Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express
Fame, Truth, and Inventing the West
By TOM REA
Buffalo Bill Cody was just fourteen years old, so the story goes, when he made his world-famous ride for the Pony Express. Leaving Red Buttes on the North Platte River near present Casper, he galloped 76 miles west to Three Crossings on the Sweetwater River. His route took him along what we now call the Oregon-California-Mormon Trail. There was a station—at least a rough cabin and a horse corral--along the road every 12 miles or so. At each station, Buffalo Bill would have jumped off his sweaty horse and onto a fresh one. As he dismounted, he drew the mochila—the leather saddle cover with special pockets for the mail—from the saddle, and threw it over the saddle of the horse the wrangler brought up. This happened in a matter of seconds. There was no time to lose.
The Pony Express began in the spring of 1860 and lasted for 18 months. Its purpose was to get the U.S. Mail across the country as fast as possible. California, a state since 1850, was filling up with white people. The forces that soon would lead to civil war were pulling the nation apart. If the United States was going to hold together, there had to be fast, reliable communication between the west coast and the centers of power in the east.
When he got to Three Crossings, the story goes on, Buffalo Bill found that Miller, the rider who was to take over for him, had been killed the night before in a drunken brawl.
“I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of 85 miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time,” Buffalo Bill remembered many years later. Rocky Ridge was near South Pass. There, another rider would have picked up the westbound mail young Bill delivered. But the eastbound mail needed a carrier, too, to take it back the way he had just come. Bill volunteered, again. When he got back to Three Crossings, the same man was of course still dead, and so Bill again transferred the mochila, and galloped back again to Red Buttes. The entire distance, supposedly, was 322 miles. [The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, 104-105]
All in all, it was a thrilling ride, made by a valiant boy who was a great horseman all his life. By the time he was 50, in fact, Buffalo Bill was the most famous man in America. His Pony Express ride was one of the reasons for his stardom.
But Bill had things mixed up. For one thing, Three Crossings and Rocky Ridge only 25 miles apart, not 85. For a second thing, much more important, he never did make the famous ride. In fact, William F. Cody never rode for the Pony Express at all.
Young Will Cody was born into a middle-class family on the Iowa frontier. After moving to Kansas in the 1850s, the family was thrust into poverty by the violence that then was leading up to the Civil War. Will Cody’s father, Isaac, was a surveyor, a founder of towns, a real-estate investor, and a locator of land claims. During a dispute during a political meeting, a pro-slavery sympathizer stabbed him. He never recovered entirely from his wounds, and died three years later. Young Will, meanwhile, had to find work to help support his mother and sisters. When he was just 11 years old (below) he took a job carrying messages on horseback for the freighting firm of Majors and Russell. He rode from the company’s offices in the town of Leavenworth to the telegraph office at Fort Leavenworth, three miles away.
Majors and Russell soon became Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the largest transportation company in the West, owning stagecoaches, thousands of freight wagons, tens of thousands of horses, oxen, and mules to pull them, and a network of stations, corrals and employees all across the West. This was the company that started the Pony Express system in 1860. Because young Will had worked for them briefly when he was 11, it may not have seemed to him such a stretch later to claim he had in fact ridden for the Pony Express when he was 14.
Will Cody’s real teenage years were troubling, not thrilling. When Congress made Kansas a territory in 1854, it left it up to the people there to decide whether to allow slavery. Armed men poured in, some supporting slavery, some opposed to it. Elections were violent and crooked. For a time, “bleeding Kansas,” as it was called, had two territorial legislatures. One supported slavery, one opposed it, and each claimed to be the legal, rightful, lawmaking body of the territory.
During the late 1850s, Will Cody did take jobs driving horses and wagons to places as far away as Fort Laramie and Denver. During the 18 months of 1860 and ’61, when the Pony Express was a going concern, he was in school in Leavenworth. It would have been impossible for him to be riding back and forth across central Wyoming at the same time, on the Sweetwater Division of the Pony Express. [See Gray, “Fact Versus Fiction.”]
The Civil War broke out nationwide in the spring of 1861. Sometime in 1862 young Will, consumed by a desire to avenge his father’s death, joined the Kansas Redlegs, an anti-slavery militia. These men and boys were not regular soldiers. They were unpaid, and lived only off what they could steal. Mostly they stole horses and burned farms. More even than other militias in Kansas and Missouri, the Redlegs were criminals. They paid little attention to whether the families whose farms they burned were pro- or antislavery, or pro- or anti-union. Young Will Cody rode with them for about a year and a half.
Later in the war, he joined a regular Kansas regiment of the Union Army, and his soldiering became more respectable. After the war, he worked in western Kansas for a meat contractor that provided food for crews building the Kansas Pacific Railroad across Kansas. His job was to kill buffalo. He became known as Buffalo Bill, one of several hunters on the plains with that nickname at the time. He also became friends with a man who held various police jobs in the towns of western Kansas—James Butler Hickock, better known as Wild Bill. Hickock became suddenly famous in 1867, when a reporter wrote an article about him in Harper’s Weekly, a national magazine.
Soon, both Bills were the heroes of so-called dime novels. Authors of these cheaply made, pulp-paper books used Hickock’s and Cody’s real names but made up their thrilling adventures. Part of the fun for the readers was separating fact from fiction—guessing what was true in the stories and what wasn’t. Cody understood this. By the early 1870s, Hickock, Cody, a friend named Texas Jack Omohundro (left to right, at right), and Jack’s Italian-born wife, Giuseppina Morlacchi, were appearing together during the winters in stage plays around the West. Many of these they wrote themselves. The plays were full of scrapes, escapes, daring rides, fights, rescues, noble heroes, and evil villains—the same kind of stuff that thrilled the dime-novel readers.
At the same time, the Indian wars on the plains were going full tilt. The U.S. Army always needed expert help to find its Indian enemies. Most of this work was done by other Indians, and by mixed-blood men. These were generally fluent at least in English and their mothers’ Indian languages, which made them useful as interpreters. But because of their race, the white officers were never entirely comfortable around them.
Cody was smart and friendly. The officers liked him because of this, because he liked to drink whiskey and tell stories, and because he was white. But Cody also was comfortable around Indians in a way that most white officers were not. When it came time to chase Indian enemies, Cody stuck close to the Indian scouts and stayed out ahead of the troops. When the enemy was found, Cody could take the credit for the discovery.
Soon the officers were praising him in their official reports and in their conversations with newspaper reporters. And they passed his name along to rich men looking for a guide for hunting trips. When General Philip Sheridan arranged for Grand Duke Alexis, son of the Tsar of Russia, to come hunt buffalo in 1872, he made sure his favorite officer, George A. Custer, was along on the trip, and that Cody was the guide. Through mutual friends, Cody persuaded Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule Lakotas, to visit the hunting camp in western Nebraska with a number of warriors and their families. To entertain the bigwigs, the Indians staged large dances and killed buffalo with bows and arrows from horseback. The newspapers loved it.
Cody was learning a lot about fame. He continued his two-way life, appearing in plays in the winter and scouting for the Army in the summers. He took part in a few skirmishes in the Indian wars, and they became part of his plays. Eventually, too, he wore his stage costumes when he went out on campaign. A few weeks after Custer’s defeat and death on the Little Bighorn in 1876, Cody was scouting with the Fifth Cavalry in Western Nebraska. He was wearing a silver-trimmed, black velvet suit when, more or less by accident, he encountered a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hair. In the skirmish Cody killed him, and scalped him on the spot. He sent Yellow Hair’s scalp, warbonnet, shield, and weapons home to his wife in Rochester, New York, where it was displayed in a store window. Again, the newspapers loved it. “First scalp for Custer!” they trumpeted, meaning, Cody’s was the first act of real revenge after the Custer fight. This event, too, found its way into the plays and the dime novels.
In 1879, when he was 33 years old, Cody published his autobiography. It smoothed the stories of his early life, and expanded his stock-driving jobs, supposed Pony Express service, and Indian skirmishes into dramas of frontier nerve, pluck, and progress. About this time, with the Indian wars on the plains all but over, with the buffalo nearly gone and the plains filling up with cattle, Cody must have realized that the demand for his scouting skills would only continue to shrink. But still, America was hungry for the other half of Cody’s skills—his skills in show business. There were important things to understand about the West even as it was changing so fast.
In 1883 Cody and a partner named William "Doc" Carver put together a traveling show that was part pageant, part circus, part rodeo, part parade, and part huge, open-air drama. It was built out of the same thrilling dime-novel and stage-play episodes Cody now knew as well as the episodes of his own life.
Versions of this show ran for more than 30 years, from 1883 to 1916. All over North America and Europe, audiences loved it. In the earlier years, Cody found the most efficient way to make money was to park the show in a single spot near a large city—on Staten Island across the harbor from New York, for example, or in a 30-acre field outside Paris—and let the crowds come to him. In later years, after the show became well known, the production had to travel constantly to find audiences still new enough to want to pay to come.
The show featured mounted Indians attacking a stagecoach, or attacking a wagon train, and Indians attacking and burning a settler’s cabin, with the settlers rescued at the last minute by a band of mounted men led by Buffalo Bill. The company included as many as 650 people in the largest years—cowboys, Indians, buffalo soldiers, sharpshooters, trick riders and trick ropers, as well as cooks, wranglers, animal trainers, and all the laborers needed to set up, take down and move the show.
Indians played themselves. In 1885 they included Sitting Bull, victor of the Little Bighorn. Other well-known chiefs and warriors took part over the years, too, among them Spotted Tail, Red Shirt, and Standing Bear. The show even featured a pretend buffalo hunt.
Thanks to Buffalo Bill, all these events became central to America’s ideas--and the world's ideas--about how the West got settled. For decades after Cody’s death in 1917, they showed up and still show up in Western novels and especially in Western movies. Year after year, and decade after decade, the show seemed thrillingly real to its audiences. The word “show” was never in the show’s actual title. It was called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” as though people could depend on it as the genuine article.
And year after year, decade after decade, the opening act was the one many found most thrilling of all: the Pony Express. A rider galloped at full speed down to the grandstand, and reined his pony back onto its haunches, front feet pawing the air. The rider leapt to the ground, lifted the mochila onto the next horse, and was off again at a full gallop. The crowd was left breathless. Then it burst into cheers and applause.
In their programs, audiences could read all about Buffalo Bill’s adventures. What did it matter if they were true or not? They seemed true. Cody’s genius lay in giving the nation what it needed to hear. But in the end, the world caught up with him. His debts were so large that he lost his show in 1913. He toured with other shows through 1916, and died broke in 1917.
As Wyoming moved into the 20th Century and became a beautiful version of the West for the world to visit, the state copied many of the promotional skills Cody had learned. Whether that was a good thing—or whether Wyoming, as Cody did, sometimes confuses its real self with the version it wants to offer the world—is a question worth pondering. Either way, the world will keep changing, even faster than Cody’s did.
Buffalo Bill. The life of Hon. William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, the famous hunter, scout, and guide: an autobiography. Hartford, Conn.: Frank E. Bliss, 1879. Republished in a facsimile edition, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. Cody’s account of his supposed experiences with the Pony Express are on pages 90-92 and 103-125.
The McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center maintains a rich storehouse of material related to the Wild West show—show programs, Cody’s correspondence, posters, etc. (See for example the Programme de la Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Company from the show’s six-month stay in Paris in1889, MS6, Series VI:A, Box 1. On p. 18, the program includes the name of Wyoming cowboy Clabe Young. See my article, A Detective Gets His Man, for more on Clabe's scrapes with the law.)
Gray, John S. “Fact Versus Fiction in the Kansas Boyhood of Buffalo Bill.” Kansas History, Vol. 8 No. 1, Spring, 1985. Pp. 2-20. Some scholars had long been skeptical, but Gray, in this thorough and thoughtful article, was the first to show that Cody never rode for the Pony Express at all. See
Hedren, Paul L. “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Spring, 2005. This article is mostly about the art inspired over the years by Cody’s “duel” with Yellow Hair.
McMurtry, Larry. The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 20005. A short, readable book by a master storyteller who is affectionately tolerant of the foibles of his subjects.
Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. The first full-fledged biography of Cody in 45 years and the best in print. Warren leans on Gray (see above) in his conclusion that Cody never rode with the Pony Express.
The Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s website is excellent, packed with information and links of all kinds. But be careful—the site still reports Cody’s time with the Pony Express as a fact. (Click on "Life of Buffalo Bill," at the timeline of his life.) But see also how BBHC historian Paul Fees navigates the question without coming down on either side.
For an unflattering view of the Kansas Redlegs, watch The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring Clint Eastwood. Copies are in most Wyoming libraries or at your video store.
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody.
A great place to visit either alone or in a group, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody is really five museums—The Buffalo Bill Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Draper Museum of Natural History, the Plains Indian Museum, and the Buffalo Bill Museum, plus the McCracken Research Library, noted above. Of the six parts, the Buffalo Bill Museum is most directly connected to Cody and his Wild West show. Group tours are available.
Pony express route, Central Wyoming.
To follow a dramatic piece of the Pony Express route in central Wyoming, head west from Casper and Mills, Wyoming on Zero Road, through low hills at Emigrant Gap, and past the Poison Spider School. About a mile west of the school, turn left on Natrona County 319, a dirt road that follows the Oregon Trail/Pony Express route closely for about thirty miles. The county road joins state Highway 220 about five miles east of Independence Rock. The trail crosses the whole state. Detailed trail guides are available at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, WY.
CREDITS:You can read Elmer Sherwood's entire Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express online. The photos of young Will Cody, of Hickok, Omohundro, and Cody, and the poster of Buffalo Bill are all from the website of the Buffalo Bill museum and grave in Golden, Colorado. The photo of Cody in a gondola in Venice with four Indians from the Wild West show—American Horse is in the stern, and the other Indian in a warbonnet is Long Bear—is #NS-136 in the Denver Public Library’s excellent collection of photos from the show. This was probably taken in 1890.