Drinking on the Pony Express

Burton observed uncountable instances of drinking along the route; being a traveler who enjoyed a dram himself, he commented frequently when the liquor supply was low. He does not appear to have passed up any opportunities to “liquor up,” as he calls it. His account seems to indicate that Alexander Majors’s famous admonition about sobriety was widely ignored, and modern research appears to confirm that.

Archaeological excavations conducted by Donald L. Hardesty of the University of Nevada-Reno in the late 1970s on Cold Springs and Sand Springs Stations in central Nevada uncovered hundreds of fragments of wine, champagne, gin, ale, brandy, beer, and whiskey bottles at both sites dating from the time of the Pony. Hardesty noted in a report prepared for the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1979 that there was ample evidence that dictums against taking strong drink were ignored. “The firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell was adamantly opposed to the use of alcohol beverages by its employees and required them to sign an oath saying that they would not indulge. But observations of drunken pony express riders falling off their horses [Hardesty cited Buffalo Bill Cody’s memoirs as offering an example] suggests that the oath was not too effective. The archaeological record of Cold Springs and Sand Springs stations supports that conclusion.”

Richard Burton not only noted countless instances of drinking but wryly reported that he had observed no indications of scriptural study, either. “There was no sign of Bible, Shakespeare, or Milton: a Holywell Street romance or two was the only attempt at literature,” he observed.