The Overland Mail

Apache at the Ford, Edward S. Curtis, 1903

Apache at the Ford, Edward S. Curtis, 1903

Such a seasoned company as this was not likely to go into a place like Stein’s Pass without taking a look or two ahead, and 600 Apache warriors were certain to offer some evidence of their presence to keen eyes. This would probably explain why the horses were not killed at once. The driver was able to get the coach to the summit of a low bare knoll a little way off the road, where the Free Thompson party made their stand on the hilltop.

They were cool men, uncursed by the fear of death, the sort who could roll a cigarette or bite a mouthful from a plug of chewing-tobacco between shots and enjoy the smoke or the cud; the sort who could look upon the advance of overwhelming odds and coolly estimate the number of yards which lay between.

The place where they made their stand was far from water, a bare hilltop with few rocks to provide cover, a burning sun above them, and surrounded by a ring of yelling Apache warriors.

You can picture those seven men, with their weather-beaten faces, their old-fashioned slouching wide-rimmed hats, and their breeches tucked into their boot-tops. You can see them lying behind those boulders with their leathered cheeks pressed close to their rifle-stocks, their narrowed eyes peering along the lined sights; and then, as time went on, crouching behind the bodies of their slain horses.

And, you can picture the turbaned Apache with paint-smeared faces creeping on their bellies through the clumps of coarse bear-grass, gliding like bronze snakes among the rocks, coming closer every hour.

Night followed day; hot morning grew into scorching noon-tide; the full flare of the Arizona afternoon came on, and night again. The rifles cracked in the bear-grass. Thin jets of pallid flame spurted from behind the rocks. The bullets kicked up little dust clouds. And, so it went for three days and three nights. For it took those 600 Apache that length of time to kill the seven white men. But, before the last of them died, the Free Thompson party slew between 135 and 150 Indians.

In after years, Cochise told of the battle. “They were the bravest men I ever saw,” he said. “They were the bravest men I ever heard of. Had I 500 warriors such as they, I would own all of Chihuahua, Sonora, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

That was the breed of men who kept the Butterfield Stage line open, and the affair at Stein’s Pass is cited to show something of their character, although it took place after the company began removing its rolling stock. For, in 1860, Russell, Majors & Waddell accomplished a remarkable coup and brought the overland mail to the northern route.

Pony Bob Haslam

Pony Bob Haslam

They performed what is probably the most daring exploit in the history of transportation. The story of their venture bristles with action; it is adorned by such names as Wild Bill Hickok, Pony Bob Haslam, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Colonel Alexander Majors.

Colonel Majors held the broad horn record on the old Santa Fe Trail – 92 days on the round trip with oxen. He was the active spirit of the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell. In 1859 these magnates of the freighting business had more than 6,000 huge wagons and more than 75,000 oxen on the road between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Salt Lake City, Utah, hauling supplies for government posts and mining companies; and operating a stage line to Denver where gold excitements were bringing men in droves.

One day in the winter of 1859-60 Senator W. M. Gwin of California had a meeting with Majors’ senior partner, William H. Russell, and several New York capitalists in Washington. Senator Gwin proposed a plan to show the world that the St. Joseph-San Francisco route was practical throughout the year.

That scheme would become the Pony Express – men on horseback with fresh relays every 10-12 miles, to carry letters at top speed across the wilderness. Congress had pigeonholed his bill to finance such a venture. He urged now that private capital undertake it, and he talked so convincingly that Russell committed himself to enlist his partners in the enterprise.

Russell went back to Leavenworth, Kansas, the headquarters of the firm, and put the matter up to Majors and Waddell. They showed him in a very few minutes that he had been talked into a sure way of losing several hundred thousand dollars. But, he reminded them that he had committed himself to the undertaking. They said that settled it; they would stand by him and make his word good.

Their stage line had stations every 10-12 miles as far as Salt Lake City; beyond that point, there was not a single building; but, within two months from the day when Russell had that talk with Senator Gwin, the firm had completed the chain of those stations all the way Sacramento, purchased 500 half-breed mustang ponies which they apportioned along the route, hired 80 riders and what stock tenders were necessary, and hauled feed and provisions out across the intermountain deserts and droves of mules beating down trails through the deep drifts of the Sierras and the Rockies.

First Ride of the Pony Express

First Ride of the Pony Express

On April 3, 1860, Henry Roff swung into the saddle at Sacramento and Alexander Carlyle leaped on a brown mare in St. Joseph, Missouri. While cannons boomed and crowds cheered in those two remote cities, the ponies came toward each other from the ends of that 2,000-mile trail on a dead run.

At the end of ten miles or so, a relay mount was waiting for each rider. As he drew near the station each man let out a long coyote yell and the hostlers led his animal into the roadway. The messenger charged down upon them, drew rein, sprang to the earth, and while the agent lifted the pouches from one saddle to the other, he gained the back of his fresh horse and sped on. At the end of his section, which might vary from 75-125 miles, each rider dismounted for the last time and turned the pouches over to a successor.

In this manner, the mail went across the prairie and sage-brush plain, through mountain passes where the snow lay deep beside the beaten trail and across the wide silent reaches of the Great American Desert. The time on that first trip was ten days for both east and westbound pouches.

The riders were light of weight; they were allowed to carry no weapons save a bowie-knife and revolver; the letters were written on tissue-paper; the two pouches were fastened to a leather covering which fitted over the saddle, and the thing was lifted with one movement from the last horse to the relay animal.

Many of these half-breed mustangs were unbroken; some were famous for their ability at bucking. But, bad horses were a part of the game; like bad men, everyone in the business expected them and took them as a matter of course. The riders of the Pony Express hardly recall such incidents because of the larger adventures with which their lives were filled.

There was the ride of Jim Moore, for a long time famous among the exploits on the frontier. His route went from Midway station to old Julesburg, Colorado, 140 miles across the Great Plains of western Nebraska. The stations were from 10-14 miles apart. Arriving at the end of that grueling journey, he would rest for two days before making the return trip.

One day Moore started westward from Midway station, knowing that his partner, who carried the mail one way while he was taking it the other, was sick at Julesburg. It was a question whether the man would be able to take the eastbound pouches, and if he should not be, there was no substitute on hand.

Realizing what might lie ahead of him, Moore pressed each fresh horse to its utmost speed during that westward ride. A man can endure only so long a term of punishment, and he resolved to save himself what minutes he could at the very beginning. He made that 140 miles in eleven hours.

The partner was in bed, and there was no hope of his rising for a day or two. The weary messenger started toward one of the bunks to get a bit of rest, but before he had thrown himself on the blankets, the coyote yell of the eastbound rider sounded up the road.

It was up to Moore to take the sick man’s place now. While the hostlers were saddling a pony and leading it out in front of the station, he snatched some cold meat from the table, gulped down a cup of lukewarm coffee, and hurried outside. He was just in time to swing into the saddle. He clapped spurs to the pony and kept him on a run. So, with each succeeding mount; and when he arrived at Midway he had put the 280 miles of the round trip behind him in 22 hours.