"WANTED. YOUNG, SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS. NOT OVER 18. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS. WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED." -California newspaper help-wanted ad, 1860 The Pony Express is one of the most celebrated and enduring chapters in the history of the United States, a story of the all-American traits of bravery, bravado, and entrepreneurial risk that are part of the very fabric of the Old West. No image of the American West in the mid-1800s is more familiar, more beloved, and more powerful than that of the lone rider galloping the mail across hostile Indian territory. No image is more revered. And none is less understood. Orphans Preferred is both a revisionist history of this magnificent and ill-fated adventure and an entertaining look at the often larger-than-life individuals who created and perpetuated the myth of "the Pony," as it is known along the Pony Express trail that runs from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express is a story that exists in the annals of Americana where fact and fable collide, a story as heroic as the journey of Lewis and Clark, as complex and revealing as the legacy of Custer's Last Stand, and as muddled and freighted with yarns as Paul Revere's midnight ride.
Adult/High School-"Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages-$25 per week." Thus ran a notice in several western newspapers in 1860. Or maybe not. This is just one of many unproved "facts" about the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express. The Pony's day was short, a mere 18 months, from April 3, 1860, to October 26, 1861 (just two days after the completion of the first coast-to-coast telegraph line). The company was a financial disaster for its owners. The total amount of mail carried was insignificant. Ah, but the "twisted truth and lasting legend," now that is something a good writer can throw in his saddlebag and ride with. And Corbett does exactly that in this fine analysis of the famed riders of the Wild West. He does an excellent job of finding bits of truth hidden behind layers of myth. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok were not Pony Express heroes, despite numerous dime novels and Hollywood westerns to the contrary. On the other hand, true heroes were lost among the lore. The feats of Robert Haslam and William F. Fisher were impressive by any standard. This book tells two main stories: what happened (so far as is known) and how the legend grew (about which much is known). A good selection for Old West aficionados, especially those who relish the challenge of separating fact from fiction.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 14, 2004
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Excerpt from Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett
"CAPITAL FELLOWS"--RUSSELL, MAJORS & WADDELL
My design is to give a truthful and not an exaggerated and fanciful account of the occurrences of the journey, and of the scenery, capabilities, and general features of the countries through which we shall pass, with incidental sketches of the leading characteristics of the populations.
--Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California, 1848
In the spring of 1859 with carpetbag in hand, Horace Greeley, legendary editor of the New York Tribune, took the celebrated advice so often attributed to him and went west. He was no longer a young man that year--he was forty-eight--but he had the curiosity and energy of a young man.
"Want to learn what I can of that country with my own eyes," Greeley wrote, "and to study men in their cabins and at their work instead of reading about them in books."
Greeley, whom Harper's Weekly had called "the most perfect Yankee the country has ever produced," left New York City on May 9, traveled at first by rail and riverboat and then much of the way in a Concord coach, pitching and tossing across the continent. He would be on the road for five months. He traveled alone much of the time, too. "I then hoped, rather than confidently expected, that, on publicly announcing my intention, some friend might offer to bear me company on this journey; but my hope was not realized. One friend did propose to go; but his wife's veto overruled his not very stubborn resolve. I started alone . . ."
Horace Greeley was arguably the most influential and powerful opinion maker in the nation in those days. At the time of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln compared Greeley's support to that of an army of 100,000 men in the field.
He was a flinty Yankee from poor New Hampshire who left his family farm and was apprenticed to a Vermont printer at fifteen, a printer's devil. When he was twenty, Greeley walked to New York City. He had ten dollars in his pocket. His first job was printing a tiny Bible.
He opposed slavery. He opposed the antiforeign, anti-Roman Catholic ravings of the Know-Nothings (he coined that term). He opposed tobacco (a bad experience with a cigar when he was five years old had turned him against smoking), he opposed alcohol (he took the pledge when he was but twelve), and he had reservations about the eating of meat. He rarely drank tea and had long forsworn coffee. He was a sometime vegetarian and a fairly strict disciple of the celebrated crank Dr. Sylvester Graham, whose cracker we remember a century and a half later. One biographer claimed that Greeley crossed the West eating graham crackers and drinking milk, but Greeley makes no mention of this diet in his travels. He met his wife at the Graham House, a New York City boardinghouse kept by Dr. Graham. She was an eccentric from New England, too.