The Pony Express

When I was about seven, I read a story about the Pony Express in a book my grandparents had given me. This fascinated me, the idea of young men galloping through the wilderness to deliver mail, fighting off Indians and thundering into a depot to pass the mail on to the next rider. The Pony Express rider who was featured was Bill Cody, Buffalo Bill. The Pony Express only lasted for a couple of years, moving mail rapidly east and west in the old American West until tracks were laid and mail was shipped by train.

I had to write a report in elementary school on a topic about the development of the American West and was able to use the Pony Express as the central theme of my report. I had access to general reference books, history books, and Encyclopedias, but no first-hand accounts of the time.

How exciting, then, for me to get to work on two books here at Distributed Proofreaders, in a period of a few weeks, with accounts of the Pony Express and the settling of the West. These books were written by two men who were in the center of the events.

The first book is an autobiography, The Adventures of Buffalo Bill by Col. William F. Cody, published in 1904. Bill Cody was a teenaged rider for the Pony Express and told personal accounts of some of his rides. This book also imparted that Alexander Majors initiated the Pony Express and was Buffalo Bill’s boss.

The second book is Seventy Years on the Frontier, the autobiography of Alexander Majors, published in 1893. Majors shares from his unique viewpoint the changes he saw and contributed to in his lifetime. I had never really thought about the business and political sides of setting up the Pony Express and found these very interesting.

Without Distributed Proofreaders I never would have discovered either of these books. I am so pleased to have an opportunity to work on these accounts, written by the people involved, in the time period these events occurred. How much more interesting would my elementary school report have been had I had access to these books!

From The Adventures of Buffalo Bill (told in the third person):

When the time came for him to be ready for the first trip the boy was outside of his station with his pony ready, looking across the prairie for the rider who was to bring the mail pouches from the next station. Close upon time the man appeared. Drawing up to the station he jumped off, threw the bag to Cody, who in turn leaped into his saddle with it and started on his fifteen miles. He reached his first station on time, dismounted, and mounted a fresh pony which was standing ready, and started on the second relay. And so with the third, until he finished his thirty-five miles and threw the bag to the next man, who was waiting. And within an hour he was ready again for the rider coming from the direction of San Francisco. As soon as he had the mail he mounted a fresh pony and rode back over the same thirty-five miles.

Thus the boy did seventy miles every day for three months.

From Seventy Years on the Frontier:

Among the most noted and daring riders of the Pony Express was Hon. William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, whose reputation is now established the world over. While engaged in the express service, his route lay between Red Buttes and Three Crossings, a distance of 116 miles. It was a most dangerous, long, and lonely trail, . . . An average of fifteen miles an hour had to be made, including changes of horses, detours for safety, and time for meals. Once, upon reaching Three Crossings, he found that the rider on the next division, who had a route of seventy-six miles, had been killed during the night before, and he was called on to make the extra trip until another rider could be employed. This was a request the compliance with which would involve the most taxing labors and an endurance few persons are capable of; nevertheless, young Cody was promptly on hand for the additional journey, and reached Rocky Ridge, the limit of the second route, on time. This round trip of 384 miles was made without a stop, except for meals and to change horses, and every station on the route was entered on time. This is one of the longest and best ridden pony express journeys ever made.

Again from Seventy Years on the Frontier:

The quickest time that had ever been made with any message between San Francisco and New York, over the Butterfield line, which was the southern route, was twenty-one days. Our Pony Express shortened the time to ten days, which was our schedule time, without a single failure, being a difference of eleven days. . . .
Two important events transpired during the term of the Pony’s existence; one was the carrying of President Buchanan’s last message to Congress, in December, 1860, from the Missouri River to Sacramento, a distance of two thousand miles, in eight days and some hours. The other was the carrying of President Lincoln’s inaugural address of March 4, 1861, over the same route in seven days and, I think, seventeen hours, being the quickest time, taking the distance into consideration, on record in this or any other country, as far as I know.

These books are not just about the short-lived Pony Express, but cover many aspects of both men’s lives, times and observations. This level of detail, history and sense of excitement was not in the reference books I had access to. I am thrilled to be able to help preserve books like these.

Seventy Years on the Frontier is still in progress at Distributed Proofreaders. A link to the book will be added once it has been posted at Project Gutenberg. Edit February 26, 2013: Seventy Years on the Frontier has now been posted to Project Gutenberg.

5 Responses to The Pony Express

  1. LCantoni says:

    Thanks for sharing this – DP so often gives us such wonderful opportunities to revisit our favorite childhood subjects.

  2. genknit says:

    A great review of two books that will surely thrill future readers as much as they did you. Thanks!

  3. Photogeek says:

    I read the Buffalo Bill autobiography and enjoyed it for the description of life in those times. I was glad to find out about the Seventy Years on the Frontier also. Other readers may enjoy the Andy Adams novels about life as a cowboy on cattle drives through the west.

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