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Saturday, January 3rd, 2004


Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express

by Christopher Corbett

A review by Doug Brown

History is an uncertain endeavor at best, and myth at worst. The more popular the subject, the more mythological chaff historians have to sift out. Some researchers will choose which bits of data they believe are accurate, string them like beads onto a narrative, and call it history. More open historians will present all the data and offer differing scenarios. The problem is, the former usually makes for better reading. The latter types of histories are usually dry data catalogs, criticized for failing to take a guess at the "right answer."

Not so Orphans Preferred. Corbett demonstrates the imprecise nature of history right off by telling the story of the first pony express rider leaving St. Joseph from all known sources. His lively style carries you through the morass of differing opinions, beginning with the first words: "This is how the story goes." The first rider's name was Johnny Frey, or Fry, or Freye, or possibly it was Alex Carlyle, or maybe Henry Wallace. He was wearing a bright red shirt, or it was a drum major's uniform, though some say it was buckskin. Corbett takes over:

Well, whoever was riding, or galloping, or cantering, or racing, or trotting, we are quite certain he was on a horse, although some of the riders rode mules. It was either a sorrel, a black, a bay, or...there is some disagreement over the horse, too.

Thus begins the fascinating tale of the famed pony express, which only existed for eighteen months, from spring 1860 to fall 1861. Completion of the transcontinental telegraph put it out of business overnight. Even during operation, it was a losing venture. Most people couldn't afford the $5 charge to send a letter, so the majority of communications carried were business briefs. Very little about the express was recorded at the time; what little is known was mostly written long after the fact, and is thus prone to... let's say "embellishment."

This embellishment is the main theme of Orphans Preferred. While some historians might consider a data set like the pony express an embarrassment of riches to be weeded out, Corbett makes it the topic of the book. How did an unsuccessful company that lasted for a shorter period of time than a reality television show become so widely mythologized? The evolution of the myth occupies much of the second half of the book, and along the way many other legends of the west are cut down to size.

Corbett has a good ear, and often lets his sources speak for themselves. The quotes are always vivid, sometimes grueling, sometimes dryly amusing. Consider the Pyramid Lake Indian War, which initially had nothing to do with Indians. A white man murdered a stationmaster and his brother, but the locals all assumed natives were responsible and spent the next five days killing all of them they could find. In the aftermath Dan DeQuille wrote this prescient observation:

How humiliating to look back over the work of the past five days, and see what disaster to business, what disgrace to our national character, what widespread prejudice to our interests and honor, if not danger to our citizens, are sure to ensue when timid, untruthful and inexperienced men get control of, and give directions to public affairs!

Then there is Dr. C. M. Clark's account of a stagecoach ride along the same route the pony express took, which ranks with Obi-Wan Kenobi's account of Mos Eisley spaceport among the best insults of a group of reprobates: "Clark found his overland route in Kansas and Nebraska 'inhabited by as scurvy a set of bipeds as ever demoralized any community...'"

Aren't words great? Perhaps taking a cue from its subject, Orphans Preferred is a quick read but memorable. You'll never watch westerns about the pony express the same way again.

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