Long-time newspaper columnist and author John L. Smith has just dropped on us his latest in a series of thin paperbacks devoted to recounting the exploits and discoveries of some of the most colorful characters who shaped Nevada and the West.
Smith’s 77-page “The Pony Express: True Tales and Frontier Legends” is the fifth in his “Fields of Silver and Gold” series. In the book, he recounts the creation and incredible accomplishments of The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company — the Pony Express — though it lasted a mere 18 months. But during that time it delivered mail from Missouri to California in just 10 days.
“The legend of the Pony Express is so powerful, in fact, that it can be extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction,” Smith admits up front. “Over the years, the tales have grown taller with the telling as writers by the score have weighed in on the brief but colorful era.”
Among those writers, of course, is Mark Twain, who arrived in Nevada during the brief sojourn of the Pony Express and included passages about the mail delivery service in his book “Roughing It.” Smith quotes Twain describing the Pony Express rider: “The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance.”
The lighter the rider, the easier it was on the horse, which often sped along at 20 mph. As the famous advertising poster stated: “WANTED — YOUNG SKINNY WIRY FELLOWS NOT OVER EIGHTEEN. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS, WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED.” Smith allows that the authenticity of the poster, like so much about the Pony Express, is in dispute.
The book is chock full of anecdotes that reveal what made the Pony Express such an enduring tale. Though only six riders died in those 18 months — four in native attacks and two frozen to death — Smith recounts: “One of the saddest tales is the fate of fourteen-year-old Billy Tate, who rode the Ruby Valley route in Nevada during the Paiute War. It has been recorded that he was attacked and fought bravely before being killed. As the story is told, he killed several of his adversaries before suffering fatal wounds and was not scalped as a sign of respect for his bravery in battle.”
Then there were remarkable accomplishments in the face of such hostilities. Such the time Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam rode 380 miles in less than 40 hours — the longest ride in the brief history of the Pony Express.
One of the reasons the Pony Express legend was so enduring, as Smith relates, comes from the efforts of such legends as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who may or may not have ridden for the Pony Express, but who, during 45 years of wild west shows, glorified the skills and bravery of Western pioneers. “He always called himself and old Pony Express rider, although he was likely just a messenger,” Smith suspects.
The book gives one a greater appreciation of and understanding for what it took to succeed and survive in those formative years.
Other books in the series are: “Sarah Winnemucca: A Princess for the People,” “Snowshoe Thompson: Sierra Mailman,” “Anne Martin: The March for Suffrage,” and “Ben Parker: Black Pioneers on the Frontier.” Yet to come in the series is “Pioneering Medicine: From Sage to Surgery.”