Historians of the Pony Express usually invoke ancient Roman and Greek mail couriers or the mounted messengers of Genghis Khan in China in establishing the tradition and pedigree of the cross-country mail service, the practice of delivering mail using a fast relay system of riders.
But the custom of using a mounted courier in the American West was not inspired by such ancient tales. In colonial times, mail had been moved in such fashion in New England. Even the expression “pony express” was common long before Russell, Majors & Waddell launched its cross-country venture. The nineteenth-century American writer and early Californian Joaquin Miller left this account of the days of the forty-niners and early mail delivery:
“The Pony Express was a great feature in the gold mines of California long before anyone ever thought of putting it on the plains. Every creek, camp or “city” had its Pony Express which ran to and from the nearest office. At Yreka we had the Humbug Creek Express, the Deadwood Camp Express, the Greenhorn, and so on. . . .”
The inspiration for Russell, Majors & Waddell’s daring risk of crosscountry horsemanship was a feat that would have been familiar in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century. Horsemen knew it on the Plaza in Santa Fe and they knew it, too, on the edge of the Missorui frontier. It was a series of heroic one-man cross-country rides made in the early 1850s by Francis Xavier Aubery, a contemporary of Kit Carson’s in Santa Fe. Aubery, described by Frank A. Root and William E. Connelley in The Overland Stage to California as “a man of pluck and indomitable energy and perseverance,” was a nearmythic figure in the American West at the time. Root and Connelley’s 1901 assessment of Aubery’s horsemanship concluded that “not one man in 100,000 had the physical endurance to perform the seemingly important task.”
Using a relay of horses, Aubery at first made the run from Santa Fe to Independence in two weeks. It was a trip that oxen hauling freight normally did in two to three months. Aubery, who was built like a jockey, then shaved that time to eight days. He arrived in Independence so exhausted that he could not dismount from his horse. But Aubery was not satisfied with this personal best. His next trip, which would set horsemen talking across the Great American Desert, was completed in only five days and thirteen horus.
The odd legacy of Aubery (he made his famous five-day ride for a thousand-dollar bet and was later stabbed to death in a bar fight in New Mexico) is sketchy, but Majors recalled in his autobiography the French-Canadian trader’s feats of horsemanship. Changing mounts every one hundred to two hundred miles, Aubery crossed the eight hundred dangerous miles that separated the old Spanish city from Independence in an unheard-of time. It nearly killed him, and he slept for twenty hours after making the run. But it made a powerful impression on Majors.