Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pony Express Mythbusters

Everyone’s  heard of the Pony Express, but judging from what I’ve heard from talking to people (and seen in movies and whatnot), few people really know much about it. So, in no particular order, I will present you a snopes-style rundown on common misconceptions I have heard over the years.

MYTH: Let's start with this poster right here:

BUSTED:It’s true that they hired a lot of lightweight guys to ride mail. It’s not true that they were all children, or that they were all orphans. That poster is believed to have been made up after the fact, as part of the huge, romanticized pseudo-history that has grown up around the Pony.

There were grown men riding for the Express, and men and boys with families. I have no doubt some of them were small, painfully young orphans. But not because that’s all that were hired. Luis is my nod to that part of the mythos. Tommy, Jesse, and Storm are my interpretation of what might be closer to reality.

MYTH: The Pony Express delivered mail all over the US.

BUSTED: Nope. It ran from Saint Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, in a more or less straight line.  If that doesn’t sound like a big area, remember that’s 2000 miles and done entirely on horseback through some of the roughest terrain in the country.

Also remember that when you are watching some old movie that has an express rider running through, say, Texas. Which I have unfortunately seen.

MYTH: It ran all during the days of the Wild West.

BUSTED: It ran for 18 months, and not even for all of that due to the Indian Wars out around the western reach of the trail. This blog has been running far, far longer than the actual service that it’s about. By the same token, there was a television series that ran during the late eighties/early nineties by the name of “The Young Riders” that was about the Pony Express and it ran longer than the actual Pony Express ran.

It’s a good series, but only season one is readily available, Still, you will like it if you like FDM. 

THIS JUST IN, Y'ALL: Evidently seasons two and three are now available! Which rocks! I'm glad I wrote this article, or I'd have never know about that!

MYTH: Everyone sent mail via Pony Express.

BUSTED: Not unless Aunt Ruby’s pecan pie recipe REALLY had to get across the country in a couple weeks time. Because it really did cost five dollars to mail a half ounce letter. Which, by the standards of 1860, really was “obscenely expensive.” Heck, five bucks is steep to mail a letter now.  A dollar in 1860 would be the equivalent of a little less than thirty bucks, in terms of what it would buy. So we’re looking at about 150 bucks to mail a thin little piece of ultra thin paper.

It was high end specialty mail, mail that absolutely, positively had to be there by ten days. The saddle had four smallish pouches on it, called mochilla,8and those were locked. There was no big mail bag involved. At least, not on the Express, there wasn’t. The great big mail bag was on the stagecoach. So the vast bulk of all mail wasn’t delivered by the Pony. It was delivered by the likes of Saint and Wash.

MYTH: Riders took a single horse and didn’t stop riding at a breakneck speed until they got where they were going.

BUSTED: They’d kill an awful lot of rather expensive horses like that. It used to amuse me that on Young Riders, one of the riders had a prize horse named Katy, and he was always seen riding her while he was making a run. That would not have happened. The horses were actually switched out every ten or fifteen miles or so for a fresh, rested one, at relay stations set up all along the route. That’s why there is no crew at Church Buttes and Dev works alone. He’s simply tending the horses at a relay station, not manning a full home station like the one at Green River. The spotted Indian pony out in front of the jailhouse in Green River, in the first chapter in which Bender appears, was not Storm’s horse Yellow Sky. Storm does not take Yellow Sky on runs, because he’s not a company horse and would get swapped for a fresh ride ten miles out.

And as for the “breakneck speed” idea...well  riders couldn’t afford to lollygag around much...but they’d stay on schedule if they kept more or less to a brisk pace. They didn’t have to break the sound barrier to stay on schedule. I have read accounts of riders falling into rivers and having to chase down horses and having unexpected calamity befall them on the trail, and still manage to stay on schedule. I have also read accounts, though, that the idea was to never let the mochilla stop moving. So yes, they did a considerable amount of rushing, but not the racehorse level of constant, unrelieved running the mythos would have you believe. 

MYTH: Riders were always getting shot full of arrows and killed on their rides.

BUSTED: That's completely unsubstantiated. What history does provide evidence for is the idea that it really was more dangerous in the stations than it was on the trail. 

MYTH: The horses that pull the coaches....

BUSTED: Yeah, actually if FDM were obsessively factual, those would be oxen. As a writer, I didn't want to use oxen, I wanted to use horses. I've tried to make FDM historically accurate, but that's my one big inaccurate indulgence. Sorry. You got me. 

Honestly, I don't have to make much up to give you a good Pony Express story. It's a fascinating history, and there's many good books our there you should check out if you're interested at all. A couple of my favorites are : 

Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

The Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph j. Di Certo

Saddles and Spurs by Raymond W. and Mary Lund Settle

The Pony Express A Photographic History by Bill and Jan Moeller 


Anonymous said...

This post had a disturbing lack of ballistics gel, gunpowder, and C4. False advertising!

'gina said...

Sorry! I probably should have arraigned to blow something up or at least set it on fire! :-DDD

Katrie said...


I had no idea that it only ran for 18 months!!! The fact that there's so much story and it's a common historical... mention? (I lack vocabulary right now) is amazing for something that lasted not even 2 years!!

Those are some awesome facts right there!! I've known *of* the pony express for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I can remember seeing some good facts on it! I love history! ^_^

'gina said...

Yep. Barely a year and a half, and that's not even taking into account the interruptions.

It was gloriously ambitious, ridiculously expensive, and ultimately doomed. The company went bankrupt.

But while it was barely a blip on the radar screen of history...what a tremendous blip it was! It's the ultimate adventure, man-against-the-odds story. And that's why there such a massive mythos grown up around it.

Jim Shelley said...

Awesome post! I've heard you mention some of these facts when discussing the books but some are new to me.

Anonymous said...

Ya should swing by the Allegheny Portage Railroad. That actually managed to turn a profit sending freight over the Alleghenies. Dangerous work, that.

'gina said...

I just looked that railroad up and now I wish I had known about it when I was making regular trips to that part of the country. Very cool. I bet parts of that route were harrowing!