Of thundering hooves and priority mail: a lively history of the short-lived but much-evoked Pony Express.
As novelist and pop historian DeFelice (The Helios Conspiracy, 2012, etc.) acknowledges throughout, there’s not much that we know with absolute certainty about some of the players and events in the Pony Express effort, a private enterprise for which records are not always available. The service was fast—a letter could cross half the continent in 10 days thanks to the relay system of riders and fast horses—but “the idea of speed was really the important thing” in a time when telegraph lines were going up and plans for a transcontinental railroad were being conjured. The key players were an unlikely mix of slaveholders, frontiersmen, freighters, and entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in providing a communications infrastructure to a military stretched out across a vast, sparsely settled region. But there’s much more to the Pony Express than just business history, for it threads into a landscape populated by young legends-to-be like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, whose stories DeFelice happily weaves into the narrative: Courage and stamina were desiderata, of course, but as he notes, “if gunplay figured into it, so much the better, but you didn’t have to be literally wild to be celebrated. Being tenacious and undaunted in the face of myriad hardships would do.” There’s plenty in the memories of supposed riders like Cody to suggest truth but not much hard evidence to say that they were actually onboard, which lends a nice hazy touch to the whole legend. Soon enough—in just a couple of years—the likes of Western Union, founded by an associate of Samuel Morse, “whose greatest genius was his ability to acquire and merge the various small companies operating local lines,” would put an end to the Pony Express, but for all that, it lives on in memory.
Good stuff for Western history buffs, to say nothing of fans of the Post Office.