Down by the River: St. Joseph, Part 3

Over the course of the Pony Express’ eighteen-month life, a rich mythology grew up about the riders and their exploits. While only one rider was killed by Indians, the story became that his horse still safely arrived at its station, precious cargo intact. Another story told of Jack Keetley, who was said to have gone 340 miles without rest, fell asleep in his saddle, and again safely arrived at his destination. Then there was the story of Johnny Fry, the most popular contender for “first rider” status. Fry, a very handsome young man, supposedly had a following of young women along the route in Kansas. They would line up alongside the road and offer him cookies and sweets. However, Fry would be traveling at such a rate that he would often be unable to grab the treats, so one young woman put holes in the middle of her cookies so that he could grab them more easily. The birth, the story goes, of the do-nut.

Johnny Fry

Whether any of these stories are true or not is not the point–the point is simply that they make great stories. And the Pony Express has always made not just a great story, but a great American story. As folklore, these stories serve the same purposes that all folklore serves: entertainment, education, cultural validation. From its doomed-from-the-beginning origins, its handsome young riders, and its replacement by technology, the Pony Express has given a lot of mileage to St. Josephites and others.

And why not? A large part of the Pony Express’ appeal is that it ultimately failed–or at least was replaced when better options came along. As one writer colorfully put it, “In retrospect the Pony [Express rider]’s very failure appears to have worked like a bright polish on the radiant sheen of his splendor. Poverty seems to have beautified and strengthened his indomitable spirit and . . . encompassed his memory in a mighty aura of legend and fantasy.” The enterprise is recognized as a valiant band-aid effort; the march of technology, in the form of the telegraph, is proven to be inevitable. The stories thus support notions of technological progress and sets the Pony Express up as an enabler of that progress, the necessary sacrifice to the god of technology: that is where the Express’ power as a symbol lays.

The Pony Express’ financial failure is valuable to the stories’ symbolism in another regard. Part of the reason Russell, Majors & Waddell went broke was the failure of Boyd’s promise of government contracts. In a promotional brochure for Union Pacific written by Miss Mary Pack in 1924 called “The Romance of the Pony Express,” the author wrote, “It seems strange that although the Government was expending millions of dollars in fostering less successful mail routes, not one cent was advanced in the interest of the Pony Express.” The Pony Express thus supports a very western notion of distrust of government; it wasn’t the government that made the Pony Express run, but a rag-tag bunch of boys on horses.

The Pony Express wed commerce, westward expansion, and selfless bravery in equal measures, depicted in a series of commemorative stamps.

The true stars of these stories are, appropriately, the riders themselves. They hold a special place in the legend, because they have been imbued with all the qualities of both the western hero and the western victim, the cowboy  and the Native American. One writer mentions that the Pony Express riders were termed things like “the Dauntless brigade,” “Messengers of Romance and Commerce,” and “Martyrs to the Cause of Patriotism and a newer and braver civilization.” The writings on the Pony Express are full of noble descriptions of these young men. “Carrying out their schedule became a religion with them,” Miss Pack wrote. “Their grim determination in the face of difficulties places them in the rack of heroes, yet heroism with them was never a self-conscious trait.”

Another writer describes them as “tough, brave, keen express riders,” few of whom “cringed or faltered along the way. Many kept to the schedule even when payless pay days had come and gone. Most of them gallantly rode headlong over mountains of loneliness, some down the bloodied path of death, but all into the infinity of proud glory.” Yet another, Mrs. Louis Platt Hauck, writing on the occasion of the St. Joseph Historical Pageant in 1923, states:

All but a few of the riders have disappeared on the long trail. Those who are left cherish tender, half sad memories of the days when to them was entrusted a duty which called for an endurance, a reckless courage to which to their descendants is well nigh incredible. . . . A touch of the charm of the unknown hanges about the names of those riders. It grips our imagination–that picture of a slim young figure with eyes asparkle in the joy of his task, spurred heels touching the sides of his willing horse, head upflung as he gallops toward the sunset. Behind him the safe, green hills of home; before him the monotonous prairie, the cruel desert, the lonely mountains.

The riders’ glory didn’t end with their last duty on the trail. the “survivors” of the Pony Express also found glory in modesty. the former riders, Miss Pack writes, “are reticent as to their part in the Pony Express and modestly assert that nothing remarkable ever happened to them.” In other words, the legend of the Pony Express has turned these men into noble savages, though more noble and less savage than the “drunken, lazy, quarrelsome, and altogether unworthy Sac and Fox and Ioway Indians” who had been moved from the territory twenty-four years earlier. But the riders occupy the same position as Native Americans in the story of the American West. They were the martyrs who bravely did their part in the march of progress, though their enterprise was doomed from the start.

Down by the River: St. Joseph, Part 5