Sources of Pony Express History

In 1912, the year Pony Bob died in Chicago, Professor Glenn Danford Bradley published The Story of the Pony Express: An Account of the Most Remarkable Mail Service Ever in Existence, and Its Place in History. Unlike Colonel Visscher, Professor Bradley was a historian with a doctorate from the University of Michigan, but unlike Mrs. Loving, Professor Bradley did not bother to interview anyone associated with the Pony Express. Bradley fully mined the few existing sources: Majors’s memoirs, Root and Connelley’s The Overland Stage to California, Inman and Cody’s The Great Salt Lake Trail, and “the file of Century Magazine,” which includes W. F. Bailey’s 1898 article on the Pony Express. Virtually all information about the Pony Express descends from these works.

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The year before the centennial, Roy S. Bloss, a California historian, published Pony Express-the Great Gamble, a 159-page book billed as “a fresh, unbiased approach to an emotion-packed historical episode.” The editors of the Union must not have read its preface. “Probably the final, complete and authentic word on the Pony Express will never be written. For all of the notable episodes in United States history, few have been so scantily annotated as the horseback mail, the trail of which has been indelibly—but only grossly—etched in the panorama of American pioneering. Even the parade of Caesars, or the Gallic Wars, or our own Revolution—all in the days when historical narration lacked the incentive of the common man’s literacy even these events have been better documented and more accurately interpreted than the relatively recent Pony Express.”

Noting that there were few records of the mail service, Bloss added, “In several instances, the inexorable wear and tear of time caused buncombe to be offered as gospel.”

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Bloss argued that the Civil War eclipsed the memory of the Pony Express and noted that nearly half a century passed before the first history of the fast-mail service was written. “But by then most of the principals, the riders and station keepers had passed from the scene. That raised a problem for the early historians. Seemingly, few records of the nineteen-month mail service were then (or now) extant. The living participants, pressed for their recollections, occasionally resorted to colorful embellishment or a self-serving memory.”

Bloss acknowledged that what he set out to do—sort out the story of the Pony Express—was not going to make him popular. “Whenever sympathetic legend or nostalgic romance has threatened to collide with objective deduction (a recurring hazard in this lore-laden subject) objectiveness deliberately has been given the right-of-way. Admittedly, such arbitrariness may find disfavor among some devoted followers of the Pony; if so, their displeasure is risked with apologies.”

Bloss was not the first to make these observations. It had been a theme for half a century—although it had made not the slightest impression on the American public or Pony Express devotees.

Writing in 1932, Arthur Chapman, journalist-turned-historian, offered his assessment in The Pony Express: The Record of a Romantic Adventure in Business. “The records of the Pony Express, as kept by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company were long ago either lost or destroyed. The fact that the Pony Express was not a Government institution, but was privately owned and controlled, absolved postmasters from the duty of making official records of arrivals and departures. Old letters and diaries, which have been submitted, have only tended to make the confusion greater, as they too have been conflicting in the names of riders.”

Even Raymond Settle and his wife, Mary, in whom the Union placed such faith, had doubts, noting in Empire on Wheels, their history of Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s freighting empire:

“The Pony Express was a romantic, glorious yet brief incident, which although it proved nothing except that it could be done, is eminently worthy of remembrance. Even though the amount of mail it carried was relatively insignificant and out of proportion to the fame it achieved, nobody begrudges it the spotlight. The tattoo or me nymg noorbeats, awakenmg the echoes by day and mght along the two-thousand-mile stretch of boundless prairie, lonely canyon, and mountain slope, wrote into the body of strictly American folklore such a romantic tale of youthful grit as is given few peoples to possess. It has been the source of a thousand tales of daredevil courage and will continue to make its contribution to that thrilling body of literature which concerns itself with stark courage and dauntless enterprise.”

In 1958, William H. Floyd, yet another amateur historian in St. Joe, produced Phantom Riders of the Pony Express to sort out this “web of fancy,” as he called it. Floyd pronounced the whole Pony Express story part of “a dim bob-tailed era in which fact and fiction can be hopelessly scrambled.” He deemed the saga “fragmentary and often conflicting.” Floyd’s exasperated conclusion: “This was the Pony Express. Fact and fiction. Truth, half-truth, and no truth at all. These have become so thoroughly blended that, after nearly a century … legend has largely replaced and superseded a clear and unclouded record, if indeed such a chronicle ever existed.”