On Being a Pony Express Rider Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The document excerpted here is a personal account of “Buffalo Bill” Cody's experiences while working as a Pony Express delivery rider, including his recollections of another noted rider at the time, Wild Bill Hickok. Besides offering a glimpse into the life of the famous character Buffalo Bill, the excerpt shows how the Pony Express riders faced the difficult conditions of the Old West, while remaining dedicated to their task, thus guaranteeing that communications between the eastern and westerns portions of the developing nation could continued. Although there is some dispute about the validity of Buffalo Bill's claim that he was a Pony Express rider, the only evidence being Cody's personal account, there is little argument about the general outlines of his description. His use of Express riders in his famous Wild West show in later decades did much to create a place for the Pony Express in the legend of the American West.

Summary Overview

The document excerpted here is a personal account of “Buffalo Bill” Cody's experiences while working as a Pony Express delivery rider, including his recollections of another noted rider at the time, Wild Bill Hickok. Besides offering a glimpse into the life of the famous character Buffalo Bill, the excerpt shows how the Pony Express riders faced the difficult conditions of the Old West, while remaining dedicated to their task, thus guaranteeing that communications between the eastern and westerns portions of the developing nation could continued. Although there is some dispute about the validity of Buffalo Bill's claim that he was a Pony Express rider, the only evidence being Cody's personal account, there is little argument about the general outlines of his description. His use of Express riders in his famous Wild West show in later decades did much to create a place for the Pony Express in the legend of the American West.

Defining Moment

This excerpt illustrates a part of American history that has contributed as much to the legend as to the history of the Old West. The Pony Express ran only from April 1860 until October 1861, yet the riders' place in history looms much larger than that short time span would suggest. Much of this is owing to their incredible dedication—having lost only one mail satchel in the entire run of the Express (and that was because the rider had been killed and his horse not recovered). Playing an important part of communication before the invention of the telegraph and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Pony Express was the only way to get messages from the East to the West; coast-to-coast communication took under twelve days. But this was not a settled time, geographically or politically, and incidents with western Indian tribes, as described in the article, result in military escorts being needed for the riders and the loss of many lives on both sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, the Pony Express continued to run with few breaks until it was made redundant by the telegraph line and finally shut down with the expansion of the railroads.

Despite its quick demise, the Pony Express lives on in the collective memory of this time period because of the riders' amazing skill and dedication. Moreover, Buffalo Bill ensured that these men were not forgotten by using their experiences and skills in his Wild West show, which was formed about ten years after he left the Pony Express. Traveling as quickly as possible, through both hostile environments and virtually any type of weather, the Pony Express riders faced the very real possibility of death each time they headed out. In that respect, they embodied the character and spirit that inspired easterners to push into the “Wild West” in order to seek their fortune and a new life for themselves and their families. Riding around ninety miles distance at a time, sometimes changing horses on the fly, and dodging outlaws and hostile Indians, the riders kept their oath to serve the people and carry out their duties with dignity and honor, even though a few, like Buffalo Bill, were barely more than children at the time.

Author Biography

William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was born in Iowa in 1846, but grew up primarily in Kansas. By age fifteen, he had already been away from home for several years, working various jobs before becoming a Pony Express rider in 1860. He earned his nickname “Buffalo Bill” in the years following this, while working as a hunter in the West and was soon something of a sensation, appearing in several newspapers. Then in 1872, he began his career in entertainment, with a series of shows, the most popular of which was his Wild West show. This prelude to modern-day rodeos showcased cowboys and cowgirls doing tricks, as well as many types of animals common to the West. Cody became so famous that he was invited to perform his show in England for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebration and before a crowd of 18,000 at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Cody died in 1917 in Denver.

Historical Document

[Mr. Slade, the manager of a Pony Express station] assigned me to duty on the road from Red Buttes on the North Platte, to the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater—a distance of seventy-six miles—and I began riding at once.

One day when I galloped into Three Crossings, my home station, I found that the rider who was expected to take the trip out on my arrival had got into a drunken row the night before and had been killed; and that there was no one to fill his place. I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of eighty-five miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time. I then turned back and rode to Red Buttes, my starting place, accomplishing on the round trip a distance of 322 miles.

Slade heard of this feat of mine, and one day as he was passing on a coach he sang out to me, “My boy, you're a brick, and no mistake. That was a good run you made when you rode your own and Miller's routes, and I'll see that you get extra pay for it.”

Slade, although rough at times and always a dangerous character—having killed many a man—was always kind to me. During the two years that I worked for him as pony-express-rider and stage-driver, he never spoke an angry word to me.

As I was leaving Horse Creek one day, a party of fifteen Indians jumped me in a sand ravine about a mile west of the station. They fired at me repeatedly, but missed their mark. I was mounted on a roan California horse—the fleetest steed I had. Putting spurs and whip to him, and lying flat on his back, I kept straight on for Sweetwater Bridge—eleven miles distant—instead of trying to turn back to Horse Creek. The Indians came on in hot pursuit, but my horse soon got away from them, and ran into the station two miles ahead of them. The stock-tender had been killed there that morning, and all the stock had been driven off by the Indians, and as I was therefore unable to change horses, I continued on to Ploutz's Station—twelve miles further—thus making twenty-four miles straight run with one horse. I told the people at Ploutz's what had happened at Sweetwater Bridge, and with a fresh horse went on and finished the trip without any further adventure.

About the middle of September the Indians became very troublesome on the line of the stage road along the Sweetwater. Between Split Rock and Three Crossings they robbed a stage, killed the driver and two passengers, and badly wounded Lieut. Flowers, the assistant division agent. The red-skinned thieves also drove off the stock from the different stations, and were continually lying in wait for the passing stages and pony express-riders, so that we had to take many desperate chances in running the gauntlet.

The Indians had now become so bad and had stolen so much stock that it was decided to stop the pony express for at least six weeks, and to run the stages but occasionally during that period; in fact, it would have been almost impossible to have run the enterprise much longer without restocking the line.

[Buffalo Bill on Wild Bill Hickok, western Kansas]

The custom with the express riders, when within half a mile of a station, was either to begin shouting or blowing a horn in order to notify the stock tender of his approach, and to have a fresh horse already saddled for him on his arrival, so that he could go right on without a moment's delay.

One day, as Wild Bill neared Rock Creek station, where he was to change horses, he began shouting as usual at the proper distance; but the stock-tender, who had been married only a short time and had his wife living with him at the station, did not make his accustomed appearance. Wild Bill galloped up and instead of finding the stock-tender ready for him with a fresh horse, he discovered him lying across the stable door with the blood oozing from a bullet-hole in his head. The man was dead, and it was evident that he had been killed only a few moments before.

In a second Wild Bill jumped from his horse, and looking in the direction of the house he saw a man coming towards him. The approaching man fired on him at once, but missed his aim. Quick as lightning Wild Bill pulled his revolver and returned the fire. The stranger fell dead, shot through the brain.

“Bill, Bill! Help! Help! save me!” Such was the cry that Bill now heard. It was the shrill and pitiful voice of the dead stock tender's wife, and it came from a window of the house. She had heard the exchange of shots, and knew that Wild Bill had arrived.

He dashed over the dead body of the villain whom he had killed, and just as he sprang into the door of the house, he saw two powerful men assaulting the woman.

One of the desperadoes was in the act of striking her with the butt end of a revolver, and while his arm was still raised, Bill sent a ball crashing through his skull, killing him instantly. Two other men now came rushing from an adjoining room, and Bill, seeing that the odds were three to one against him, jumped into a corner, and then firing, he killed another of the villains.

Before he could shoot again the remaining two men closed in upon him, one of whom had drawn a large bowie knife. Bill wrenched the knife from his grasp and drove it through the heart of the outlaw.

The fifth and last man now grabbed Bill by the throat, and held him at arm's length, but it was only for a moment, as Bill raised his own powerful right arm and struck his antagonist's left arm such a terrible blow that he broke it. The disabled desperado, seeing that he was no longer a match for Bill, jumped through the door, and mounting a horse he succeeded in making his escape—being the sole survivor of the Jake McCandless gang.

Wild Bill remained at the station with the terrified woman until the stage came along, and he then consigned her to the care of the driver. Mounting his horse he at once galloped off, and soon disappeared in the distance, making up for lost time.

Glossary

bowie knife: a large knife with a single-edged blade; named after James Bowie

“brick”: a good or generous person; informal usage

desperadoes: a bold, reckless criminal or outlaw, especially in the American West

roan: a horse with a chestnut, bay, or sorrel coat and with a sprinkling of gray or white

“running the gauntlet”: enduring a series of problems or threats

stage-driver: the driver of a stagecoach

stock-tender: one who takes care of livestock (horses, etc.)

Document Analysis

Much of this document describes the dangerous conditions that the Pony Express riders faced on the trips they took. Between Indians and outlaws, many riders, tenders, and stable workers were injured or killed, often for their animals, but also simply because they were easy targets, being alone in the vast and empty miles between towns. Additionally, a close reading reveals the personal commitment to their jobs that the riders had and their intent to see things through to the end. These stories show a certain insensitivity toward violence and mortal peril, which the riders faced on a regular basis. The possibility of being hurt or killed while on a delivery was just part of daily life.

This document shows the clear problems that existed in the American West, namely, violent conflicts between the Indians and the rest of the area's inhabitants, as well as the lack of law-enforcement to protect individuals from outlaws and “desperadoes.” In his account, Buffalo Bill focuses mostly on how he made his trips between towns; the Indians who “fired at me repeatedly” or were “in hot pursuit” are not the main point of the story. Such confrontations are simply facts of the journey; the main point is that he completed his rides. The only time this attitude changes is when the attacks become so bad that the Pony Express was actually halted for a short time. In this last section, Cody explains that the normal amount of danger had become so increased that it now a kind of “gauntlet.” But even this section ends with a mention that this break came at a good time, since the riders needed more horses anyway if they were to continue on. Cody always spoke very highly of Native Americans, even protecting them and their culture; but in this instance he is very clear, yet still respectful, about the fact that they posed a great risk to himself and his fellow riders. Even so, the matter does not seem to bother him overmuch.

In the second story, another rider, Wild Bill Hickok, also faces a clear danger—in this case, the presence of violent outlaws. As is apparent from this story, Wild Bill was no stranger to inflicting his own violence on someone; but the most interesting part is the very last paragraph. Wild Bill, after driving away the attackers, simply stays with the woman until he knows she is safely in someone else's care; he then continues on his way, riding for the next town. The Pony Express riders' dedication to their job made it much more than a job; it was more of a calling, and one that they pursued no matter what the circumstances or personal dangers were. While it may seem odd that Wild Bill simply carried on with his route, this was part of the ethic of the Old West: life continued on, even with violence all around.

Essential Themes

This is not simply a document about the technical details of a Pony Express ride between two towns, although Buffalo Bill includes quite a few of these details as well. Rather, this is more a document providing evidence of the character and internal strength of the men and the rough world of the Old West (or “Wild West”). For just over a year, these men risked their lives to deliver mail in order to ensure that prompt communication could occur over the vast and ever-growing land that eventually became the lower forty-eight states. The Old West was a violent and dangerous place in which to live, but these men show the brighter side of that world as well, doing their jobs with integrity and determination.

As for Buffalo Bill Cody's involvement in the Pony Express, there are some doubts as to the legitimacy of his claims. That is, not much material evidence exists that includes him as one of the riders. In any case, his inclusion of former riders in his troupe of entertainers, and his use of the Pony Express in his Wild West shows for the next few decades, achieved something that the Pony Express would not have been able to accomplish on its own. Cody put on display the spirit of the Pony Express, illustrating the riders' ingenuity and dedication to the task. The Express riders were a small and select group and operated for a short time. They might well have fallen between the cracks of historical memory but for Buffalo Bill's influence. As numerous children's books, movies, and television shows attest, the Pony Express and its renowned riders live on, noted for their riding tricks and for being the first links between the eastern and western halves of the country.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “A Brief History of William F. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody.” Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
  • Driggs, Howard R., & William Henry Jackson. The Pony Express Goes Through; an American Saga Told by Its Heroes. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1935. Print.
  • Gunn, J. M. “The Pony Express.” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles 5.2 (1901): 168–75. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
  • The Pony Express.” Pony Express National Museum. Pony Express National Museum, 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
  • Settle, Raymond W., & Mary Lund Settle. Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1972. Print.
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