About the book
Real (and Fake) Hoofbeats of the Pony Express
A business that lasted 18 months in real life has survived 150 years in myth.
Americans love a winner and they remember what they want to remember, and so let us now remember the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Co.—known from the day it began 150 years ago on April 3, 1860, as the Pony Express.
We remember the Pony Express as one of the most enduring and endearing of American stories, a tale of the frontier, a story of bold entrepreneurs, daring young horsemen, true riders of the purple sage and all that. In truth, the venture hemorrhaged money from day one, was doomed by technology (another particularly American story), lasted a mere 78 weeks, ruined its backers and then disappeared into what historian Bernard DeVoto called "the border land of fable." Across the wide Missouri, fact and fantasy collided and the Pony Express became "a tale of truth, half-truth and no truth at all," as another historian observed.
The truth is that the Pony Express was started by the freight-hauling company Russell, Majors & Waddell as a fast mail service over the 2,000 miles between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, aimed at linking the East with California. News that had taken months to travel by land or sea now could be delivered in 10 days or less. Racing in both directions, riders traveled light, rode good horses and changed mounts every 10 or 12 miles. Their instructions were to outrun interlopers. The company did not issue firearms. Or uniforms. Customers paid $5 to send a letter?a week's wages then for a working man. It was all over in 18 months. The service was shut down in the flash of a telegrapher's key when the transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861. The records of the business, if there were any records, were lost. That would prove liberating for later chroniclers.
For many years, the West was aswarm with old men who claimed to be "the last of the Pony Express riders." The king of these was an accomplished prevaricator named Broncho Charlie Miller, an old Wild West show roustabout and admitted horse thief who could take a match out of a volunteer's mouth with a bullwhip at 50 paces.
The first literary chronicler of the Pony Express was Colonel William Lightfoot Visscher, an alcoholic journalist and occasional temperance lecturer. His legal address was the bar at the Chicago Press Club, and he did much of his research there. He was not a colonel, but that's another story. Writing in 1908, nearly half a century after the Pony folded, he called his book "A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express." He got the thrilling part right.
But the person who immortalized the Pony was William Frederick Cody, or Buffalo Bill. (He also claimed he had been a rider. Not true.) The fast-mail service may have lasted only a year and a half, but it thrived for four decades in Cody's Wild West show, seen by millions in the U.S. and Europe. To add drama to his re-enactment, Buffalo Bill might throw in a war party of savage Indians chasing a heroic rider who always managed to escape. It would become one of the most enduring images of the Pony Express, but it was not true; the actual riders rarely tangled with Indians. Why would a Paiute want a two-week-old copy of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune?
We still hear the fading hoofbeats of the Pony Express across the years because of dime novelists, illustrators like Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth, and Hollywood. Filmmakers loved the lone horseman galloping overland. But their paeans to the Pony only further exaggerated the story. Even the master John Ford put the Pony into his classic "Fort Apache," where the brave rider thunders into the fort to bring news of Custer's Last Stand, which, alas, took place some 15 years after the Pony stopped running.
If the Pony Express continues to thrill and baffle us, consider the words of an old horseman in western Nebraska who advised me when I expressed some concerns about the pedigree of this yarn. "We don't lie out here," he explained kindly. "We just remember big."
"WANTED. YOUNG, SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS. NOT OVER 18. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS. WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED."
- First Client, Company Name
"It is the mythmaking as much as the Pony Express itself that is Christopher Corbett's subject in his entertaining and informative Orphans Preferred. The book is not so much a history as it is an effort to peel away the layers of fabrication that obscure the real Pony Express and to distinguish the liars and fabulists from the mere embroiderers." -The Baltimore Sun
"Deconstructing folklore and unearthing new facts, Christopher Corbett has written a first-rate narrative history about the famed Pony Express riders. Orphans Preferred is one of those rare books that sets the record straight. And it's a marvelous read to boot." -Douglas Brinkley, author of Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress
"If MBAs existed in 1860, they'd have advised Russell, Majors & Waddell that their business plan for a cross-continental courier service was a loser. But the firm's folly was the Old West's gain, creating one of its most myth encrusted mirages--the fabled Pony Express. In his rollicking account of the Express, Corbett wryly picks his way through the embellishments that surround its short year-and-a-half existence . . . He ambles through the afterlife of the Pony Express as entertainment, accumulating a gallery of newspaper hacks, cheap novelists, showman Buffalo Bill, filmmakers, and local history antiquarians who peddled truths and fabrications about it. . . Buffs of the West will virtually gallop to the checkout line." -Booklist
"The legend overwhelmed the facts long ago, and journalist Christopher Corbett maintains a healthy respect for both in Orphans Preferred, his history of what one contemporaneous newspaper dubbed "the greatest enterprise of modern times." Though he puts such hyperbole aside, Corbett keeps a healthy awe for the Pony, never selling short the accomplishment of traveling all those miles across so much unforgiving terrain, but also winnowing out the more fabulous accounts to reconstruct the workings of the business, as well as the world in which it operated. . . . Throughout, Corbett remains a witty guide." -The Onion
"We're talking Pony Express riders here, carrying high-priority mail in relays at top speed. . . . Corbett fishes fact from myth to tell their history. It's colorful and fun." -National Geographic Adventure
"Thousands of Americans are participants in all sorts of extreme sports, from BASE jumping to para-skiing. While riding for the Pony Express wasn't exactly a sport, it certainly was extreme. A new book on the subject gives a fascinating account of one of America's most enduring eras." -Publisher's Weekly
"The story of the Pony Express is a whale of a Wild West tale, a peerless example of the place where a blend of truth and myth created heroic legacies. Despite its iconic status in American folklore, the truth about the Pony Express has been largely supplanted by fiction, transforming an unsuccessful and short-lived business venture into a legend. The fascination with the Pony Express revolves around the men who made it happen. Pony Express riders endured great hardships and braved danger, especially those who rode long distances through hostile territory during the Indian Wars. But the story of the Express is as much the story of the three men who founded it, and the drunkards and ruffians who manned the many stations between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, and a host of other vividly drawn characters from the past also populate the chapters of Corbett's absorbing history. Separating fact from fiction, Orphans Preferred sheds new light on the courage and capitalist bluster that characterized this outsized scheme that, while doomed, has helped shape the mythos of the early American West." -Barnes and Noble
"Orphans Preferred is a wide-ranging history cobbled together from known facts and conjecture, always written in energetic prose." -Baltimore City Paper
"The old Pony Express is still with us. Every time you drive on Interstate 80 or ride an Amtrak train nearby on the Union Pacific line, you are traversing long stretches of it. All follow the first direct route to California. You can look out the window and imagine a swift horseman making dust for the horizon. Christopher Corbett's fine book makes that imagining easy." -The Washington Times
"Veteran journalist Christopher Corbett examines this early experiment in cross-continental transportation, drawing distinctions between fact and fable and profiling the larger-than-life personalities who created and later perpetuated celebrated pop culture imagery surrounding "The Pony." Readers of American history in search of a fresh and unorthodox perspective should prove a natural audience for Orphans Preferred. " -Ingram