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Annals of Work: Buffalo Bill on the Pony Express
“I was fourteen when I became a pony-express rider,” William Cody recalled. “I had one or two adventures in that pursuit which may prove interesting to read. They were certainly interesting enough to me at the time. The job was worth $125 a month, and meant ceaseless danger.”
By the time Cody set down these recollections he was famous as Buffalo Bill. And the Pony Express was a fading memory for Americans, if not for him. The courier chain originated in the sudden peopling of California after the 1848 discovery of gold there. Before that discovery, the fact that a message could take six months to get from California to the populated eastern regions of the United States meant little, for California had little to say to the East. But gold was a language common to San Francisco and New York, and letters became worth far more than their weight in the yellow metal.
By the mid-1850s steamship passage from San Francisco to Panama and from Panama to New York had cut transit time to a month. The overland stage from California to Missouri took three weeks, but Missouri was still half a continent from the East Coast.
William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell had a better idea. They would put riders on horses and have them race across the plains and mountains of the West. Weight was at a premium—the less the riders weighed, the more mail they could carry—and so preference was given to skinny youngsters. Bill Cody fit the description and took the job.
Russell & co. arranged relay stations, some two hundred between Sacramento, California, and St. Joseph, Missouri. Several score riders would gallop on several hundred ponies from station to station, carrying the precious—five dollars per half-ounce at first—letters in special bags.
“The despatch-bags would be thrown over a pony's saddle,” Cody recalled. “The rider would mount and ride at top speed to the first relay station. There a fresh pony would be waiting, on whose back the despatch-bags would be hastily thrown. Then off again, and so on till the relief rider would snatch the bags and dash off with them for the next lap of the long race.” The relay stations averaged fifteen miles apart; the riders would cover three to six or seven legs before being relieved. They would rest and then carry the mail headed in the opposite direction back to their starting point.
“This was not an easy job for a fourteen-year-old boy,” Cody said. “But I stuck to it in spite of aching bones and a tired head.”
During his first few months the challenge was chiefly to his stamina. But then he met a challenge of another sort. “As I was galloping around a curve on a hillside trail one day, I rode flush up to a leveled pistol. The man behind it told me to throw up my hands. I obeyed. There is no use arguing with a loaded pistol. Frontiersmen in those days shot to kill. The road agent”—the robber—“dismounted and walked up to me to take my saddle-bags. I tried to look scared and harmless. He lowered his revolver as he reached for the bags. Just then I whirled my pony around. The little horse's plunge knocked the man off his feet, and a stray kick from one of the iron-shod hoofs grazed the fellow's head, knocking him senseless. Having no further interest in him, I was glad enough to make my escape, and rode in safety in time to the next station.”
A bigger problem could be the wildlife in that wild country. “One day I galloped up to a relay station and found no relief pony waiting for me. Not a soul was in sight. But I heard men yelling and shooting down by the corral, back of the station. I jumped off, rifle in one hand, and my twenty-pound pouches in the other, and made for the trees that hid the corral from the trail. I thought from the noise that there must be an Indian raid there at least. I reached the little clearing above the corral in time to see a gigantic buffalo bull charge through a bunch of cattle and rush on toward the door-yard of the station. Four or five men were yelling at the top of their lungs and blazing away at him with guns and revolvers. But if any of the shots reached the brute they only served to madden him all the more.”
Cody enjoyed the diversion. “It was no business of mine, so I stood there laughing at their excitement. But all at once I stopped laughing and turned sick at what I saw. There, near the door of the cabin, playing with a big wooden doll, sat a little girl, perhaps three years old. She wore a little red cloak, and the bright bit of color had caught the mad buffalo's attention. Down at the unconscious playing baby charged the great, furious brute. The men saw her peril just when I did, and they fired wildly and came forward at a dead run. But they were too far away. A woman ran screaming out of the house and rushed toward the child. She had no weapon of any kind, and probably couldn't have used one if she had. But, I suppose, mother-love made her forget the horrible peril and she wanted to die with her little girl. Women are sometimes braver, I think, than men, especially where their children are concerned.
“The buffalo was not fifteen yards away from the child when I brought my rifle instinctively to my shoulder. I wouldn't give myself time to think what must happen if I should miss. It was one of those times when a man must not fail in his aim. Just then the baby looked up and saw the murderous brute. She clapped both hands and gave a squeal of delight. She probably thought the beast was some new sort of playmate.
“As she called out, I fired! The buffalo's legs seemed to tuck themselves up under him. The impetus of his rush carried him along the ground full ten feet, and he came to a stop with his head not six inches from the little girl's knee, stone-dead.
“Then, after the men had pounded me on the back till I was sore, the child's mother insisted on kissing me. How a healthy fourteen-year-old boy does loathe to be kissed!”
Attrition was high among the riders, but Cody stuck it out and received salary bump to $150 per month. This was substantially more than most grown men in America made at the time. Cody later reflected on his situation. “I suppose in the centers of manufacture, indoor work, or in mines, it is necessary to protect children under the Child Labor Law; but the conditions were such on the frontier that the boy acquired an early experience, and both the Indian boys and the white boys, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, were ranked in every way as factors to be accounted for on any occasions that arose demanding energy, stamina and pluck. Hundreds of other boys at that time were in the same class as myself, ready, willing, and able to do and dare—little men.”
Cody wouldn’t have become the famous Buffalo Bill without the ability to make the most of his stories. Yet if he did stretch the truth, he could have been forgiven, for there was truly drama and danger in his job. “The reader can imagine that it was lonely; it demanded endurance above the ordinary to defy the summer's heat and winter's snow storms and blizzards; skill in crossing temporary bridges and dangerous streams, with shifting fords and treacherous quicksands, which had to be often got over at night; sometimes swollen torrents, and horses and riders had to swim.”
The indigenous peoples of the West were getting nervous at all the comings and goings of the whites. Until this time, unwary travelers had sometimes been ambushed, and cattle stampeded from wagon trains that refused to pay a toll for crossing Indian land. But otherwise the locals were generally happy for the migrants to keep moving. The Pony Express stations, however, suggested a permanent presence, which would be far more threatening.
“The Indian was master of all the country outside the rifle-range of station or fort,” Cody observed. “This gave to the very atmosphere a sense of continual peril, making possible a death so horrible that its possibility was as trying to the imagination as capture made its decree a certainty, with all the horrors of torture. That many riders met this fateful end is history, while other escapes were simply miraculous. Those who came out alive on the arrival at a station often found that one of the riders had fallen a victim to the savage foe, and had to take up his burden, and in such cases he had to pound the saddle over the stiff country for another hundred miles. The fact that the dead body was often somewhere along the trail, of course did not add pleasant thoughts to the journey.”
Cody himself had some narrow escapes. “Nothing but a quick perception and rapidity of action — and, seemingly, intuitive knowledge when danger threatened—and the angel of good luck assisted me to escape many a close call. Several times I had bullets through my buckskins, twice through my saddle, and on one occasion my sturdy mount received a bad flesh wound. On two occasions my good marksmanship saved me at the expense of the roster of the Sioux braves by sending two at different times to their happy hunting grounds.”
Cody may have exaggerated the number of riders killed. Only one or two seem to have lost their lives to Indians, although more than a dozen of the men tending the relay stations were killed by Paiute raiders in Nevada.
One of Cody’s exploits was particularly memorable—and indeed was memorialized by Pony Express co-founder Alexander Majors. “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,” Majors wrote. “While engaged in the express service, his route lay between Red Buttes and Three Crossings”—in southern Wyoming. “It was a most dangerous, long, and lonely trail, including perilous crossings of swollen and turbulent streams. An average of fifteen miles an hour had to be made, including change of horses, detours for safety, and time for meals. Once, upon reaching Three Crossings, he found that the rider on the next division had been killed during the night before, and he was called on to make the extra trip until another rider could be procured. 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 321 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, the entire distance (321 miles) being covered in 21 hours and 30 minutes.”
Even with heroes like Cody on the job, the Pony Express couldn’t last. Less than two years after it started operations, the telegraph connected California with the East and put the company out of business. As swift as Cody might ride, he couldn’t compete with electricity. The owners lost a pile of money, and the riders and station men had to find other work. But Cody for one took away tales he dined out on for decades.