125 Pounds of Grit: Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express
Yesterday, drivers from the trifecta of home delivery services – the U. S. Postal Service, UPS and Federal Express – rang the doorbell at my home in Cody and dropped off packages with an inane array of everyday stuff: shampoo, batteries, a shirt and some athletic shoes. It reminded me of just how easy it is for packages to be delivered from there to here these days. But I still prefer to buy my Dan Miller CDs in person.
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody would have been amused, I think. He was just 11 when his father died, leaving behind a wife, four daughters and William. As the only man in the family, off to work went William.
Most of his early jobs involved getting stuff from one place to another. He drove an ox-team at the age of 11, became a messenger boy on a westbound bull train at the age of 12 and was promoted to assistant wagon master at 13. When he turned 14 – an age when boys today are playing “Zombicide Black Plague” (I’m not kidding; that’s what my sister’s 14-year- old son plays with his friends) – Buffalo Bill Cody embarked on his third career: Pony Express rider.
Or maybe not.
Despite its solid place in oft-romanticized tales of the Wild West, this relay-based mail delivery service was a financial disaster practically from the get-go, and the service was in operation for only 19 months, from April 1860 to March 1861. But it did set mail-delivery speed records, with the delivery from the starting point in St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in just 10 days.
Along the 2,000-mile route, there were 200 “relief” stations in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Pony Express riders would gallop full-speed between stations, switch to new horses every 10 to 15 miles and hand off their mail bags to fresh riders after 75 to 100 miles.
Speed was key to everything, so pony express riders were selected for their lankiness, and they could not weigh more than 125 pounds. Because of this, many of the riders were teenagers who were not yet fully grown. It was a tough gig in many ways. Riders had to swear they would not drink, use foul language or fight, although few reportedly adhered to those stringent rules. Riders made great money though, topping out at $150 per month.
They earned every penny, dealing daily with harsh terrain, extreme weather and occasional attacks by bandits and American Indians.
Historians are certain that William F. Cody worked as a messenger for the owners of the Pony Express, but there is no record beyond Buffalo Bill’s autobiography that indicates he carried mail across the frontier. In his autobiography, though, Buffalo Bill claimed he rode as a carrier at the age of 14 and once rode 384 miles on a single run. Although likely fabricated, that tale became the basis for a long-running stunt in Wild West Shows, featuring “Pony Express” riders quickly swapping horses.
What is not in dispute is his age. During the frontier days of the Old West, a boy of 14 was considered a man, and a man had responsibilities. Such was the way of the Wild West.
Until next time I’m recycling packaging materials and loving life here in Cody Yellowstone Country.