Editor’s note: This is another installment in a multi-part series on exploring the Pony Express Trail through Tooele County.
While about 15 miles north of Simpson Springs last week, I came across a small group of wild Mustangs in the flat. There was a stallion, a few mares and a young horse in the group.
The stallion was a thickly built “skewbald” with splotches of white and brown with white socks to the knees. He had a thick blonde mane and full-bodied blonde tail that sharply contrasted with his unusual color pattern that made him stunning. The mares were bays, so too was the young horse, who also had a white splotch on his forehead.
I drove by this little group of horses several times during the week as they moved around on the range. Every time I passed them, the stallion would shake his head, wave his mane and posture aggressively.
On the last day I was out there, and as I passed the horses, the sun was setting behind Granite Mountain, basking the desert in golden light. I stopped my truck, got out and talked to the horses, asking them why they chose this spot to hang out . The young horse was skittish but then inquisitive, not quite sure what to make of me. The stallion stood there and looked at me, curious, not aggressive and seemingly listening to everything I said. I wondered if they were descendants of stock used by the Pony Express.
We are fortunate to have the opportunity to escape into such a blank space on the map and experience things, such as my encounter with the wild horses. Something about being off the grid under the big sky is so appealing and refreshing for the soul.
Yet, these peaceful, enjoyable experiences in the corner of the desert between Lookout Pass and Simpson Springs give the visitor today no indication of what a terrifying and taxing ordeal it must have been for the Pony Express Trail riders who traveled through “Piute Hell” as this area was known back in the 1860s.
In his book “Phantom Riders of the Pony Express,” author William H. Floyd said, “To even the most experienced horseman, sitting in the saddle on the back of a loping animal for an entire day was an ordeal.”
I can tell you from personal experience that loping for an extended period takes a physical toll on a person. I can’t stay in the saddle loping for a single mile and certainly can’t imagine pressing hard for 75 miles through Indian Country as the Pony Express Riders often did. Forget the physical part and consider that sometimes when the riders would arrive at a station, the other rider would be missing, or in a few instances, the station would be burned with bodies lying about. The rider, likely terrified, would have to charge on to the next station.
The American Indians were upset by the intrusion the Pony Express and emigrants made on their traditional land, justifiably so as their way of life was changed forever. Even worse, numerous atrocities, such as the one described by Doc Faust in last week’s article, were committed by white emigrants or the military on tribes.
Many selfish emigrants held the belief that only a dead Indian was a good Indian. With that perspective, it’s possible to understand the opposition the Indians exhibited as intruders invaded their ancestral lands. Also, treaty after treaty with the Native American tribes were broken. Setting that aside, mere existence in the harsh conditions of Skull Valley, or anywhere else in the West Desert, was not easy. The riches of the Pony Express Stations, such as horses, livestock, flour, pork, salt and other commodities required to sustain the operations, proved too tempting in many cases for starving Indians who committed depredations in order to survive.
The Indians referred to the whites as “Pale Faces” and the whites referred to the Indians as “Snake Eaters.” Fear, hatred and mistrust was at an all-time high in the West Desert between the whites and the Indians in 1860, which made for dangerous passage for Pony Express riders.
Mounted Dragoons from Camp Floyd were kept busy, clearing Indians from the trail so that the riders and Overland Stage could pass un molested. One story I read spoke of a riderless horse coming into a station at a charge, which did not bode well for the missing rider. On another occasion, a U.S. Calvary Troop out of Camp Floyd was alerted by the rider who blew past a station where the station men were tied to a pole, surrounded by dozens of Indians who were preparing to burn the place and murder the station men.
The troop commanded by Lt. Stephen H. Weed advanced full speed across the desert with guidon flapping in the breeze, just like in the old Western movies, and arrived at Egan Station just in time. A fierce battle ensued where 17 Indians were killed and one soldier was mortally wounded. That soldier was Pvt. Thomas Conly, Co. B, 4th Regiment, artillery. For years, a stone plaque in the grass at the Camp Floyd Cemetery paid tribute to Conly, but I believe it has since been moved. Poor Conly is now another ghost in the desert, I suppose.
To give you an idea of the peril and fate some of these brave express riders faced, consider the tale of Billy Tate as told by Floyd. Billy was 14 years old when he rode for the Pony Express. He had grown up hard on the frontier, being one of only five survivors from the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
One day while charging down the trail with the mail, he was ambushed by Bannock and Ute warriors. During the running fight that ensued, his horse took several arrows. Billy decided to turn it loose while he fortified himself in some rocks in hopes that the horse would make it to the station and alert the men he needed help. This young man made a good showing for himself because when his arrow-filled body was found, there were seven dead Indians lying about.
The Indians respected his courage as evidenced they didn’t scalp him or touch the mochila, which is the leather pouch that the mail was kept in. Floyd pointed out that the Indians were perplexed by what sort of medicine the riders carried in those little pouches because the riders protected them so fiercely.
According to Floyd, the universal ruggedness and loyalty of the riders and their ponies was a marvel. No one in the Utah section of the Pony Express Trail exhibited more of this noble, rugged character than Maj. Howard Egan. Just like Capt. James H. Simpson, if you are going to travel or study the trail in our West Desert, you have to become acquainted with Howard Egan. In next week’s article, we will do just that. In the meantime, as spring unfolds across the desert, get out and enjoy the incredible, refreshing wilderness that exists in our West Desert along the Pony Express Trail in Tooele County.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.