How The West Was Spun


Just a year before the Civil War, on April 3, 1860, Pony Express riders began the first of their 1,950-mile gallops from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., and on into American mythology. They promised to make the trip in less than 10 days and often did it in eight. Riders carrying Lincoln's First Inaugural Address sped through in seven days and 17 hours.

These tough young horsemen dashed alone across some of the most dangerous, desolate and isolated terrain in America - the Great Plains, the High Sierras and the Nevada desert. They plunged into roaring blizzards, torrential rains and waterless wastelands. They carried the mail on a route fraught with the threat of hostile Indians and murderous gunmen. They set a kind of American standard for cussed grittiness.

The Pony Express seems eternal now, but it lasted just 18 months, killed instantly by the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. But in the same instant the Pony Express became one of the great legends of the West, cast into myth by a relay of storytellers that included dime novelists Mark Twain and, perhaps most of all, Buffalo Bill.

In the first new book on the subject in a half-century, Orphans Preferred: the Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, Christopher Corbett looks at the old myths with a clarified eye. He's a seasoned reporter and editor who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

He wrote the book in the 102-year-old frame house in Roland Park, where he lives with his wife, Rebecca, an editor at The Sun, and their daughter, Molly. He sits in a white wicker chair on the porch and talks about "the Pony," as they say along the old route, while a late summer rain turns the afternoon the color of heirloom silver.

"It's not really a history of the Pony Express as much as it is a kind of meditation on how something became an American tall tale," says Corbett, 51, who will discuss his book tonight at the Enoch Pratt Central Library. "It is America's fascination with the kinds of stories we love to tell about ourselves.

"I always tell people the story of the Pony Express is a little bit like the story of Paul Revere's ride. It's sort of rooted in fact, but it's layered with a century and a half of embellishments and exaggerations and after a while no one was really sure exactly what was true. Like Paul Revere's ride."

But he doesn't dismiss the true grit of Pony Express riders.

"In the 20th century," he says, "the old guys who rode for the Pony who were interviewed, interestingly, they never talked about Indians, rustlers and desperados. They always talked about how brutal the conditions were working for the company. How brutal it was to ride a horse across 2,000 miles of what was essentially wilderness. This was a hard thing to do. They always remembered that."

"The other thing they always talked about was the weather," he says. "In Nebraska or Wyoming, in January, at night, it could be 40 below zero. And I don't mean that sort of 'Instant Weather 40 below zero with the wind chill.'

"I mean 40 ... below ... zero!"

He emphasizes every syllable.

"Really cold!

"Some of these guys ... when the wind was blowing so bad, it was so dark and so cold, they got off and led the horse. Because the horse couldn't figure out where they were. And the worst thing that could happen to you was to get off the trail. You might never get on the trail again.

"This isn't the Jersey Turnpike. You can get seriously lost in western Nebraska."

He's often traced the trail himself in gathering information for the book. He's searched through the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Huntington in Los Angeles and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

"I've been to every historical archive from St. Joe to Sacramento and back," he says. "As a result of this I have this huge army of people ... that I know, in places like Eli, Neb., and Eureka, Nev. ... And a lot of these guys know a lot about the West and about horses. These are not drugstore cowboys. These are the real article."

'I like Buffalo Bill'

Corbett's book bristles with accounts of guys like Pony Bob Haslam, Bronco Charlie Williams, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Jack Slade, of whom Mark Twain said: "From Fort Kearney, west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty."

"A lot of this is kind of like oral tradition," Corbett says. "And [for] the people who were involved in it ... veracity was not the specialty of the house. This was the golden age of prevarication."

He thinks Buffalo Bill's claim to having been a rider is dubious, but like so much of this story, "unresolvable." But Bill Cody did as much as anyone in creating the romantic image of the Pony Express. He included a Pony Express tableau in every performance of his Wild West Show from its premiere in 1883 to the finale in 1916, even when he dropped the re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand for The Charge up San Juan Hill.

"I think he enriched his [resume] later in life," says Corbett. "I like Buffalo Bill. Indians liked him. He was kind to people. He was not a bad guy. He was not a mean guy. The [number] of buffalo he killed was relatively modest. A lot of people held him responsible for killing all the buffalo in the West."

Buffalo Bill put the number at 4,280, Corbett writes.

Fact vs. fiction

Pony Bob Haslam was the real article.

"We're talking about really being able to ride a horse. Pony Bob Haslam could change horses in 20 seconds," Corbett says. "Don't try that at home. That's fast."

Pony Bob set the record for the longest ride for the Pony, during the Paiute Indian War, from Friday's Station, near Lake Tahoe, across the Sierra Nevada, past stations raided by the Paiutes, 190 miles to Buckland's Station near Carson City, Nev. He rested for 90 minutes, then headed back West.

"I had traveled 380 miles within a few hours of scheduled times, and was surrounded by perils," he said in the tale recounted by Corbett. Haslam was also credited with setting the Pony speed record on his leg of the delivery of Lincoln's speech: 120 miles in eight hours using 12 horses.

He ended his life, Corbett says, as a kind of greeter at the grand lakefront hotels in Chicago, the Ambassador and the Congress, and like an old prizefighter he was remembered for something he had done as a very young man.

"I found his grave in Chicago, way down on the south side of the city. He died in a cold-water flat. He was 72 years old. He was a drunk and ... he was sick. Buffalo Bill showed up and paid for the funeral. His grave [marker] says Bob Haslam, Pony Express Rider, 1840 -- 1912."

Bronco Charlie Miller, who died in 1955 at 105, thrived for years on the claim he was the last man alive who had ridden for the Pony Express. Bronco Charlie told people he was only 11 when he rode for the Pony, 45 miles from Sacramento to Placerville, Calif., and back, the youngest rider ever.

"I am taken with him," Corbett says. "Even as The New York Times said when he died, 'We can't prove that what he said isn't true. So we give the old man the benefit of the doubt.' I give him the benefit of the doubt, for the same reason."

Half a dozen people had already been mourned as the last of the Pony Express riders when Bronco Charlie died. Myths abound in the story of the Pony. Even the advertisement that gives Corbett's book its title is suspect.


Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen.

Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.

Orphans preferred. Wages - $25 per week.

Apply - Central Overland Pony Express

Alta Building Montgomery Street

Corbett thinks it may have been the creation of some magazine writer. But as one August E. Bjorklun of Haxtun, Colo., a collector of spurs and bridle bits, told him: "We don't lie out here. We just remember big."

Reading, book-signing

Who: Christopher Corbett

Where: Enoch Pratt Central Library, Poe Room, 400 Cathedral St.

When: 6:30 tonight

Admission: Free

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