Harper’s may have been read by frontier hearths and even in the occasional outhouse, but the magazine’s real audience was back east. Readers’ lives weren’t generally as dangerous or physically daunting, but they were cutting new trails as well: in commerce, in science, even in how they lived. The line of “real life” heroes stretching back through Hickok and Kit Carson to the founders of the country connected them to the deeper values that their lives were founded on.
They saw that, too, in the Pony Express. People were excited about the service, not just because they wanted information as quickly as possible, but because the service and especially its riders embodied or symbolized some of the things they cared about: courage, physical prowess, the willingness to risk all in a race against Nature and Time.
If gunplay figured into it, so much the better, but you didn’t have to be literally wild to be celebrated. Being tenacious and undaunted in the face of myriad hardships would do.
Buffalo Bill gets a lot of credit for advertising the Pony Express, and he deserves it. Not only did he include vignettes in his Western shows, he recruited riders and others who had worked for the service and put them onstage with him. He even rescued Alexander Majors from obscurity, retrieving him from Denver, enlisting Ingraham to “help” write his autobiography, and paying Rand McNally to publish the book a year before Majors turned eighty.
Generous though he was, Cody would not have done any of this if the Pony had not already been held in high regard and was at least somewhat famous, if not quite at the level that it would be as Cody’s shows gathered strength. The words Pony Express were synonymous not only with speed, but with adventure and rugged individualism and against the elements and all that. Cody enhanced the legend, but he didn’t invent it.
It’s often said that the transcontinental telegraph killed the Pony Express. While the service did end the day the line was completed, that was by design; the Pony was always a short-term project.
It’s also said—less often—that the railroad killed the Pony and its ilk. There’s more truth to that, but again, people like Russell and his partners knew that day was coming; they all rode trains, Russell quite a lot. The idea was to sew up a monopoly before the transcontinental railroad came in. Then anyone who wanted to use the railroads-anyone who didn’t live next to the tracks—would have to pay. . . .
But our memory of [the Pony Express] has survived because it was far more. For us, the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln so memorably mentioned at the end of his inauguration address strike notes with deep roots. The tales, even those not entirely provable, are deep into who we want to be today and tomorrow. The values that we see in the Pony riders are values we cherish, even if we’ve never been near a barn, let alone a horse: adventure, speed, determination, endurance. The values of the service itself: dependability against all odds, unflagging commitment to a mission—these are values we too want to emulate, whether or not we’d go to the extreme lengths of Pony Bob or the White Indian.
The raw ingredients of the Pony story—young men, horses, hardships, and danger—are potent bits for any narrative, whether in a rodeo ring or on the big screen. But there’s more to the Pony Express’s staying power than galloping horses and reckless young men. As important as Bill Cody and his shows were in keeping the memory of the service alive, I think it’s likely that we’d remember it even without the great showman. The Pony is the perfect transport vehicle for the things we still value in America, and for the realities we as a nation continue to face: speed, courage, individualism … distance, time, and, yes, money. If the Pony riders were brave archetypes of the American spirit racing across the American heartland, Russell and his partners were surely nineteenth-century venture capitalists. The fact that they failed so spectacularly is itself thoroughly American. If you’re going to fail, fail big.
It didn’t make them better than us; we live in different times, with different challenges. But it does make their lives worthy of study and, at their best, emulation. The Pony flashed briefly across the American landscape, a strike of lightning in a sky often dark with danger and ambiguity. In its history, real and sometimes imagined, we see ourselves as we’d like to be: brave, resourceful, racing against nature and all manner of dangers, with determination in our hearts and a smile on our faces.