. Lewin believes that some riders used their own horses, indicated by some of the horses having names.
There’s no record of the horses being branded with an XP, as accounts say. However, in eastern Utah, rustling was a problem, so Lewin suggests horses might’ve been branded in that region.
To the New Frontier
One of Lewin’s fondest memories of contemporary Pony Express history is meeting Pony Express rider William Frederick “Billy” Fisher’s great-great grandson, Dr. William Fisher, a mission specialist on the 1985 flight of the space shuttle Discovery. Dr. Fisher and NASA contacted Lewin before the shuttle launch, asking to take one of Billy Fisher’s letters into space. Billy Fisher, born Nov. 16, 1839, in Woolwich, Kent, England, Express immigrated to Utah in 1854. He was hired by the Pony in 1860 to ride from Ruby Valley to Egan Station, in what are now Utah, Nevada and California. He’s said to have carried the first eastbound mochila.
Dr. Fisher told Lewin that if his great-great-grandfather were still alive, he’d probably want to ride into the frontier of space with the same spirit for adventure he and his fellow riders showed along the Pony Express route. And then he’d want to come back and spin a story of a heroic journey Americans would be proud to honor, just as they’ve celebrated the daring gusto and ingenuity of the Pony Express rider.
This article was originally published in the September 2006 issue of Western Horseman.