Pony Express riders symbolized not only rugged strength and courage, but the anachronism of organic workers—animals and people—and their heroic endurance as they prepared the ground for the machine. . . . As the nineteenth century rolled on, ever more laborers were replaced by an ever wider array of machines, and the horseman as harbinger of technological revolution became ever more apt a symbol for Americans, especially in cities where the Wild West show played to packed stands. . . .
But there was another, surprising reason behind the pony’s popularity, one which drew on Cody’s experience of boyhood even more directly: the Pony Express represented national unity, in profoundly familial terms. Many were the scribes who evoked the glories of western annexation prior to the war with Mexico, with John O’Sullivan’s call to “manifest destiny” being only the most famous. But in reality, the acquisition of the Far West blew the nation apart. The U.S.-Mexican War began the year William Cody was born and ended when he was two. Its most immediate result was the annexation of California and the Far West, but following fast on the heels of that event was the gathering storm over slavery in the new western territories, the fight which took Isaac Cody’s life and finally ended only at Appomattox in 1865. . . .
The gold rush began in 1848, and California’s stunning growth made it a state in 1850. But if statehood signified a legal and republican unity, California was very much a place apart, separated from the rest of the nation by 1,500 miles of plain and desert. . . .
The journey was all the more fearful because, in most cases, the routes to California pulled families apart. Men went ahead intending to send for families or merely to return rich. Husbands and wives took their kids, pulled up stakes, and left their beloved extended kin behind. Letters took at least three weeks to travel the long stagecoach routes between California and eastern states. If they went by sea, they could go unread for six months.
By the mid-185os, the growing threat of a southern secession made the chasm between California and her sister states seem all the more dangerous. Californians numbered half a million by that time, and they were most conscious of the urgent need for closer bonds with nation and family. . . .
Thus, when they remembered the Pony Express, Americans—especially Californians—recalled it as a reassuring sign amid rumblings of civil war, as the entity that sealed the bond of union between West and East. To ride the Pony Express was to heal the nation’s troublesome rift, to bring desolate and broken families together through the fragile connection of correspondence.. . .
The stature of the Pony Express increased through its association with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where the union of man and horse headed west with the mail came to symbolize not only the last redoubt of organic labor before ascendant technology and the reunited family and nation, but also the grafting of the Far West onto America. . . .
In no small way, the Pony Express rider embodied this hybrid conjunction of wilderness and civilization. The young white man barely in control of the beast beneath him represented America joined to the West’s untamed promise and peril. Thus, contemporaries hailed the Pony Express not only as a fast mail service, not just as a man on a horse, but as a horse-man, and sometimes a hippogriff, a mythical beast with the body of a horse, the head of a lion, and the wings of an eagle.