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Review: The truth behind the Pony Express

L.D. Meagher

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Mark Twain

(CNN) -- Everything you know about the Pony Express is wrong. Indeed, everything anyone knows about the Pony Express is either an exaggeration or a myth.

So says Christopher Corbett, a veteran journalist, who went looking for the truth about the legendary enterprise. He didn't always find it. Instead, he found a wonderful story.

The title of his account, "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express" (Broadway Books), offers a strong hint about how that story unfolds. As fascinating as the facts are, the legends that have grown up around "the Pony" are the heart of its appeal.

Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, the Pony Express was first and foremost a business. While the riders who sliced across the western half of the continent had their share of adventures, they had a job to do. They were employed by one of the largest companies in America: Russell, Majors and Waddell, an important freight hauler that also outfitted wagon trains for the great westward migration of the mid-1800's.

The Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company (its formal name) wasn't even the first "pony express." But it was the most ambitious, covering nearly 2,000 miles of largely uninhabited territory in what is now eight states.

And it didn't work. After 18 money-losing months, the enterprise folded, displaced by the first cross-country telegraph line.

Enveloped in myth

Even so, the Pony Express was seared into the public imagination, with the assistance of writers like Mark Twain and Sir Richard Burton, both of whom traveled the West while it was operating.

The great showman Buffalo Bill Cody cemented its place in the story of the Wild West. A re-enactment of a Pony Express ride was a staple of his Wild West extravaganza. Cody claimed to be a rider for the Pony Express (even though he was only 14 at the time) and the claim was more elaborately embroidered over the years. His sister, Helen Cody Wetmore, added some more flourishes in her biography of Buffalo Bill.

"Cody's sister's memory of her brother's riding is more than slightly flawed," Corbett writes. "She remembers him riding three times a day for three months. No one rode that kind of schedule. There were only weekly cross-country mails at first and then twice-weekly dispatches. ... Cody's sister recalls how young Billy wrote home with an exciting account of his days riding for the Pony, but Alexander Majors [one of the owners] recalls that the boy was illiterate ..."

For all the debunking he achieves, the author maintains a genuine respect for the role the Pony Express plays in the public memory of a bygone era. It produced real-life heroes, like Pony Bob Haslam, and inspired a host of wannabes, including Wild Bill Hickok. It has come to symbolize the distinctly American attitude of "true grit."

Corbett captures the romance of the time and the people who gave it a romantic air. "Orphans Preferred" is a rollicking tale of frontiersmen, showmen, hustlers, hucksters and frauds.

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