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Riders of the Pony Express

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By Glenn D. Bradley in 1913

 

 

 

 

The First Ride - Pony Express PaintingBart Riles, the pony rider, died this morning from wounds received at Cold Springs, May 16.

The men at Dry Creek Station have all been killed and it is thought those at Robert's Creek have met with the same fate.

Six Pike's Peakers found the body of the station keeper horribly mutilated, the station burned, and all the stock missing from Simpson's.

Eight horses were stolen from Smith's Creek on last Monday, supposedly by road agents.


 

The above are random extracts from frontier newspapers, printed while the Pony Express was running. The Express could never have existed on its high plane of efficiency, without an abundance of coolheaded, hardened men; men who knew not fear and who were expert - though sometimes in vain - in all the wonderful arts of self-preservation practiced on the old frontier. That these employees could have performed even the simplest of their duties, without stirring and almost incredible adventures, it is needless to assert.

The faithful relation of even a considerable number of the thrilling experiences to which the "Pony" men were subjected would discount fiction. While history can pay the tribute of preserving some anecdotes and their collective achievements, it must be forever silent as to many of their personal acts of heroism.

While lasting praise is due the faithful station men who, in their isolation, so often bore the murderous attacks of Indians and bandits, it is, perhaps, to the riders that the seeker of romance is most likely to turn. It was the riders' skill and fortitude that made the operation of the line possible. Both riders and hostlers shared the same privations, often being reduced to the necessity of eating wolf meat and drinking foul or brackish water.

 

While each rider was supposed to average 75 miles a trip, riding from three to seven horses, accidents were likely to occur, and it was not uncommon for a man to lose his way. Such delays meant serious trouble in keeping the schedule, keyed up, as it was, to the highest possible speed. It was confronting such emergencies, and in performing the duties of comrades who had been killed or disabled while awaiting their turns to ride, that the most exciting episodes took place.

Among the more famous riders was Jim Moore, who later became a ranchman in the South Platte Valley, Nebraska. Moore made his greatest ride on June 8, 1860. He happened to be at Midway Station, Nebraska, half way between the Missouri River and Denver, Colorado when the west-bound messenger arrived with important Government dispatches to California. Moore "took up the run," riding continuously 140 miles to old Julesburg, the end of his division. Here, he met the eastbound messenger, also with important missives, from the Coast to Washington. By all the rules of the game, Moore should have rested a few hours at this point, but his successor, who would have picked up the pouch and started eastward, had been killed the day before. The mail must go, and the schedule must be sustained. Without asking any favors of the man who had just arrived from the West, Moore resumed the saddle, after a delay of only ten minutes, without even stopping to eat, and was soon pounding eastward on his return trip. He made it, too, in spite of lurking Indians, hunger and fatigue, covering the round trip of 280 miles in 14 hours and 46 minutes, an average speed of over 18 miles an hour. Furthermore, his west-bound mail had gone through from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California on a record-making run of eight days and nine hours.

 

 

 

Pony Express AdvertisementWilliam James, always called "Bill" James, was a native of Virginia. He had crossed the plains with his parents in a wagon train when only five years old. At eighteen, he was one of the best Pony Express riders in the service. James's route lay between Simpson's Park and Cole Springs, Nevada, in the Smoky Valley range of mountains. He rode only sixty miles each way but covered his round trip of 120 miles in just 12 hours, including all stops. He always rode California mustangs, using five of these animals each way. His route crossed the summits of two mountain ridges, lay through the Shoshone Indian country, and was one of the loneliest and most dangerous divisions on the line. Yet, Bill never took time to think about danger, nor did he ever have any serious trouble.

 

Theodore Rand rode the Pony Express during the entire period of its organization. His run was from Box Elder to Julesburg, Colorado 110  miles and he made the entire distance both ways by night. His schedule, night run though it was, required a gait of ten miles an hour, but Rand often made it at an average of 12, thus saving time on the through schedule for some unfortunate rider who might have trouble and delay. Originally, Rand used only 4-5 horses each way, but this number, in keeping with the revised policy of the Company, was afterward doubled, an extra mount being furnished him every 12-15 miles.

 

Johnny Fry Pony Express RiderJohnny Fry was the first rider out of St. Joseph, Missouri and was little more than a boy when he entered the pony service. He was a native Missourian, weighing less than 125 pounds. Though small in stature, he was every inch a man. Fry's division ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas for 80 miles, which he covered at an average of 12.5 miles an hour, including all stops. When the war started, Fry enlisted in the Union army under General James Blunt. His short but worthy career was cut short in 1863 when he fell in a hand-to-hand fight with rebel bushwhackers in southeast Kansas. In this, his last fight, Fry is said to have killed five of his assailants before being struck down.

Jim Beatley, whose real name was Foote, was another Virginian, about 25 years of age. He rode on an eastern division, usually west out of Seneca, Kansas. On one occasion, he traveled from Seneca, Kansas to Big Sandy, Nebraska 50 miles and back, doubling his route twice in one week. Beatley was killed by a stage hand in a personal quarrel, the affair taking place on a ranch in Southern Nebraska in 1862.

William Boulton was one of the older riders in the service; his age at that time is given at about 35. Boulton rode for about three months with Jim Beatley. On one occasion, while running between Seneca and Guittards' Station in Kansas, Boulton's horse gave out when five miles from the latter station. Without a moment's delay, he removed his letter pouch and hurried the mail in on foot, where a fresh horse was at once provided and the schedule resumed.

Melville Baughn, usually known as "Mel," had a pony run between Fort Kearny, Nebraska and Thirty-two-mile Creek. Once while "laying off" between trips, a thief made off with his favorite horse. Scarcely had the miscreant gotten away when Baughn discovered the loss. Hastily saddling another steed, "Mel" gave pursuit, and though handicapped, because the outlaw had the pick of the stable, Baughn's superior horsemanship, even on an inferior mount, soon told. After a chase of several miles, he forced the fellow so hard that he abandoned the stolen animal at a place called Loup Fork, and sneaked away. Recovering the horse, Baughn then returned to his station, found a mail bag awaiting him, and was off on his run without further delay. With him and his fellow employees, running down a horse thief was but a trifling incident and an annoyance merely because of the bother and delay which it necessitated. Baughn was afterward hanged for murder at Seneca, Kansas but his services to the Pony Express were above reproach.

 

 

Pony Express Route Map Poster

Pony Express Route poster (11x17) available HERE.

 

 

Jack Keetley, Pony Express RiderAnother Eastern Division man was Jack Keetley, who also rode from St. Joseph, Missouri to Seneca, Kansas, alternating at times with Fry and Baughn. Keetley's greatest performance, and one of the most remarkable ever achieved in the service, was riding from Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to St. Joseph; then back to his starting point and on to Seneca, and from Seneca once more to Rock Creek Station - 340 miles without rest. He traveled continuously for 31 hours, his entire run being at the rate of eleven miles an hour. During the last five miles of his journey, he fell asleep in the saddle and in this manner concluded his long trip.

Don C. Rising, who afterwards settled in Northern Kansas, was born in Painted Post, Steuben County, New York, in 1844, and came West when thirteen years of age. He rode in the pony service nearly a year, from November, 1860, until the line was abandoned the following October, most of his service being rendered before he was seventeen. Much of his time was spent running eastward out of Fort Kearny until the telegraph had reached that point and made the operation of the Express between the fort and St. Joseph, Missouri no longer necessary. On two occasions, Rising is said to have maintained a continuous speed of twenty miles an hour while carrying important dispatches between Big Sandy and Rock Creek Station in Nebraska.

One rider who was well known as "Little Yank" was a boy scarcely out of his teens and weighing barely one hundred pounds. He rode along the Platte River between Cottonwood Springs, Nebraska and old Julesburg, Colorado and frequently made one hundred miles on a single trip.

Another man named Hogan, of whom little is known, rode northwesterly out of Julesburg, Colorado across the Platte River and to Mud Springs, some 80 miles distant.

Jimmy Clark rode between various stations east of Fort Kearny, usually between Big Sandy, Nebraska and Hollenberg, Kansas. Sometimes his run took him as far West as Liberty Farm on the Little Blue River.

 

James W. Brink, or "Dock" Brink as he was known to his associates, was one of the early riders, entering the employ of the Pony Express Company in April, 1860. While "Dock" made a good record as a courier, his chief fame was gained in a fight at Rock Creek Station, in which Brink and Wild Bill Hickok "cleaned out" the McCanles Gang of outlaws, killing five of their number.

 

Charles Cliff had an 80 mile pony run when only seventeen years of age, but, like Brink, young Cliff gained his greatest reputation as a fighter, - in his case fighting Indians. It seems that while Cliff was once freighting with a small train of nine wagons, it was attacked by a party of one hundred Sioux Indians and besieged for three days until a larger train approached and drove the redskins away. During the conflict, Cliff received three bullets in his body and twenty-seven in his clothing, but he soon recovered from his injuries, and was afterward none the less valuable to the Pony Express service.

 

Jay G. Kelley, later a citizen of Denver, was a veteran pony man. He entered the employ of the company at the outset, and helped Superintendent Roberts to lay out the route across Nevada. Along the Carson River, tiresome stretches of corduroy road had to be built. Kelley relates that in constructing this highway willow trees were cut near the stream and the trunks cut into the desired lengths before being laid in place. The men often had to carry these timbers in their arms for three hundred yards, while the mosquitoes swarmed so thickly upon their faces and hands as to make their real color and identity hard to determine.

 

The Pony Express building at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska

The Pony Express building at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska

 Kathy Weiser, July, 2006. This image available for photographic prints & downloads HERE!

 

At the Sink of the Carson, in Nevada a great depression of the river on its course through the desert, Kelley assisted in building a fort for protecting the line against Indians. Here there were no rocks nor timber, and so the structure had to be built of adobe mud. To get this mud to a proper consistency, the men tramped it all day with their bare feet. The soil was soaked with alkali, and as a result, according to Kelley's story, their feet were swollen so as to resemble "hams."

They next erected a fort at Sand Springs, twenty miles from Carson Lake, and another at Cold Springs, 32 miles east of Sand Springs. At Cold Springs, Kelley was appointed assistant station-keeper under Jim McNaughton. An outbreak of the Paiute Indians was now in progress, and as the little station was in the midst of the disturbed area, there was plenty of excitement.

 

One night while Kelley was on guard his attention was attracted by the uneasiness of the horses. Gazing carefully through the dim light, he saw an Indian peering over the outer wall or stockade. The orders of the post were to shoot every Indian that came within range, so Kelley blazed away, but missed his man. In the morning, many tracks were found about the place. This wild shot had probably frightened the prowlers away, saving the station from attack, and certain destruction.

Carson Sink, Nevada

Carson Sink, Nevada

 

During this same morning, a Mexican pony rider came in, mortally wounded, having been shot by the savages from ambush while passing through a dense thicket in the vicinity known as Quaking Asp Bottom. Although given tender care, the poor fellow died within a few hours after his arrival. The mail was waiting and it must go. Kelley, who was the lightest man in in the place - he weighed but one hundred pounds - was now ordered by the boss to take the dead man's place, and go on with the dispatches. This he did, finishing the run without further incident. On his return trip he had to pass once more through the aspen thicket where his predecessor had received his death wound. This was one of the most dangerous points on the entire trail, for the road zigzagged through a jungle, following a passage-way that was only large enough to admit a horse and rider; for two miles a man could not see more than thirty or forty feet ahead. Kelley was expecting trouble, and went through like a whirlwind, at the same time holding a repeating rifle in readiness should trouble occur. On having cleared the thicket, he drew rein on the top of a hill, and, looking back over his course, saw the bushes moving in a suspicious manner. Knowing there was no live stock in that locality and that wild game rarely abounded there, he sent several shots in the direction of the moving underbrush. The motion soon ceased, and he galloped onward, unharmed.

A few days later, two United States soldiers, while traveling to join their command, were ambushed and murdered in the same thicket.

This was about the time when Major Ormsby's command was killed in the First Battle of Pyramid Lake and Indians everywhere in Nevada were unusually aggressive and dangerous. There were seldom more than three or four men in the little station and it is remarkable that Kelley and his companions were not all killed.

One of Kelley's worst rides, in addition to the episode just related, was the stretch between Cold Springs and Sand Springs for 37 miles without a drop of water along the way.

Once, while dashing past a wagon train of immigrants, a whole fusillade of bullets was fired at Kelley who narrowly escaped with his life. Of course he could not stop the mail to see why he had been shot at, but on his return trip he met the same crowd, and in unprintable language told them what he thought of their lawless and irresponsible conduct. The only satisfaction he could get from them in reply was the repeated assertion, "We thought you was an Indian!" Nor was Kelley the only pony rider who took narrow chances from the guns of excited immigrants. Traveling rapidly and unencumbered, the rider, sunburned and blackened by exposure, must have borne on first glance no little resemblance to an Indian; and especially would the mistake be natural to excited wagon-men who were always in fear of dashing attacks from mounted Indians - attacks in which a single rider would often be deployed to ride past the white men at utmost speed in order to draw their fire. Then when their guns were empty a hidden band of savages would make a furious onslaught. It was the established rule of the West in those days, in case of suspected danger, to shoot first, and make explanations afterward; to do to the other fellow as he would do to you, and do it first!

Added to the perils of the wilderness deserts, blizzards, and wild Indians - the pony riders, then, had at times to beware of their white friends under such circumstances as have been narrated. And, that added to the tragical romance of their daily lives. Yet, they courted danger and were seldom disappointed, for danger was always near them.

 

 

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