A similar exhibition of heroics earning an indelible memory in the annals of bravery is the eighteen-month experiment with horseback mail in which the Pony Express sped private letters between the Missouri River and California, principally San Francisco. But unfortunately this adventurous episode, in which one may find ample citations of nervy intrepidity to satisfy the most demanding heroics-lover, has acquired, with the passing years, an egregious burden of hyperbole and misstatement.
It reminds one of an old scholium of Alexander Pope: Imagination has no limit, but where one is confined to truth we soon find the short run of our tether.
Clearly, our remembrance of this equine bravery - racing alone across unexplored, wilderness, galloping through Indian war country, climbing snow covered mountains - has been all too frequently short circuited with graphical aggrandizement. Recorders of their spirited knightliness over willingly have cut their tether to enlarge on reality, to arrogate glory, and, in one important instance, to create history with a paint brush.
Such are the errancies of Pony Express annalists, present essayist not excluded.
Let us for a moment dwell on the repetitive plaudits in popular histories bestowed on William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, legendarily the youngest rider, if not also the rider of briefest tenure, to carry the Pony's sprinting mail. Born February 2, 1845, this Scott County Iowan was only fifteen years old when he was hired by (1) George Chisman, Pony Express agent at Julesburg, Colorado, or (2) Jack Slade, experienced murderer and whiskey drinker who was division superintendent of Russell, Majors & Waddell, founders of the horse mail. Young Cody's schooling had started and stopped when he was twelve, when he learned to write his name and a few simple words, leaving him, in a modern educator's argot, "functionally illiterate." Without a definite record of his employer's name, later in life, when he reportedly had written several "autobiographies," he was obliged to depend upon a lively memory. Likewise disconcerting is the disjointed (faulty?) menology of his employment. He himself once explained that after only two months, he quit the job to care for his sick mother. Elsewhere he is credited with rejoining the Pony. Regardless, his most notable achievement in the saddle, as claimed himself, was a 384-mile ride alone, without sleep, through dangerous country, when other riders were not available. "This stands on the records as being the longest Pony Express journey ever made," he explained for clarity.
Biographer W. J. Ghent puts a different slant on his tale-telling: "Much of the material for a biography of Cody is found only in his own statements. It is no derogation of his many substantial qualities to say that he was an untrustworthy chronicler of events. He dealt with facts in a large, free way, and he had a tendency after he became famous to make himself the central figure in the episodes he recounted. Most of his statements are inaccurate, many are preposterous, and he sanctioned on the part of his publicity agents a gross indulgence in fiction." [Dict. of Amer. Biog., v. ii, pt 1, pg 260.]
This last assertion unmistakenly points to the imaginative, prolific Prentiss Ingraham who joined Cody in later years when he had his hugely successful, itinerant "Wild West" show. Ingraham is reported to be the author of some 200 "half-dime" novels published by Beadle & Adams. These fervid paperbacks of their day were full of action and suspense and were widely read by thrill-seeking readers of the nineteenth century. One time, on a hurry order from his publisher, he is said to have written a complete half-dime novel, 35,000 words, in one day and a night with a fountain pen. He authored Buffalo Bill's Pony Patrol, also a five-center, in 1897, as well as 16 other Beadle & Adams nickel offerings, all based on Buffalo Bill's adventures. Earlier, in 1891, the publisher, under the flag of Beadle Pocket Library, issued a new thriller, The Pony Express Rider.
In 1893 when the octogenarian Alexander Majors, one of the founders of the Pony Express, brought out his biography, Seventy Years on the Frontier, a publicity photo for the book shows the white-haired author posing prosaically with the greying Buffalo Bill Cody seated at his side richly caparisoned in his cowboy outfit, and Ingraham standing proudly in the background with aging Pony rider Bob Haslam in dutiful attendance.
Haslam, whose stint as an express rider was in California and Nevada Territory, perhaps a thousand miles from Cody's alleged Pony run, had somehow become a close friend of Buffalo Bill when the latter was staging his Wild West show in the late nineteenth century. Haslam needed work and Cody put him on as advance man. With no experience except as a horseman, he quickly proved to be a catastrophe. He booked the show in Mississippi River towns too small to patronize it, and leased a riverboat to carry the show's paraphernalia, only to see it collide with another steamer, sink in the river, and lose all the show's animals except its horses.
If Haslam's experience as a show boss is unremarkable, it is not true of his oft-told heroism as a Pony Express rider. His day in the sun was related to have come in May 1860, at the height of the Piute uprising in Nevada. Haslam, as the story goes, rode with the mail into Buckland's Station east of Carson City from Friday's Station on the California border. The Indian terror was so pervasive that his relief rider refused to take the mail. Haslam said he was offered $50 extra pay if he would carry it. He agreed. He whisked the mail on to Smith's Station where he found a relief after 190 miles without rest, took a brief sleep and returned. All told, he had covered 320 miles, second only to the reported record of his generous friend, Bill Cody.
Now that was sheer heroics - maybe not in the same league as a Doolittle pilot bombing Tokyo, but still heroics - if you believe it. As it so happens, a local paper reported that the rider who substituted for the recalcitrant expressman was one Bartholomew Riley, a young discharged soldier returning from a bloody battle with Piutes at Pyramid Lake. It was he, the newspaper reported, who volunteered to ride the mail the eighty-five miles east from Buckland's. On his return ride, at the Cold Springs Station, "he was shot by the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of a friend," according to the paper. Two days later Riley died in Carson City. So elegiacal was the story, it was picked up by two San Francisco newspapers and later a magazine.
Chroniclers of Pony history had scarce opportunity, apparently, to consult pages of the contemporary western press, which may explain the missing contradiction of Haslam's story in otherwise reliable accounts. Riley's venture going unnoticed back east and in the middle west, it is reasonble to conjecture how the sequence of events, and Haslam's proximity, might have "cooked" the vivid imagination of publicist Ingraham into a rich, tasty soup to be served up to patrons of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, where the once jobless Haslam was now thankfully employed. Simply let the story be told now, two decades later, as Haslam's own heroism. Who could question it? The real hero was in no position to complain.
If the modern reader of Pony history does not explore beyond popular texts, he is all but certain to come to the understanding that the actual mail carried by Haslam, Cody, et al, was stowed in four pockets of a mochila. Much behind hand, this accessory was described - and pictured - as a sort of portable oversaddle made of leather, with four boxes, or cantinas, two to each side which held the mail. At a horse relay station, the rider is said to have quickly lifted the mochila from his saddle, thrown it over the saddle of a waiting mount, then dashed off again.
It is a wondrous concept. Probably the best demonstration of its use is Frederic Remington's famed painting of the Pony relay, "Changing Horses." Executed in minute detail, the viewer of even reproductions can virtually see the padlocks on the cantina covers. (In the 4-cent first-class postage stamp issued by the Post Office to commemorate the Pony during the celebration of its Centennial, the padlocks were quite clear.) But on inquiry, the quizzical art lover will learn that the artist was born in 1861, the year the doughty express was terminated. So instead of painting an eyewitness view of his own, Remington had to rely on second-hand accounts, which already in the nineteenth century were being glamourized by the likes of Prentiss Ingraham. Nevertheless, wide distribution of his art is certain to have convinced viewers that the mochila was an essential appurtenance, the real thing.
As we shall see in a moment from Bill Cody's testimony, light weight allegedly was of major importance to the operators of the horse express. Post-Pony legend has it that the saddle was modified and trimmed to accommodate the mochila, and together, as I myself have written in haste, they have a third the heft of a standard saddle. I wrote that before the Centennial, after which I acquired an alleged reproduction of a mochila and its cutdown saddle which today still gathers dust in my attic. In contrite admission of the error, I know now the weight calculation is sheer fantasy: it takes a hefty man to hoist the combo's heft. Assuredly, there is no two-thirds saving in weight.
Ergo, the dedicated fan of Pony Express history must face up to the story book status of this accessory. That may be difficult. In some accounts the four-pocket mochila is as integral to the tale's magic as the lad who sits astride its smooth leather and spurs his horse through storm of desert sand or enfilade of Indian arrows. In reviewing the intelligence, it helps if one assumes the stance of an arbiter.
First, the Russell, Majors & Waddell company was headed into a financial swamp at the time the Pony was launched. Their brave new experiment was intended to win for the firm a badly needed trans-continental mail contract, then held by the Overland Mail Co. Demand from Army posts for their freighting service had been sharply curtailed. The company already was stagecoaching mail into Denver with its California Overland and Pikes Peak Express, the entity which it hoped would capture the big mail contract, but its operations were not profitable. To meet the pressing calls for money, William Russell had persuaded the War Department to issue him some $200,000 in "acceptances," promises to pay for future work, and he was currently endeavoring to raise funds by converting the paper to cash. Meanwhile, suppliers to the company were getting noisy about their unpaid bills. One wag had renamed the California Overland and Pikes Peak Express, Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay Everytime.
Plainly, the company was in no mood to buy such frills as the mochila to replace the common, readily available saddle pouch. Nor is it legitimate to suppose that, somehow, in the bustle of getting organized and putting the mail on its way, time was found to purchase and distribute mochilas to riders. There wouldn't have been, of course: in California, riders were advertised for, hired, and posted at stations within a fortnight. No, the real crunch was money. RM&W's balance sheet worsened as time went on, and to reason that the company might have acquired the mail-carrying device later, in more flush times, likewise appears faulty.
Non-existence of the mochila is substantiated by contemporary artists. One was G.H. Andrews who drew a Pony rider scene for the London illustrated News of 1861. The rider carried only a standard saddle pouch. Andrews is said to have witnessed the arrival and departure of riders at St. Joseph. A drawing in the New York Illustrated News depicts the arrival of the first Pony Express in Sacramento, and another, in the same publication, showing its welcome in San Francisco, failed to depict, in either case, the rider sitting on a four-box mochila. In still another drawing, one showing a Pony rider dismounted to let a pack train, pass on a snowy mountain trail, a pouch is portrayed, no mochila. The term wasn't even used by William F. Cody in one of his biographies, Buffalo Bill's Own Story [reprint 1920, Rinehardt & Co., Inc.] "Naturally," he is quoted as saying, "our equipment was the very lightest. The messages which we carried were written on the thinnest paper to be found. These we carried in a waterproof pouch slung under our arms."
Finally, there is a sister legend, the aberrant tale that RM&W gave each rider a Bible, engrossed with a special charge of morality he was to follow on the trail, which he was required to carry on his person. This fable stumbles on the rock of reality for reasons similar to that of the mochila. It lives on, perhaps because it borrows from a factual distribution of such Bibles by the company to its wagoners several years earlier. My library has a copy of this volume, published in 1858 by the American Bible Society, obviously designed, in its 3"x5" size and leather cover, for use of travelers. But the incompletely numbered pages are printed in sub-agate type, quite too small to be read on the back of a running horse, or even by an accomplished literate under the moonlight of a Pony relay station.
It is not going too far afield, I think, to compare this whole complaint with one made by the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), that the churches of his day, through ingenious interpretations of the Bible, had strayed from the holy book's primitive purity. Involved, he said, was a process of mental irresponsibility in which reason becomes not a guide but a tool in the service of passions to gain whatever is desired. As a result, he thought, reality is confused with fantasy for one's own ends, and word-spinning is substituted for reality.
Possibly, in the present case, occurring over a century later, we can mollify Swift's blame of human weakness by recognizing that all eyes do not receive the same image with the same clarity. The Pony Express was viewed in its time as bold, dangerous, risky, brave - altogether a peculiar American-style speculative gamble. Historians generally agree it was heroic. But heroism, wears many coats. Today in the ameliorative flow of time, we may see one worn by Cody, another by his friend Haslam, and still another draped over the mail, whether in pouch or mochila. Thus critic Swift would likely argue to us that we are confused with fantasy, we are word-spinning: the primitive reality is different.
I would disagree, partially. No one is suggesting a needed transmogrification of the Pony's glorious past. Hopefully, we will cling fast to the reins of its true, basic history. Rather, we need merely to bowdlerize a few barnacles that have promiscuously adhered to the tale as it has been told and retold through succeeding generations. Does this imply that we would diminish the praise and wonder and esteem such brave young souls inspired in us? Hardly. The aim here is to prevent fiction from overtaking and overwhelming fact. Some eighty or more Pony riders, rightfully, bravely earned their glory. Indeed they were the "Indians" of Boston harbor, the corpsmen recruited by Lewis and Clark, the flight crews of General Doolittle.
A moment ago, I mentioned true history. What is it? Each of us, peering back through the bemisted looking glass of dimming memory, may see it in different colors, with different cause and effect, of different import. Yet we must deal with it as fundamental and permanent in our culture and experience, and its essence ought carefully be wrought to discover order and coherence in the incoherent disorder of life. In this sense, nobody, I believe, has caught the stirring essence of the famed Pony as well as the California poet George Sterling (1898-1926) in these few insightful lines:
Copywrite 1996 Roy S. Bloss
THE AUTHORRoy S. Bloss, born in Minnesota, is a Californian of seven decades. During World War II he served in the Navy's submarines. After the war he was a public relations/advertising official for a large trucking firm where the system of drivers relaying a truck across the country gave rise to his interest in the Pony Express' relay of the mail.
That interest resulted in his first book, Pony Express -The Great Gamble, published in 1959, just prior to the Pony's Centennial observance.
He was co-chairman of Centennial activity on the Pacific Coast and principal speaker at a large San Francisco civic luncheon held in celebration of the 100th anniversary.
Now retired, he was active in securing federal legislation toward recognizing the Sacramento - San Francisco leg of the Pony's trail (usually traveled by river steamer but frequently by land) as a part of the full route to be designated in the National Trails System.
For over 40 years he has lived on a half-acre in a ranch-style home in Alamo, Contra Costa County, California. It is about two miles from the route on which the westbound Pony raced when connections with the Sacramento river steamer were frequently missed.