“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have the strength”
“WANTED! Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans Preferred. Wages $25.00 per week.”
That was the advertisement that went out across the West and was printed in Salt Lake City’s newspapers when the Pony Express started looking for riders in the winter and spring of 1860. You would think that the talk of risking death daily would have frightened and terrified job seekers but many brave young men answered the call to be riders in Utah’s West Desert back in the day.
A good many of them were young Mormons who had been involved some way or another working for Major Howard Egan as part of George Chorpennings mail operations. To get a good appreciation of what these riders went through when they signed on we will look at some of their recollections in their own words.
One rider, Nicholas Wilson, who is the author and subject of the book “White Indian Boy” stated:
“Each rider had to swear before the justice of the peace that they would stay at their post at all times and not go farther than 100 yards from the station except when carrying the mail. When we started out, we were not to turn back no matter what until we had delivered the mail to the next station. We must be ready to start back at half a second’s notice – day or night, rain or shine, Indians or no Indians.”
Try to imagine being all amped up for a ride and just waiting, possibly for hours on end, for the rider to arrive at the station so that the mochilla could be swapped out and you could charge down the trail. Talk about a strange and menacing mix of boredom and wild anticipation.
George Washington Perkins, another rider who galloped across Utah’s West Desert wastes on his Mustang stated:
“We had orders on the first run to do our level best. Treat your horse as well as you can but bring the mail through – even if it costs a horse – in the shortest time you can. My run on that record breaking ride was 57 miles. We did not have the stations then to change the horses. I had to make it with just one horse and I made the run in mighty good time considering the distances. But I killed the poor horse in doing so. He was so stiff the next morning that we couldn’t get him out of the stable. His muscles seemed to have changed to stone. We did what we could for the suffering animal but he never got better. He just died there in his tracks.”
Being around horses myself quite often, it disturbs me that they were pushed so hard. I would like to think that destruction of animals in this way was the exception and not the rule. The position of the company was clear however that if it cost a horse, that was the cost of doing business so this likely was not an isolated occurrence.
It was a dangerous job cruising through the desert wilds alone. If the elements weren’t hazardous enough, there was the threat of Indian attack and perhaps even more hazardous — the chance of an encounter with white bandits or highwaymen.
William Streeper, another Utah Pony Express Rider stated:
“We rode ordinary ponies. When their backs became sore, as they often did from carrying packs, we doctored them ourselves. We stationed animals all along between stops. So, we could change and have fresh ones. We drove them from 7-8 mph, often riding in the dark. There were 7 riders on my route and we used horses and mules. Riding the pony and driving pack animals before us, we had guns and pistols and sometimes used arrows in self-defense. I carried a pair of pistols but never had any trouble. Indians have shot arrows at me and white men have drawn guns on me. But I never had one touch me. I was exceptionally fortunate.”
I find it super interesting to note that several of the riders make mention of driving mules before them. Sounds like the company was attempting to move more mail and get more bang for their buck. The image of a man running roughshod on a pack of mules kind of goes against the traditional image of a lone rider smoking it across the plains with the mail.
Richard Erastus (Ras) Egan, one of Major Howard Egan’s sons who was the superintendent of the line west of Salt Lake City described the route across the desert from Faust Station to Willow Springs in the following manner, “I was at Rush Valley at the time (H.J. Faust Station Keeper). This was the end of the first express ride from Salt Lake City. The next ride was from here to Willow Springs across the desert.”
Stop and imagine that for a moment. This young man who was 16 years old at the time had a route across our desert from what is now the Vernon area clear out to Callao!
He was expected to make this ride in 10-12 hours through wicked desert and Indian country. Insane!
“The stations at this time were only half so many as there were later being some 25-30 miles apart and at some places more than that. Soon the express rider came in from the east, the next rider was not well and was afraid he could not stand the ride. I volunteered in his place and arrived at Simpson Springs at the edge of the desert alright. From here the road runs in a south westerly direction 7 miles to the river bed. Then keeping the same direction to the Dugway and over the mountains. Taking more turns to the salt wells then west around the point of the mountains, where the road ran nearly west across the worst part of the desert. Nothing but mud grows there and that seems to grow taller the more you sink in it and the harder it is to get out. It then goes north past Fish Springs around the point of the mountain and back to the south about opposite of Fish Springs to where Boyd Station was afterwards built. From here the road ran in a westerly straight line to Willow Springs (Callao) thus making a large semi-circle, the points of which were many miles closer together straight across than by the road.”
Kinda cool to hear this young man speak to us across the centuries and describe in accurate detail the same desert route that is familiar to those who travel the Pony Express Trail today.
On another occasion, Richard Erastus Egan had his horse fall on him while he was crossing a bridge at night while speeding along his route. This broke the horse’s neck and threw Egan and his mochilla into the icy water of the creek. Soaking wet in the dead of the snowy, winter night, Egan gathered his saddle and the mochilla and hiked back to the station to get another mount.
We briefly touched on how difficult and challenging it would be to stay on the trail in the dark but consider darkness mixed with blowing snow. These riders and their employers did not care what the weather was, they were sent out into the storm regardless and expected to get the mail through.
“On another occasion I rode from Salt Lake to Fort Crittenden (Camp Floyd), a distance of 50 miles, then started at sun down for Rush Valley in a very heavy snow storm with the snow knee deep to my horse. I could see no road so that as soon as darkness came on, I had to depend entirely upon the wind. It was striking my right cheek so I kept it there but unfortunately for me, the wind changed and led me off my course so instead of going west ward I went south ward and rode on all night at a trot and arrived at the place I had left at sundown the evening before with both myself and horse very tired.”
In next week’s article we will get a description of our trail from Egan and take a look at some other express riders who worked in our desert back in 1860.