6: Riders and Famous Rides
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Bart Riles, the pony rider, died this morning from wounds received at
Cold Springs, May 16.
The men at Dry Creek Station have all been killed and it is thought
those at Robert's Creek have met with the same fate.
Six Pike's Peakers found the body of the station keeper horribly
mutilated, the station burned, and all the stock missing from Simpson's.
Eight horses were stolen from Smith's Creek on last Monday, supposedly
by road agents.
The above are random extracts from frontier newspapers, printed while
the Pony Express was running. The Express could never have existed on
its high plane of efficiency, without an abundance of coolheaded,
hardened men; men who knew not fear and who were expert—though
sometimes in vain—in all the wonderful arts of self-preservation
practiced on the old frontier. That these employees could have performed
even the simplest of their duties, without stirring and almost
incredible adventures, it is needless to assert.
The faithful relation of even a considerable number of the thrilling
experiences to which the "Pony" men were subjected would discount
fiction. Yet few of these adventures have been recorded. Today, after a
lapse of over fifty years, nearly all of the heroes who achieved them
have gone out on that last long journey from which no man returns. While
history can pay the tribute of preserving some anecdotes of them and
their collective achievements, it must be forever silent as to many of
their personal acts of heroism.
While lasting praise is due the faithful station men who, in their
isolation, so often bore the murderous attacks of Indians and bandits,
it is, perhaps, to the riders that the seeker of romance is most likely
to turn. It was the riders' skill and fortitude that made the operation
of the line possible. Both riders and hostlers shared the same
privations, often being reduced to the necessity of eating wolf meat and
drinking foul or brackish water.
While each rider was supposed to average seventy-five miles a trip,
riding from three to seven horses, accidents were likely to occur, and
it was not uncommon for a man to lose his way. Such delays meant serious
trouble in keeping the schedule, keyed up, as it was, to the highest
possible speed. It was confronting such emergencies, and in performing
the duties of comrades who had been killed or disabled while awaiting
their turns to ride, that the most exciting episodes took place.
Among the more famous riders(1) was Jim Moore who later became a
ranchman in the South Platte Valley, Nebraska. Moore made his greatest
ride on June 8, 1860. He happened to be at Midway Station, half way
between the Missouri River and Denver, when the west-bound messenger
arrived with important Government dispatches to California. Moore "took
up the run," riding continuously one hundred and forty miles to old
Julesburg, the end of his division. Here he met the eastbound messenger,
also with important missives, from the Coast to Washington. By all the
rules of the game Moore should have rested a few hours at this point,
but his successor, who would have picked up the pouch and started
eastward, had been killed the day before. The mail must go, and the
schedule must be sustained. Without asking any favors of the man who had
just arrived from the West, Moore resumed the saddle, after a delay of
only ten minutes, without even stopping to eat, and was soon pounding
eastward on his return trip. He made it, too, in spite of lurking
Indians, hunger and fatigue, covering the round trip of two hundred and
eighty miles in fourteen hours and forty-six minutes an average speed of
over eighteen miles an hour. Furthermore, his west-bound mail had gone
through from St. Joseph to Sacramento on a record-making run of eight
days and nine hours.
William James, always called "Bill" James, was a native of Virginia. He
had crossed the plains with his parents in a wagon train when only five
years old. At eighteen, he was one of the best Pony Express riders in
the service. James's route lay between Simpson's Park and Cole Springs,
Nevada, in the Smoky Valley range of mountains. He rode only sixty miles
each way but covered his round trip of one hundred and twenty miles in
twelve hours, including all stops. He always rode California mustangs,
using five of these animals each way. His route crossed the summits of
two mountain ridges, lay through the Shoshone Indian country, and was
one of the loneliest and most dangerous divisions on the line. Yet
"Bill" never took time to think about danger, nor did he ever have any
Theodore Rand rode the Pony Express during the entire period of its
organization. His run was from Box Elder to Julesburg, one hundred and
ten miles and he made the entire distance both ways by night. His
schedule, night run though it was, required a gait of ten miles an hour,
but Rand often made it at an average of twelve, thus saving time on the
through schedule for some unfortunate rider who might have trouble and
delay. Originally, Rand used only four or five horses each way, but this
number, in keeping with the revised policy of the Company, was afterward
doubled, an extra mount being furnished him every twelve or fifteen
Johnnie Frey who has already been mentioned as the first rider out of
St. Joseph, was little more than a boy when he entered the pony service.
He was a native Missourian, weighing less than one hundred and
twenty-five pounds. Though small in stature, he was every inch a man.
Frey's division ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas, eighty miles,
which he covered at an average of twelve and one half miles an hour,
including all stops. When the war started, Frey enlisted in the Union
army under General Blunt. His short but worthy career was cut short in
1863 when he fell in a hand-to-hand fight with rebel bushwhackers in
Arkansas. In this, his last fight, Frey is said to have killed five of
his assailants before being struck down.
Jim Beatley, whose real name was Foote, was another Virginian, about
twenty-five years of age. He rode on an eastern division, usually west
out of Seneca. On one occasion, he traveled from Seneca to Big Sandy,
fifty miles and back, doubling his route twice in one week. Beatley was
killed by a stage hand in a personal quarrel, the affair taking place on
a ranch in Southern Nebraska in 1862.
William Boulton was one of the older riders in the service; his age at
that time is given at about thirty-five. Boulton rode for about three
months with Beatley(2). On one occasion, while running between Seneca
and Guittards', Boulton's horse gave out when five miles from the latter
station. Without a moment's delay, he removed his letter pouch and
hurried the mail in on foot, where a fresh horse was at once provided
and the schedule resumed.
Melville Baughn, usually known as "Mel," had a pony run between Fort
Kearney and Thirty-two-mile Creek. Once while "laying off" between
trips, a thief made off with his favorite horse. Scarcely had the
miscreant gotten away when Baughn discovered the loss. Hastily saddling
another steed, "Mel" gave pursuit, and though handicapped, because the
outlaw had the pick of the stable, Baughn's superior horsemanship, even
on an inferior mount, soon told. After a chase of several miles, he
forced the fellow so hard that he abandoned the stolen animal at a place
called Loup Fork, and sneaked away. Recovering the horse, Baughn then
returned to his station, found a mail awaiting him, and was off on his
run without further delay. With him and his fellow employes, running
down a horse thief was but a trifling incident and an annoyance merely
because of the bother and delay which it necessitated. Baughn was
afterward hanged for murder at Seneca, but his services to the Pony
Express were above reproach.
Another Eastern Division man was Jack Keetly, who also rode from St.
Joseph to Seneca, alternating at times with Frey and Baughn. Keetley's
greatest performance, and one of the most remarkable ever achieved in
the service, was riding from Rock Creek to St. Joseph; then back to his
starting point and on to Seneca, and from Seneca once more to Rock Creek
- three hundred and forty miles without rest. He traveled continuously
for thirty-one hours, his entire run being at the rate of eleven miles
an hour. During the last five miles of his journey, he fell asleep in
the saddle and in this manner concluded his long trip.
Don C. Rising, who afterwards settled in Northern Kansas, was born in
Painted Post, Steuben County, New York, in 1844, and came West when
thirteen years of age. He rode in the pony service nearly a year, from
November, 1860, until the line was abandoned the following October, most
of his service being rendered before he was seventeen. Much of his time
was spent running eastward out of Fort Kearney until the telegraph had
reached that point and made the operation of the Express between the
fort and St. Joseph no longer necessary. On two occasions, Rising is
said to have maintained a continuous speed of twenty miles an hour while
carrying important dispatches between Big Sandy and Rock Creek.
One rider who was well known as "Little Yank" was a boy scarcely out of
his teens and weighing barely one hundred pounds. He rode along the
Platte River between Cottonwood Springs and old Julesburg and frequently
made one hundred miles on a single trip.
Another man named Hogan, of whom little is known, rode northwesterly out
of Julesburg across the Platte and to Mud Springs, eighty miles.
Jimmy Clark rode between various stations east of Fort Kearney, usually
between Big Sandy and Hollenburg. Sometimes his run took him as far West
as Liberty Farm on the Little Blue River.
James W. Brink, or "Dock" Brink as he was known to his associates, was
one of the early riders, entering the employ of the Pony Express Company
in April, 1860. While "Dock" made a good record as a courier, his chief
fame was gained in a fight at Rock Creek station, in which Brink and
Wild Bill(3) "cleaned out" the McCandless gang of outlaws, killing five
of their number.
Charles Cliff had an eighty-mile pony run when only seventeen years of
age, but, like Brink, young Cliff gained his greatest reputation as a
fighter,—in his case fighting Indians. It seems that while Cliff was
once freighting with a small train of nine wagons, it was attacked by a
party of one hundred Sioux Indians and besieged for three days until a
larger train approached and drove the redskins away. During the
conflict, Cliff received three bullets in his body and twenty-seven in
his clothing, but he soon recovered from his injuries, and was afterward
none the less valuable to the Pony Express service.
J. G. Kelley, later a citizen of Denver, was a veteran pony man. He
entered the employ of the company at the outset, and helped
Superintendent Roberts to lay out the route across Nevada. Along the
Carson River, tiresome stretches of corduroy road had to be built.
Kelley relates that in constructing this highway willow trees were cut
near the stream and the trunks cut into the desired lengths before being
laid in place. The men often had to carry these timbers in their arms
for three hundred yards, while the mosquitoes swarmed so thickly upon
their faces and hands as to make their real color and identity hard to
At the Sink of the Carson(4), a great depression of the river on its
course through the desert, Kelley assisted in building a fort for
protecting the line against Indians. Here there were no rocks nor
timber, and so the structure had to be built of adobe mud. To get this
mud to a proper consistency, the men tramped it all day with their bare
feet. The soil was soaked with alkali, and as a result, according to
Kelley's story, their feet were swollen so as to resemble "hams."
They next erected a fort at Sand Springs, twenty miles from Carson Lake,
and another at Cold Springs, thirty-two miles east of Sand Springs. At
Cold Springs, Kelley was appointed assistant station-keeper under Jim
McNaughton. An outbreak of the Pah-Ute Indians was now in progress, and
as the little station was in the midst of the disturbed area, there was
plenty of excitement.
One night while Kelley was on guard his attention was attracted by the
uneasiness of the horses. Gazing carefully through the dim light, he saw
an Indian peering over the outer wall or stockade. The orders of the
post were to shoot every Indian that came within range, so Kelley blazed
away, but missed his man. In the morning, many tracks were found about
the place. This wild shot had probably frightened the prowlers away,
saving the station from attack, and certain destruction.
During this same morning, a Mexican pony rider came in, mortally
wounded, having been shot by the savages from ambush while passing
through a dense thicket in the vicinity known as Quaking Asp Bottom.
Although given tender care, the poor fellow died within a few hours
after his arrival. The mail was waiting and it must go. Kelley, who was
the lightest man in in the place—he weighed but one hundred pounds -
was now ordered by the boss to take the dead man's place, and go on with
the dispatches. This he did, finishing the run without further incident.
On his return trip he had to pass once more through the aspen thicket
where his predecessor had received his death wound. This was one of the
most dangerous points on the entire trail, for the road zigzagged
through a jungle, following a passage-way that was only large enough to
admit a horse and rider; for two miles a man could not see more than
thirty or forty feet ahead. Kelley was expecting trouble, and went
through like a whirlwind, at the same time holding a repeating rifle in
readiness should trouble occur. On having cleared the thicket, he drew
rein on the top of a hill, and, looking back over his course, saw the
bushes moving in a suspicious manner. Knowing there was no live stock in
that locality and that wild game rarely abounded there, he sent several
shots in the direction of the moving underbrush. The motion soon ceased,
and he galloped onward, unharmed.
A few days later, two United States soldiers, while traveling to join
their command, were ambushed and murdered in the same thicket.
This was about the time when Major Ormsby's command was massacred by the
Utes in the disaster at Pyramid Lake(5), and the Indians everywhere in
Nevada were unusually aggressive and dangerous. There were seldom more
than three or four men in the little station and it is remarkable that
Kelley and his companions were not all killed.
One of Kelley's worst rides, in addition to the episode just related,
was the stretch between Cold Springs and Sand Springs for thirty-seven
miles without a drop of water along the way.
Once, while dashing past a wagon train of immigrants, a whole fusillade
of bullets was fired at Kelley who narrowly escaped with his life. Of
course he could not stop the mail to see why he had been shot at, but on
his return trip he met the same crowd, and in unprintable language told
them what he thought of their lawless and irresponsible conduct. The
only satisfaction he could get from them in reply was the repeated
assertion, "We thought you was an Indian!"(6) Nor was Kelley the only
pony rider who took narrow chances from the guns of excited immigrants.
Traveling rapidly and unencumbered, the rider, sunburned and blackened
by exposure, must have borne on first glance no little resemblance to an
Indian; and especially would the mistake be natural to excited wagon-men
who were always in fear of dashing attacks from mounted Indians -
attacks in which a single rider would often be deployed to ride past the
white men at utmost speed in order to draw their fire. Then when their
guns were empty a hidden band of savages would make a furious onslaught.
It was the established rule of the West in those days, in case of
suspected danger, to shoot first, and make explanations afterward; to do
to the other fellow as he would do to you, and do it first!
Added to the perils of the wilderness deserts, blizzards, and wild
Indians—the pony riders, then, had at times to beware of their white
friends under such circumstances as have been narrated. And that added
to the tragical romance of their daily lives. Yet they courted danger
and were seldom disappointed, for danger was always near them.__________
(1) Root and Connelley.
(2) Pony riders often alternated "runs" with each other over their
respective divisions in the same manner as do railroad train crews at
the present time.
(3) "Wild Bill" Hickock was one of the most noted gun fighters that the
West ever produced. As marshal of Abilene, Kansas, and other wild
frontier towns he became a terror to bad men and compelled them to
respect law and order when under his jurisdiction. Probably no man has
ever equaled him in the use of the six shooter. Numerous magazine
articles describing his career can be found.
(4)Inman & Cody, Salt Lake Trail.
(6) Indians would sometimes gaze in open-mouthed wonder at the
on-rushing ponies. To some of them, the "pony outfit" was "bad medicine"
and not to be molested. There was a certain air of mystery about the
wonderful system and untiring energy with which the riders followed
their course. Unfortunately, a majority of the red men were not always
content to watch the Express in simple wonder. They were too frequently
bent upon committing deviltry to refrain from doing harm whenever they
had a chance.
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