American History, Book Reviews, Charles
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West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express (Jim DeFelice)

My great-grandfather’s uncle, William Pridham, was a rider for the Pony Express.  This is not a family legend, as are many Pony Express stories; he is listed in the Appendix to this book, which is a crisp, compelling story of the brief life of that once-iconic American enterprise.  The family connection is really why I picked this book to read, and I was not disappointed in my choice.

The author, Jim DeFelice (noted for earlier writing American Sniper), frames his book through describing the delivery by the Express of the news of Lincoln’s election in 1860, following riders through their stations from St. Joseph, on the western edge of Missouri, to Sacramento.  Interspersed with these evocative descriptions are narratives of the history of the Express itself, as well as of related historical matters, ranging from Bleeding Kansas to the development of portable repeating firearms.  DeFelice is quite clear that a great deal about the Express is either conjecture or incompletely supported by the historical record.  It ran for only eighteen months, it failed financially, and almost all written records were lost long ago.  Even immediately after its time, it was surrounded by innumerable lies and myths, most famously those spun by Buffalo Bill Cody, and including the famous “Orphans Preferred” advertisement for riders.  Still, it occupies, or occupied until recently, an outsized place in the American imagination.

The Express was the brainchild of three men, already partners for several years in the business of Western transportation and distribution:  William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell.  Unlike many partnerships, where one partner does all the work and the others relax, it was one where each man actually contributed different talents.  Majors was the boots-on-the-ground implementer; he organized and drove wagon trains.  Waddell was the numbers man.  Russell was the salesman, glad-hander and palm greaser, who in the end brought the whole partnership to ruin.  The Express was not a standalone enterprise—it was conceived of as only one part of a plan to acquire extremely lucrative government contracts for mail and goods shipping.  The partners knew the Express would lose money; they also knew that the cross-continental telegraph was imminent, and the railroads not far behind.  Their plan was to, in today’s language, obtain the first-mover advantage, and position themselves to be the dominant, even monopolistic, players in the Western shipping business, profiting ultimately also from other income streams, such as land speculation if the railroads followed the routes they set up.

Instead, they went bankrupt.  Part of that was that the Express cost more, and brought in less, than even they expected.  Consumers, as DeFelice notes, loved the idea of speed; they were less willing to pay for it.  Speed was what the Express offered:  ten days for a letter to California—at five dollars an ounce, when that was real money.  But the bigger part was that the hoped-for government contracts never came through, for a variety of reasons.  This destroyed the entire business plan.  Moreover, the government welched on significant debts owed to the partners (as the result of damages suffered during the Utah War between the Mormons and the federal government).  Russell, in a desperate attempt to keep the partnership afloat, thereupon engaged in a variety of shady schemes involving appropriation and hypothecation of government bonds he didn’t own, a fraud which when exposed put the final nail in the coffin of the Express.

But its financial failure isn’t what Americans remembered.  Nor was it just the speed that excited Americans of the time and later.  As DeFelice notes, “the service and especially its riders embodied or symbolized some of the things they cared about:  courage, physical prowess, the willingness to risk all in a race against Nature and Time.”  In a refreshing departure from most modern popular writing, DeFelice wastes no time apologizing for these as virtues, or denying that these are masculine virtues, or caviling that women weren’t given opportunities, or “discovering” supposedly hidden women who played an important role.  This was men’s work, and nobody pretended it was or should be otherwise, as we are forced to pretend today about everything from soldiering to breadwinning.  So, because of its nature, the Express became an archetypal heroic narrative, with a distinctively American twist.  Jordan Peterson doubtless approves, despite the dubious veracity of many of the specific stories about the Express.  It is too bad that he is in the minority, and most of our ruling classes, if asked, would identify the Express as a shining example of “toxic masculinity,” among the stupider concepts of recent years (though it faces stiff competition from scores of others).

Anyway, despite the dubious legends, the verifiable stories about the Express are plenty thrilling.  Threats and challenges, including Nature most of all, were continually overcome by brave men.  With the exception of the Paiute War, where they attacked and killed several riders and station operators, the Indians didn’t much concern themselves with the Express; primarily they were curious why the white man was in such a hurry.  There were plenty of salty characters, though, including several, like the famous Jack Slade, who worked for the Express and did things like cut off a horse thief’s ears and nail them to a fence post to discourage imitators.  Many of these characters were described by Mark Twain in Roughing It, a book from which DeFelice quotes extensively (while noting that Twain frequently exaggerated and took artistic liberties in his descriptions).  DeFelice does a good job of pulling his narrative along without undue credulity, and adding color with relevant historical data that ties it all together.

In 1861, the assets of the Express were sold to Butterfield Stage, and in 1866 that was absorbed by Wells Fargo (which hired Pridham, my family connection, who spent the rest of his long career working for Wells Fargo, such that he has a profile on the company’s website).  I suspect that most people under forty today know little or nothing about the Express, which is too bad.  Reading this short book is a good, and easy, corrective to that lack of knowledge.

2 Comments

  1. AesopFan says

    Thanks so much for this review.
    I was able to visit one of the few remaining Express stations in Gothenburg, Nebraska (a “charming” little town for quaintness aficionados) a few years ago, one of the advantages of driving rather than flying across the country.

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