A black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. … Another instant and man and horse burst past our excited faces and go winging away like the belated fragment of a storm. —Mark Twain (Roughing it, 1872)
Roughing It was a semi-autobiographical book written by Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain, written between 1870-and 71 and published in 1872. The book follows a young Samuel Clemens through the Wild West during the period 1861 – 1867, and in it, he offers us a flavor of the excitement of the Pony Express. The very name calls up thrilling images of horse and rider racing through hostile territories and across treacherous terrain — even though the Pony Express lasted for less than two years (from April 1860 to October 1861). Plus, the Pony Express was only one of several private express companies carrying mail.
Much of what we think we know about the Pony Express (and the American West) began in the so-called wild-west shows and dime novels in the late 1800s. Yet, despite their end, America’s Pony Express riders continue dodging highwaymen and hostiles, winging their way across the vast American west — they live on in our imaginations.
In 1860, a relay system of horsemen began carrying mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The central route extended 1,966 miles and involved 165 stations roughly separated by ten or twelve miles where the riders exchanged their horses. The express riders were capable of riding like the wind for as many as 75 to 100 miles in a single day.
It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was necessary — because the problem was, at the beginning of the American Civil War, the United States was on the verge of losing control over the transfer of mail, cargo, and gold from California. Pony Express gave the Union control over cargo and mail carried between East and West outside the borders of the Southern states.
Pony Express riders made the 1,966-mile journey in around ten days (in the summer) or between 12 and 16 days (in the winter). Who do we credit for this idea? William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. Who shall we credit for making it happen? Men like Nick Wilson.
Some Tales are Taller than other Tales
The old west is full of tall tales — some credible, others not so much. More than a few of these tales concern the Pony Express. They rode day and night, rain, or shine, regardless of the known presence of hostile Indians and well-heeled road agents.
Elijah Nicholas Wilson was born in 1842 — part of a pioneer family living in the American West. When he was around 12-years old, he left home and went to live with a Shoshone Indian chief named Washakie. He stayed with the Indians for four years. When Pony Express solicited riders, 18-year-old Nick Wilson was hired on. He knew how to break horses, and he had sand. It was dangerous work. Nick Wilson said he got used to it after a while.
After driving horses to Antelope Station (Nevada), working under Superintendent Howard Eagan, Wilson stopped at the Spring Valley Station. He encountered two orphaned boys who the station manager had abandoned. The two boys were running the station by themselves, and they invited Wilson to stay for supper. After Nick let his horse out to graze, he noticed the horses going towards a patch of Cedar or pinion pine trees — he suspected that Indians were driving the horses away.
Nick Wilson sprinted towards the horses with Guns blazing, trying his best to reach them before the Indians stole them away. He fired three times at the men and missed. One of the raiders shot an arrow at Wilson, the flint-tipped arrow striking him two inches above his left eye. As the raiders rode off with the horses, the two boys reached Wilson and tried to yank the arrow from his forehead, but it wouldn’t give. They broke off the shaft, leaving the flint tip buried in Wilson’s forehead. The boys rolled him under the trees, thinking he was as good as dead.
As Wilson lay unconscious, the boys ran for help at the next station. They returned the next day with men to help with Wilson’s burial, only to find him still alive. They carried Nick back to the station and called for a doctor from Ruby Valley, 60 miles away, to treat the wounded and still unconscious express rider. Although the doctor could dig out the arrowhead, he didn’t think the outlook was good. He instructed the station boys to apply wet cloths to Wilson’s head, and then he left.
Six days into this treatment, Superintendent Egan happened by the station and saw Wilson unconscious but still alive. He sent for the doctor to come again from Ruby Valley and give further treatment. Wilson was unconscious for eighteen days. Once he awoke, he quickly recovered and returned to riding the dangerous express line.
Afterward, Wilson always wore his hat low over his forehead to cover his scar. The head injury plagued him with headaches for the rest of his life. The scrape with death didn’t slow him down, though. He continued to ride for the Pony Express until it shut down in October 1861. Wilson went on to live a full life as a western pioneer and earned the reputation of a true old west storyteller. Hollywood producers incorporated Nick Wilson’s storyline into the film Wind River.
Williams Station Massacre
Williams Station wasn’t much — a saloon, general store, and stagecoach station sitting on the Carson River. On 6 May 1860, a war party led by mixed-race Bannock Indians assaulted the station, killing five Americans and setting fire to the station. A militia was quickly formed from volunteers in Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City, and Genoa to apprehend the marauders. The volunteer force consisted of about 105 men, led by Major William Ormsby. The militia was a gaggle of undisciplined morons with an over-abundance of crap for brains. None of these men realized how poorly armed they were — because they were all full of whiskey. There were two pitched battles in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake (present-day Nevada), resulting in the deaths of 79 whites and 25 Indians. Perspective: of the 105 white militia members, 79 died.
Remembered as the Pyramid Lake War (and Paiute War), the conflict forced Pony Express to suspend operations between Carson Valley and Salt Lake City through the end of June 1860. The COC & PP rebuilt the destroyed stations and posted up to five guards at each one along this portion of the route. The Pony Express recommenced service at the end of June, even though hostilities between the Paiute and settlers didn’t cease until August.
Despite the nearly two-month disruption to service, Pony Express continued between Salt Lake City and St. Joseph. Unhappily, as the company spent $75,000 to reopen the route to California, the Salt Lake to St. Joseph route produced little income — placing Pony Express near financial collapse. Indian raids continued throughout the system.
The Pony Express Gunman
He was born Joseph Alfred Slade in 1831 at Carlyle, Illinois, the son of politician Charles Slade. He served in the U.S. Army occupational force in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. After his father’s death, his mother married Union Major General Elias Dennis.
After the war, Slade worked along the Overland Trail as a freighter and wagon master. He married in 1857, afterward earning his living as a stagecoach driver in Texas. He may have worked for the Butterfield Stage, but by 1859 he worked for Hockaday & Company, who sold out to Jones—Russell & Company, and then for the Central Overland, California & Pike’s Peak (COC & PP) Express Company (parent owners of the Pony Express). Jones—Russell transferred Slade to the Pony Express company in 1860 and made him one of their superintendents. Slade’s duty required him to keep order among the riders and schedule cross-country express mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California.
Jack Slade took his work seriously. He was quiet, somewhat broody, and if you weren’t accustomed to calling him Jack, you called him “sir.” The point was, Jack Slade was a gunslinger — and everyone knew it. Well, everyone except a fellow named Andrew McFerrin. McFerrin was holding up one of Slade’s freight trains. When Slade told him to get a move on, Andrew decided to broach the subject of wages, taking the hardball approach. That was when Slade slapped leather and shot McFerrin dead. This incident did two things for Slade. First, it made him an effective superintendent, and second, it earned him his reputation as a gunman.
Jack Slade suspected that one of his station masters in Colorado, a man named Jules Beni, was as corrupt as Maxine Waters (although she wasn’t even alive back then). Slade decided to ride over and discuss it with him. En route, Jules ambushed Slade, shot him, and left him for dead. This is what happens when employees fail to demonstrate attention to detail. Slade wasn’t dead. In August 1861, Jules Beni ended up with around 40 bullet holes in his body when Slade’s friends caught up with him.
Despite Jack Slade’s reputation as a dedicated company man, he (like so many others out west) developed a drinking problem. Jones—Russell fired him for drunkenness in 1862.
Slade’s exploits spawned numerous legends, many of them complete bull tacos. His image, as captured by Mark Twain in Roughing It, as a vicious killer (Twain claiming 26 victims) was greatly exaggerated. English writer George Orwell criticized Twain, claiming that his writing encouraged old west violence — but that may also be a stretch of the imagination.
But all good things must come to an end, as did Jack Slade on 20 July 1864. Virginia City, Montana, was a wild and wooly place in the 1860s — and with a high population of road agents, crooked sheriffs, and things that go bump in the night, the good citizens of Virginia City just weren’t in the mood for shenanigans. That’s why, when Jack Slade got all fired up with alcohol one night, vigilantes strung him up for “disturbing the peace.” This we know for sure: Jack Slade never did that again. His friends planted him over in Salt Lake City.
End of the Pony Express
Once the Civil War broke out, Pony Express was the fastest way to transmit information from the seat of power in Washington to western states and territories. Meanwhile, efforts to establish a telegraph line to California were well underway. Still, a telegraph line could not replace mail service, so even though the telegraph system reached San Francisco by August 1861, the demand for mail service steadily increased. When government subsidies stopped, Pony Express went out of business, and COC & PP came to mean “Clean out of cash and poor pay.”
- Driggs, H. R. “A Flint-Headed Arrow.” In The Pony Express Goes Through; an American Saga Told by Its Heroes, 70–78. New York, New York: Lippincott, 1963.
- Wilson, E. N., and H. R. Driggs. The White Indian Boy: The Story of Uncle Nick among the Shoshones. Salt Lake City, Utah: Paragon Press, 1991.
- Rottenberg, D. Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend. Westholme Publishing, 2008
- Smithsonian National Postal Museum, online.
Kaplan, J. Mr. Clemens, and Mark Twain: A Biography. Simon & Schuster Publishing, 1966