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 (a 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.