Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express

Overview

The Pony Express is one of the most celebrated and enduring chapters in the history of the United States. It is a story of the all-American traits of bravery, bravado, and entrepreneurial risk that are part of the very fabric of the Old West. No image of the American West in the mid-1800s is more familiar, more beloved, and more powerful than that of the lone rider galloping the mail across hostile Indian territory. No image is more revered. And none is less understood. Although rooted in actual events and real ...
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2003 2003 Hardcover Later printing NEW in new jacket 270 pp. [24 cm]; brown and tan paper covered boards, gilt stamped title on spine. Ilustrated dust jacket. A former news ... editor and reporter with the Associated Press, Christopher Corbett is a novelist and historian. He lives in Baltimore and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Read more Show Less

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Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express

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Overview

The Pony Express is one of the most celebrated and enduring chapters in the history of the United States. It is a story of the all-American traits of bravery, bravado, and entrepreneurial risk that are part of the very fabric of the Old West. No image of the American West in the mid-1800s is more familiar, more beloved, and more powerful than that of the lone rider galloping the mail across hostile Indian territory. No image is more revered. And none is less understood. Although rooted in actual events and real people, the saga of the Pony Express has become an American legend, embellished in everything from dime novels, Mark Twain's Roughing It, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show to the western film classics of John Ford, the art of Frederic Remington, and scores of children's books. Orphans Preferred is both a revisionist history of this magnificent and ill-fated adventure and an entertaining look at the often larger-than-life individuals who created and perpetuated the myths of "the Pony," as it is known along the Pony Express trail that runs from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express is a story that exists in the annals of Americana where fact and fable collide, a story as heroic as the journey of Lewis and Clark, as complex and revealing as the legacy of Custer's Last Stand, and as muddled and freighted with yarns as Paul Revere's midnight ride. Orphans Preferred is a fresh and exuberant reexamination of this great American story.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." --California newspaper help wanted ad, 1860.

The story of the Pony Express is a whale of a Wild West tale, a peerless example of the place where a blend of truth and myth created heroic legacies. Despite its iconic status in American folklore, the truth about the Pony Express has been largely supplanted by fiction, transforming an unsuccessful and short-lived business venture into a legend.

The fascination with the Pony Express revolves around the men who made it happen. Pony Express riders endured great hardships and braved danger, especially those who rode long distances through hostile territory during the Indian Wars. But the story of the Express is as much the story of the three men who founded it, and the drunkards and ruffians who manned the many stations between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, and a host of other vividly drawn characters from the past also populate the chapters of Corbett's absorbing history. Separating fact from fiction, Orphans Preferred sheds new light on the courage and capitalist bluster that characterized this outsized scheme that, while doomed, has helped shape the mythos of the early American West. (Fall 2003 Selection)

School Library Journal
Adult/High School-"Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages-$25 per week." Thus ran a notice in several western newspapers in 1860. Or maybe not. This is just one of many unproved "facts" about the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express. The Pony's day was short, a mere 18 months, from April 3, 1860, to October 26, 1861 (just two days after the completion of the first coast-to-coast telegraph line). The company was a financial disaster for its owners. The total amount of mail carried was insignificant. Ah, but the "twisted truth and lasting legend," now that is something a good writer can throw in his saddlebag and ride with. And Corbett does exactly that in this fine analysis of the famed riders of the Wild West. He does an excellent job of finding bits of truth hidden behind layers of myth. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok were not Pony Express heroes, despite numerous dime novels and Hollywood westerns to the contrary. On the other hand, true heroes were lost among the lore. The feats of Robert Haslam and William F. Fisher were impressive by any standard. This book tells two main stories: what happened (so far as is known) and how the legend grew (about which much is known). A good selection for Old West aficionados, especially those who relish the challenge of separating fact from fiction.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“A lively and conversational probe that lays out the real facts about this stirring slice of Americana.”—Albuquerque Journal

“A rollicking tale of frontiersmen, showmen, hustlers, hucksters, and frauds.”
—CNN

“It’s the West in microcosm, and Corbett’s breezy writing turns what we thought we knew into a compelling search for fact . . . It’s a romantic story that won’t die.”
Denver Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767906920
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • Publication date: 9/9/2003
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.59 (w) x 9.61 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Corbett has been a working journalist for more than twenty-five years.  A former news editor and reporter with the Associated Press, Corbett has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Boston Globe.  The author of the novel Vactionland, he lives in Baltimore and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue
__

HOW THE STORY GOES, OR WHAT DO WE KNOW?

Where the years went I can't say
I just turned around and they're gone away . . .
--KATE WOLF, "ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE"
This is how the story goes.

About dusk on the evening of April 3, 1860, the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad train bringing the mail from back east was more than two hours late getting into St. Joseph, Missouri, through no fault of its engineer, Addison Clark. He was a good man and true at the throttle of the train, which consisted of merely a wood-burning engine, the Missouri, its tender, and a single car. Addison Clark would set what old railroad men later claimed was a speed record, which would stand for half a century. That trip was also believed to be the first time that mail was sorted on a moving railroad car. The few passengers on board this special train, dignitaries who arrived soot-flecked and frightened in St. Joe, swore later that they feared for their lives. Ad Clark brought the Missouri down from Hannibal to St. Joe -- a distance of 206 miles -- in four hours and fifty-one minutes.

Telegraphers reported that the train was going at the breathtaking speed of sixty-five miles an hour when it passed. Gangs of men standing along the line with firewood restocked the train's fuel supply in fifteen seconds. We know that much to be true.

About 7:15 that evening -- depending on whose version of the story you prefer -- Johnny Frey (perhaps it was spelled Freye or Fry or Frye) or Billy Richardson, sometimes confused with Johnson Richardson (he was said to be a sailor, but what a sailor was doing in the heart of the country is never explained), or Alex Carlyle jumped into the saddle or leaped into the saddle or perhaps he was already in the saddle and began to gallop westward across the continent.

Writing in the October 1898 issue of Century magazine, W. F. Bailey states flatly that Henry Wallace was the first rider. Poor Henry's name is never mentioned again in the chronicles. Mr. Bailey's story was written closer to the actual event than any other account, but what of it?

That historic gallop began down in front of the Patee House, the grandest hotel west of the Mississippi River in that day, a hotel that hosted Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Oscar Wilde, Captain Sir Richard Burton, and William Seward, who was on his way to buy Alaska -- or so the story goes. Or it happened down in front of the Pike's Peak Stables, about three blocks west. No, the stables weren't there, they were someplace else. Or it happened over on the other side of town at the telegraph office on the east side of Third Street -- or was it Second Street? -- between Felix and Edmond Streets. Or perhaps it was someplace else. Well, we know with complete certainty that it was in St. Joe. We know that much to be true.

The newspaper in St. Joseph is not much help in clearing up these matters, because the reporter -- some say he became excited and ran back to the office without fully gathering the facts -- neglected to mention who the first rider was. The style of newspapers then was very different from what it is today. But it does seem odd down these long years that a reporter sent to cover such an event would not have made mention of who was upon that horse. Long after the evening in question, a synod of St. Joseph worthies was mustered to ponder this matter, pray over it, and determine just who the first equestrian was on this momentous occasion. They advised, after lengthy deliberation and even the offering of a one-hundred-dollar reward, that they could come to no conclusion about the man aboard that first horse.

We know that the rider was wearing a bright red shirt and blue trousers and a yellow kerchief or that he was wearing a kind of military getup like a drum major's uniform or that he was clad in buckskin. We know that he was carrying two Colt revolvers and a Sharps rifle (it could have been a Spencer). Or he was unarmed. Or he was merely carrying two pistols. We know that he had a horn to blow to announce his arrival in stations down the line. Or maybe not. We know for certain that he had a Bible. Alexander Majors of the great freight-hauling firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, which underwrote this venture, gave every employee a little calfskin-bound Bible, although the curious often wondered how a man riding a horse at a gallop from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, would have had occasion for Bible study. But why quibble? We know that much is true.

Well, whoever was riding, or galloping, or cantering, or racing, or trotting, we are quite certain he was on a horse, although some of the riders rode mules. It was either a sorrel, a black, a bay, or . . . there is disagreement over the horse, too. Horse and rider somehow got themselves down to the banks of the Missouri River, where the steamboat Ebenezer ferried them across the water to Elwood, Kansas. But it is possible that it wasn't the Ebenezer, but the Denver, that made the crossing. Take your pick; there were two vessels to choose from to cross the Missouri.

We know there was music: Rosenblatt's five-piece German brass band had come down from Nebraska City on the riverboat. The musicians played "Skip-a to My Lou" and "What Was Your Name in the States." (Artists' renderings of the occasion always make the band much larger, a veritable symphony orchestra.) And we know that there were speeches, too. One of the speechmakers was the recent mayor of St. Joe, M. Jeff Thompson, an orator of considerable accomplishment who would soon distinguish himself in the Civil War, a local hero of the Confederacy. We know that there was a big crowd on hand. And they plucked the poor horse's tail hairs for souvenirs. You could still buy those horsehairs woven into rings for a long, long time after that. Or so they say around St. Joe. Ask around St. Joe enough and you'll find someone who has one of those horsehair rings or used to have one until their uncle took it up to the veterans' hospital with him. True enthusiasts know the name of the horse: Sylph.

Or, if you choose to doubt these stories, consider that because the train was late and dusk was coming on, the crowd had dwindled to a handful. So we know that there was hardly anyone there to see the first rider off. Artists' renderings of the event (perhaps the most famous one was commissioned long years after by a now-defunct St. Joseph brewery) always show a jolly crowd on hand, a handsome rider in the saddle at full gallop, the sun shining. The sun set at 6:46 in that latitude on April 3, 1860, but it shines forever in the memory of illustrators -- none of whom were present on the great day.

We know that about eight hours later, or maybe it was ten or perhaps twelve, with at least one change of rider and many fresh horses, the mail pouch, called a mochila reached Marysville, Kansas. We know that a girl in Marysville would live to be a very, very old lady and in the 1930s would tell a historian about witnessing the first rider come in. She always said it was Johnny Frey. She was there. She heard the horn blow, too.

We know with complete certainty that on that same day, actually a bit earlier that afternoon, another rider, Harry Roff, left Sacramento, California, racing east. Everyone seems to agree it was Harry Roff.

Alexander Majors, who was at the other end of the line that day, in St. Joe, says it was Harry Roff. William Lightfoot Visscher, the first historian of the event, says it was Harry Roff. W. F. Bailey writing in Century magazine in 1898 goes along with Harry Roff, too. It's nice to have some agreement. Alas, there are now those who believe it was not Harry Roff, but William Fisher. Yep, Billy Fisher was the first rider out of Old Sac. But the horse was white. They all agree on that. The name of the horse is not mentioned.

We know that the riders east and west would change about every one hundred miles and the fresh rider would resume the race. The riders would change horses every ten to fifteen miles, and the mochila would be transferred to the back of each fresh horse. We know that the mail pouch going west from St. Joe that first day was carrying forty-nine letters and a few newspapers and telegrams. It cost five dollars to send a letter across the country. We also know that the riders passed one another-one heading east and one heading west -- a few days later somewhere east of Salt Lake City. We do not know what these two riders said to one another or whether they stopped and chatted. We know that one eastbound rider later claimed that he rode so far and for so long without relief that he often slept in the saddle and passed the westbound rider without realizing it. We know that another rider, aboard a mule, fell asleep and the mule simply walked back to the station from which it had departed.

We also know that about eighteen months later -- October 26, 1861, is widely accepted -- the riders stopped galloping east and west. We do not know with utmost certainty who those last riders were, and we know that some mochilas were still arriving into November. Notices appeared in the California newspapers saying that the horses from the East and West would race no more.

We do know that Edward Creighton and his associates had by then completed the transcontinental telegraph; the east and west coasts of America were now linked by a new technology. The continent was spanned -- "westward the course of empire" and all that. And we know that was the end of the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, which we remember by its abbreviated name, a name that remains forever endearing and enduring: the Pony Express.

We know that the Pony Express went out of business in the fall of 1861 when the United States was in the throes of civil war. We know that the company that owned the Pony Express, a subsidiary of Russell, Majors & Waddell, fell upon hard times. We know the firm owed a fabulous amount of money; published reports range from $200,000 to $500,000 and even $700,000. We know that the records of the Pony Express, such as they might have been, were lost or stolen or destroyed intentionally or burned up in a bad fire, or they are hidden in the attic of a house in Lexington, Missouri. There were scandals, too. Two of the three principals involved in the venture, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell, died financially ruined. Russell nearly went to jail in connection with a bond fraud, a reckless attempt to bail out the foundering Pony Express.

The third partner, Alexander Majors, who looks in yellowed photographs like the paintings of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, come to judgment, lived a long, long time. Among the first to trade along the Santa Fe Trail, he was there, too, the day they drove the golden spike at Promontory Point in Utah, completing the transcontinental railroad. The old man got around. Majors lived to see the twentieth century, although he did not write his memoirs for more than thirty years after the last rider of the Pony Express galloped across the continent. When Alexander Majors did finally settle down to chronicling the days of the Pony Express, his account was complicated by some creative assistance. Buffalo Bill was the de facto publisher; he paid Rand McNally to print the memoirs. And Buffalo Bill also obtained the services of Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, a public relations man and one of the most prolific dime novelists to ever take up the pen on behalf of Buffalo Bill and the American West.

Old Alexander Majors would say afterward with some alarm that Colonel Ingraham had taken liberties with the facts. There were embellishments. The colonel said Majors was too modest and he was just trying to tell a good story. And what a story it was: Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors' Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border. Whatever else it accomplished, Majors's book firmly established the vital role played in that "saga of the saddle" by William Frederick Cody, known better as Buffalo Bill.

But that was not the first effort made by Buffalo Bill to enshrine the legacy of the Pony Express. From 1883, when the first of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows opened in Omaha, until the final season of 1916, when Cody was an old man, broke and sick, who no longer even owned the show and needed to be hoisted onto a horse so that he could briefly ride around the ring waving to his fans, wherever he went touring on the North American continent or in Europe, the sweet memory of the Pony Express went with him.

Buffalo Bill took the Pony Express with him to see Queen Victoria, and he took the Pony along to visit the pope in Vatican City. He took the Pony to Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin. No image was more romantic and more powerful as a symbol of the real Wild West than that of a galloping Pony Express rider. Buffalo Bill trouped his show from Pope Leo XIII in Rome to Queen Victoria in London to the kaiser in Berlin (Annie Oakley shot a cigarette out of the German monarch's mouth on a dare); from Baraboo, Wisconsin, to Lewiston, Maine; from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Goshen, Indiana. Year after year, in rain or in shine, in sickness and in health, triumphant and broke, no one did more to permanently brand into the subconscious of the American and European spectator the glorious memory of the days of the Pony Express or the image of the brave horseman whom Mark Twain himself (and he had seen a Pony rider) had called "the swift phantom of the desert."

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show changed from year to year. New acts came and old acts left -- a reenactment of Custer's Last Stand would be replaced by Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill -- but the Pony rider was always on the "programme," generally right after Miss Annie Oakley offered a display of marksmanship that never failed to stun a crowd and before the prairie emigrant train crossing the Great Plains had to be rescued by Buffalo Bill from red savages. Just as the show always began with "The Star-Spangled Banner," it included prominently the Pony Express. And no one, from penniless orphans in Chicago and London, allowed in free because Buffalo Bill had a good heart, to kings and kaisers and presidents, ever left Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World without seeing this one irreplaceable fixture of the Old West. The Pony Express was as well known and revered as Buffalo Bill himself, or the legendary Deadwood stagecoach. For decades the program note never varied; it read simply, "Pony Express. A former Pony Post-Rider will show how the letters and telegrams of the Republic were distributed across the immense Continent previous to the building of railways and telegraphs." It made a powerful impact on the American and European spectator. No one could ever forget it.

We know that nearly half a century passed before the first book-length work chronicling the Pony Express was published. It was the effort of Colonel William Lightfoot Visscher, an alcoholic and rambling newspaperman who had drifted across the American West. He was no colonel, but that's another story. There is no index in the colonel's masterwork on the Pony Express. There are no footnotes. No bibliography. No indication whatsoever where he got his information. (Much of his research appears to have been done at the Chicago Press Club's bar -- his legal address for a number of years.) No one had written much about the Pony Express when the colonel sat down to do the fast-mail service justice. We know that he knew Alexander Majors and Buffalo Bill Cody and Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, perhaps the most famous and bravest courier to actually ride for the service. The colonel was a poet at heart -- not a good poet, but a published poet, and a prolific poet, too -- and this is reflected in his book, A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express with Other Sketches and Incidents of Those Stirring Times. He put one of his poems at the beginning of the book. It has nothing to do with the Pony Express. But whatever else can be said about the colonel and his book, he got the "thrilling" part down right.

No book ever published about the Pony Express since the colonel took up his pen has not owed some debt to that first lively chronicle. Serious historians and academics in general, unable to figure what the Pony Express was all about, have ridden wide of the quicksand of the legendary cross-country mail service for more than a century.

__

Americans do not suffer failure gladly, but they forgive and they forget, too, and so the story of the Pony Express, lost in the hard years of the Civil War, became in time a recovered memory. First, America forgot the story of the Pony Express, then America remembered, and in memory, America remembered big.

In the retelling, the story of the Pony Express was not, as its critics charged, an eccentric publicity stunt aimed at securing lucrative government mail contracts that was doomed to fail and never make a dime, but a Pegasus for all time. Its rider was a true rider of the purple sage (and there was never a shortage of purple prose to back that up).

In memory, the Pony Express never failed. In memory, there were no squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, bankruptcy, and shame. No unpaid employees. No congressional inquiry. In memory, the Pony Express became triumphant, victorious, its riders heroic.

A rogues' gallery of westerners, famous and infamous, helped turn the story into myth. Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok (he was merely James Butler Hickok when Russell, Majors & Waddell hired him as a stock tender in Rock Creek Station, territory of Nebraska) were among the principals. The roving dime novelist Ned Buntline, who conspired in the invention of Buffalo Bill, and his successor, Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, who helped to patent the invention, played supporting roles. Eyewitnesses to "the great gamble" helped, too, including Mark Twain, who was merely Sam Clemens, a recent Confederate army deserter who had lit out for the territory ahead, when he watched a Pony rider flash by his rocking stagecoach. So, too, did the great British explorer Captain Sir Richard Burton, who was on his way to have a look at the Mormons when he crossed the Pony's path.

Down the years, the riders of the Pony Express galloped across the paintings of Frederic Remington and many a painter who wished to be Frederic Remington. They galloped, too, across the motion picture screen, from the films of John Ford and those who wished to be John Ford. Hollywood has been especially generous to the memory of the Pony Express. One of the best-known films, The Pony Express, made in 1953, starring Charlton Heston, had Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok teaming up in "Old Californy" to start the Pony Express. There is not a splinter of fact in that tale.

Saved from failure and forgetting, the story of the Pony Express would become a great saga, a heroic episode in the opening of the American West. It would become a memory of the vanished West that Americans would be proud to recall. It would take its place alongside other American sagas, actual events that were much embellished, from Paul Revere's ride (à la Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem) to the defense of the Alamo to Custer's Last Stand. It would nearly become another sort of American story, the tall tale, in the tradition of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry.

But even if facts were never quite right, there is an essential truth about the Pony Express. It was a splendid moment of history, a rare event where the taming of the West took no victims. It remains forever fond and familiar because it is a recollection of the West unlike any other. This was not the West of the mindless slaughter of the buffalo, the decimation of the Indian, or the greedy exploitation of the land. This was not the West of gunfighters or cattle rustlers.

The story of the Pony Express was about a lone rider facing the elements, racing time and racing the transcontinental telegraph, too. It was the story of an audacious adventure and the bravura involved in crossing the country, night and day, in all kinds of weather, a man (or boy) alone on the back of a galloping horse. It was a story of chance and courage. It was the story of the West that might have been, the West that should have been. Americans love a race and they love a winner, and they loved that man on the horse.

We hear the fading distant hoofbeats of that horse across nearly a century and a half, faintly but still quite audibly. It is a sound that never fails to inspire. No memory of the vanished nineteenth-century West is more revered, and few are more beloved and cherished, than that of the long-ago riders of the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company. And some of those memories are even true.

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Table of Contents

Map
Prologue: How the Story Goes, or What do We Know? 1
Pt. I In the Days of the Pony 11
1 "Capital Fellows" - Russell, Majors & Waddell 13
2 "A Wild, Uninhabited Expanse" 29
3 "The Greatest Enterprise of Modern Times!!" 45
4 Pyramid Lake 63
5 "Orphans Preferred" and "The Worst Imps of Satan" 81
6 Captain Sir Richard Burton 95
7 The Telegraph: "Our Little Friend the Pony is to Run no More" 115
Pt. II After the Pony 129
8 Mark Twain ... "To the Territory Ahead" 131
9 Billy Cody's Big Adventure 147
10 Buffalo Bill's Wild West: "Wholly Free from Sham and Insincerity" 161
11 The Colonel and his Thrilling and Truthful History 173
12 Pony Bob Haslam: A True Rider of the Purple Sage 187
13 "Memory at the Best is Treacherous": The Story of the Story of the Pony Express and How it Grew 201
14 The Borderland of Fable 219
15 Broncho Charlie Miller, "The Last of the Pony Express Riders" 231
Epilogue: The Girl who Remembered Johnny Frey 247
Bibliography 257
Acknowledgments 265
Illustration Credits 269
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