Riders of the Pony Express

Brief Description: Rider-by-rider portayal of inaugural Pony Express ride, which Moody portrays as a race between east- and west-bound riders.

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Historical Era:

Date Range: 1860-1861

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Original Publication: 1958

Suitable for Grades: 4-8th

Target Audience: Middle Grade, Teen

Librarian's Review

Although it ran for only eighteen months, the Pony Express looms large in our collective imagination of the American West. It was a risky business venture, undertaken to reduce the communication time between the gold rush population of California and points east of the Misssissippi. This was understood to be important to keep California in the fold of the Union as civil war sentiment was brewing to the east. After some months of planning the route, supplying horses, and manning the relay stations, the Pony Express was ready to roll on April 3, 1860.

In Ralph Moody’s telling, the first run was staged as a race between east- and west-bound riders, with each side chomping at the bit to demonstrate superior horsemanship, bravery, and endurance. The first rider to reach the midway point at the Utah-Wyoming border would bring honor to his side. In the manner of a modern sports announcer, Moody brings this exciting ride to life by depicting a rider-by-rider, pony-by-pony, station-by-station account. Enduring bad weather, rough terrain, exhaustion (both for pony and rider), a few ill-prepared horses, and lack of cooperation from Native Americans, the riders all prevailed with courage and grit. There would be no grand celebration at the midway point however; the mail would still have to be carried forth in a race against time.

Native Americans caused considerable trouble for the Pony Express, and Moody mostly dismisses their perspective with an attitude probably typical for his day, the book first published in 1958. He briefly mentions that abuse at the hands of gold- and silver-seekers in Nevada led to resentment among the Paiute, making the Nevada stretch of the route one of the most dangerous. The Paiute defended their territory by staging ambushes on riders, destroying relay stations, killing station keepers and stealing horses. Moody depicts these events by detailing the exhausting ride of Jay Kelley, who rode into many abandoned stations and was forced to keep going on the same horse, then after a few hours rest at the next station, had to take over from an incoming rider because no other replacement was available. Kelley heroically rode for 238 miles in 24 hours. Kelley and the other riders were indeed brave western heroes, but more sensitivity toward the indigenous people would be expected in a modern retelling.

Moody closes this book with lively details of Pony Express rider “Pony Bob” Haslam helping to deliver President Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address to California, which the author conjectures may have preserved the important state’s place on the winning side of the Civil War. Black and white drawings illuminate the action, hand drawn route maps mark the location of relay stations and show each rider’s section on that first go, and an index round out the educational material. For a bit of fun, I recommend Google doodle’s addictive simple Pony Express game for its 155th commemoration that can be found here.

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