History Friday: The Wild Ride of Pony Bob Haslam

The most famous want-ad in the history of the Wild West appeared in a California newspaper in 1860: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

What restless, fit and daring male teenager could resist? Besides considerable prestige, the Pony Express job paid north of $100 a month, or more depending – a higher rate of pay than for all but those at an executive-level for the transcontinental freighting company of Russell, Majors & Waddell. The Pony Express service was initiated partly as a stunt to attract public attention and partly for a deadly serious purpose; to fill in the communications gap between the established United States (Northern Division) and the outposts in the Far West – California, Oregon, Nevada and Utah – as a transcontinental telegraph line was being surveyed and constructed. The riders carried nothing valuable in their mochilas; only the mail, and newspaper dispatches; they depended for their safety on the speed of their horses, and perhaps a pair of Navy Colt revolvers in saddle holsters. Company policy was that riders would not engage in careless gunplay. Indeed, their horses – many of them pedigreed and in superlative condition – and those revolvers were the only items tempting the larcenous to even consider attacking a Pony Express rider.

The riders eventually hired did tend to be young; one began work at the age of eleven, and they did tend to be light of build physically. There was no uniform dress provided, although the straight-arrow member of their employer triad, Alexander Majors, did insist on them swearing an oath of teetotality, and also to abjure swearing and fighting with other employees. It was a prestigious thing, to be a rider for the Pony Express; both ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and ‘Buffalo Bill’ William Cody later claimed to have been Pony Express riders. Hickok was a stage station employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, and William Cody was a messenger, but neither of them were on strength as transcontinental express riders during the brief glory year of the Pony Express. The riders gained fame for spectacular feats of endurance; one of them was English-born Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam. He participated in the record-breaking feat of transmitting the written copy of Lincoln’s first inaugural address from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in seven days and seventeen hours. But that wasn’t Pony Bob’s most hazardous drive.

In 1861 Pony Bob was by the skin of his teeth, twenty-one years old, riding a hundred and seventeen mile segment between Smith Creek and Fort Churchill, Nevada. Today that is in the neighborhood of Carson City, but in that year it was a most dangerous transit. Paiute Indians were raiding express stations and attacking travelers, in revenge for a particularly egregious offense involving stage station employees. Pony Bob had very good reason for caution, coming up on those places along his route where hostiles could lie in ambush. The initial leg of his long run passed without incident, but when he came to Cold Spring Station, he personally selected his horse for the next leg. His choice fell on a wily mustang named Old Buck, who had a reputation for sensing the presence of Indians. Just short of the next station, at Middle Gate, Old Buck’s ears suddenly twitched and the horse snorted. Alerted, Pony Bob gave Old Buck his head. A quick burst of speed, just as a small band of Paiute warriors burst from cover. A scattering of arrows and bullets whistled past – but Pony Bob and Old Buck were out of range and moving fast. Unfortunately, Old Buck had already run at a good pace for miles. Ordinarily, the Paiute mustangs wouldn’t have been able to match any Pony Express horse in a race, but some of the warriors had better horses, gotten from raids on the Express relay station remudas. Pony Bob couldn’t outrun them this time.

He dropped Old Buck’s reins and drew the two revolvers from their saddle holsters. He turned with a revolver in each hand as his closest pursuers launched another volley of arrows. Pony Bob took aim as carefully as he could, considering the situation – not at the foremost Piute warrior, but the larger target of his horse. The horse staggered and fell, just as an arrow struck Pony Bob’s left arm, with just enough punch to sink into the flesh. He holstered the revolver in his right hand, and tore the arrow loose. Now the trail led through a narrow ravine, just wide enough for a single rider at a dead gallop. With the revolver in his good hand, Pony Bob fired several shots at the closest horse behind him. Success – the horse went down and the next-closest horse collided dead-on. Two horses, two deadly pursuers down, but a single Piute on a nimble horse jumped the tangle of bodies blocking the ravine. One final shot from Pony Bob and that one went down as well – but not before an arrow struck Bob Haslam in the face. It fractured his jaw and loosened several teeth – but horse and rider were nearly safe at the Middle Gate Station. As soon as his face and arm were bandaged up, Pony Bob Haslam mounted a fresh horse and carried on to Fort Churchill. Not for nothing were the express riders paid high wages for doing dangerous routes. Later that year, in May, he made the single longest round-trip run by an Express rider; 380 miles in thirty-six hours. After his brief turn with the Pony Express, he continued working for Wells, Fargo & Company, as a US Marshall in Salt Lake City and as a scout for the U.S. Army. He died of natural causes – probably much to his surprise – in 1912.

As was always expected from day one of the Pony Express service, it would soon be replaced. All the while that the young riders galloped at break-neck speed east and west, work crews were setting up poles and stringing the ‘singing wires’ for the transcontinental telegraph. Like the railway, two separate companies began at opposite ends and worked towards each other. On the 22nd of October, 1861, they connected the final wire, and the first message from San Francisco was received in New York. “The Pacific to the Atlantic sends greeting; and may both oceans be dry before a foot of all the land that lies between them shall belong to any other than one united country.” No longer would news take weeks or months to cross the continent. Newspapers in Denver, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City would have the word to their readers of the great battles and events of the Civil War as readily as those back east.

6 thoughts on “History Friday: The Wild Ride of Pony Bob Haslam”

  1. although the straight-arrow member of their employer triad, Alexander Majors, did insist on them swearing an oath of teetotality, and also to abjure swearing and fighting with other employees

    I believe had I been a rider subject to Indian attacks I would be spending some time in a saloon.

    Today you can see the ruins of Ft Churchill – mainly adobe foundations – but it casts an eerie presence.

    I think the Pony Express lasted all of a couple of years.

    Interesting too, that for the transcontinental railroad and the Pony Express, the end was Sacramento, not San Francisco which was probably still called Yerba Buena.

    Sgt Mom – have you read much of Bodie? Today it is a state park, kept in “arrested decay”. It was supposed to be the roughest town in the West, including Texas – where a morning didn’t go by before someone had a “man for breakfast”. A little girl, whose family moved to Bodie, wrote a letter saying “Goodbye God, I’,m going to Bodie”

    Come out this way and you can go on one of my First Sunday Drives through the gold country. I can make special dispensation if you don’t have a car of the required marque ;-

  2. Well, Bill – the riders on the most dangerous routes did get additional hazard pay. So Russell, Majors and Waddell were fair in that respect. The Pony Express lasted barely a year – it was a stop-gap measure, in part because of the Civil War. The far-west territories simply had to have word of what was going on, in a timely fashion, until the telegraph line was completed. Russell, Majors and Waddell went bust over the project, but they believed that it had saved the Union none the less.

    I know about Bodie – and have heard about that little girl. Some said that her letter could have been construed to say; “Good – by God, I’m going to Bodie!”

    At some point, I will make enough from my books to indulge in a trip out west – and then I will accept your very kind invitation!

  3. Very neat little background story on the Pony Express. I had never heard about the high pay those young men got.

  4. He died of natural causes – probably much to his surprise

    Great line.
    Seems to be the sentiment of a lot of your characters

  5. Thanks, Mom. Always planting seeds of curiosity. Seems like kind of a hare-brained idea. “Orphans preferred-Must have death wish.”
    Wiki says Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved “by the help of God” to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a Bible and required this oath:

    “While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not to use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.”

    Hollywood made a movie about the Pony Express. Maintaining Hollywood’s tradition of historical accuracy, the movie contained horses. Helluva opening scene with Charlton Heston, though, if I remember correctly.

  6. Thanks, Joe – they were quite well paid, considering. But setting up and maintaining the extra stations turned out to be an expense that broke Russell, Majors and Waddell. They already had established stage stations, but they needed to add more, since the Pony Express horses ran at a dead gallop, and could only keep up that pace for about ten or fifteen miles or so. The stages had teams of six horses and went at not quite such a cracking pace. IIRC, the stage stations were about 25 to thirty miles apart – but at every stage and Pony Express station there had to be a manager, hands, extra horses and all. In Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’, there is a description of the Pony Express rider overtaking the stage that he and his brother were traveling west on.
    Gurray, very true, considering the various hairsbredth escapes which some of them had!
    Cris, very true about Majors; considering all the dangers involved with drinking, gambling and fighting with co-workers, requiring such an oath was probably pretty sensible. He also saw the Express as something utterly essential in keeping the far west tied to the North as the Civil War began. The effort bankrupted the company – but I don’t think Majors regretted it, considering what was at stake. A very public spirited man, too; one of the best of the Victorians.

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