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EGAN, Howard

This article previously appeared in Pioneer Magazine, 2010 Vol.57 No.2

Utah Pioneer with the Pony Express

by Doran Baker, Utah Historical Society

The end of days on Earth for Howard Egan came while he yet watched over his beloved prophet. From the window of a specially constructed guardhouse he periodically kept a lookout on Brigham Young’s grave from what became “the Avenues” overlooking the Eagle Gate, Brigham’s home, and the Temple then under construction in Salt Lake City.1

Having been soaked in a storm, Egan took a chill and became ill. He passed away March 15, 1878, at the age of 63, barely six months later than the death of President Young himself. Captain Egan’s remains were interred at the nearby Salt Lake City Cemetery.2

Howard Egan’s service in guarding his prophets began in Illinois as a member of the Nauvoo police force, a major in the Nauvoo Legion, and as one of Joseph Smith’s bodyguards. Following their marriage on December 1, 1839, in Salem, Massachusetts, Howard and wife Tamson Ransom were baptized by Elder Erastus Snow into the LDS church in 1842.3 Afterwards they moved to Nauvoo, where Egan ran a successful rope-making business, a trade which he learned as a sailor in New England after coming to America via Canada in 1823.

Egan was on a mission in New Hampshire at the time of the murder of Joseph Smith. Later Egan joined the 1846 exodus across the Mississippi River to Winter Quarters on the exposed west bank of the Missouri River in the Territory of Iowa. Captain Egan brought with him the “Battle of Nauvoo” cannon called “Old Sow.” From there Egan was sent by Brigham Young as a special messenger to the Mormon Battalion. He accompanied John D. Lee to bring back the pay of the men for the Church and their families. With a wagon drawn by a span of mules, they overtook the 2nd Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers at the crossing of the Cimarron River in New Mexico on September 17 to go with the Army’s march to Santa Fe. Lee and Egan arrived back at Winter Quarters on November 1st.4

In 1847, Egan was selected as Captain of the 4th Fifty and the 9th Ten of the original Pioneer companies in the exodus to the Great Salt Lake Valley. As they neared their destination, Brigham Young became ill and asked Egan to serve as his nurse and enter the Valley with him on July 24. After his group was settled, Captain Egan returned to Winter Quarters to be with his family during the 1847–48 winter.5

In 1848, the now State of Iowa ordered the Mormons to vacate Winter Quarters. Howard Egan served as a Captain and took along family members in Heber C. Kimball’s train of 662 people with 226 wagons which departed on May 24.6

About two weeks after the departure of the Saints from Winter Quarters, Omaha tribe warriors raided the camp of the Kimball wagon train near the confluence of the Elkhorn River with the Platte River. In the skirmish Captain Egan, who was fearless, used his six-shooter to kill two of the attackers, one of whom had leveled his rifle intending to shoot Kimball. The Indians had already shot Thomas Ricks, son of Joel Ricks, in the back. Egan himself was wounded by a ball that struck his right arm just above his wrist. His horse was hit in the neck. Dr. John Bernhisel treated Egan’s rifle ball wound, which included a severe cut to the thumb and finger cords of his hand. His wife, Tamson, had to take over driving the family’s wagon.

“The mail must go. Hurled by flesh and blood across 2,000 miles of desolate space—Fort Kearney, Laramie, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City. Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains and Indians, burning sands or snow must stop the precious bags. The mail must go.” – M. Jefferson Thompson, Mayor of St. Joseph, Missouri, April 3, 1860, before the inaugural ride of the Pony Express

In the afternoon of September 24, 1848, the wagons of the Heber C. Kimball train rumbled into Great Salt Lake City.7 They corralled on City Creek.

In 1849 Egan once again returned East to bring his second wife, Nancy, and her daughter, Helen, to Great Salt Lake Valley. For the third time, Captain Egan piloted a wagon train company. He brought with him the Church’s press on which the Frontier Guardian was printed.

The fall of 1850, Howard Egan was sent by President Young to lead a company of forty-niners, including Battalion Captain Jefferson Hunt and Apostle Charles C. Rich, to Placerville near Sacramento in the region where gold had been discovered on January 24, 1848, by Mormons working for Captain John Augustus Sutter.

Egan was away on many trips driving cattle to California. In 1851, having been away for a considerable time, he returned to Great Salt Lake City only to learn from his penitent plural wife that she had been seduced by a disaffected Mormon from Utica, New York, now living in Utah. Further exacerbating the situation, his wife was giving birth to an illegitimate child. Captain Egan set out to track down the culprit, one James Monroe. He found him near Silver Spring, 10 miles west of Bear River in eastern Utah. Monroe was returning from the frontier with wagons carrying merchandise for John and Enoch Reese. Monroe, having failed to heed warnings that Egan was after him, was confronted and shot dead.8

Egan turned himself in. His case was dismissed when on October 3 First District Court Justice Brandenburg abandoned his post and fled back East. Nonetheless, two weeks later Howard Egan turned himself in again and was arraigned before Mormon Justice Zerubbable Snow. Seth M. Blair was the prosecutor and Mormon Apostle George A. Smith and William W. Phelps served as the defense attorneys. This was the first murder trial convened in Utah Territory. The trial jury on October 18 returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

On March 6, 1852, using the Egan case as a precedent, the Utah Territorial Legislature passed the Justifiable Homicide Act. The Act provided that it would be justifiable homicide for a relative to kill the person who had defiled a wife.In September, 1852, Captain Egan scouted a Central Overland Route between Great Salt Lake City and San Francisco while delivering Pacific Express Company packages to Sacramento on mule-back. It took 11 days to traverse the 500 miles.

On September 19, 1852, Captain Egan departed Great Salt Lake City on mule-back to deliver Pacific Express Company packages to Sacramento. It took 11 days to traverse the 500 miles. Colonel George W. Chorpenning, Jr., and Absalom Woodward had established an overland stagecoach line under an 1851 government mail contract. The result was that Egan scouted a Central Overland Route between Great Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Egan’s route was in contrast to that of the Oregon Trail to the north and the Santa Fe Trail to the south.

When Captain James H. Simpson of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859 was ordered to map a road from Camp Floyd to Genoa at the California border, he recommended the route scouted by Captain Egan. This became the Overland Trail for the stagecoaches, the Pony Express, and subsequently the telegraph, the railroad, and the “Lincoln Highway.” However, Salt Lake City wanted itself instead of Ely to be the hub where the fork in the highway divided traffic going to Los Angeles or to San Francisco. Therefore, Utah subsidized Highway 40 to go right through the Salt Flats instead of along the old Pony Express Trail.

In 1855, and for several years thereafter, Howard Egan was employed by Livingston & Kincaid of Great Salt Lake City to purchase cattle and drive them to California.9 Prior to losing his government mail contract and before the Pony Express was organized, Chorpenning hired Egan to superintend his overland stage mail route between Great Salt Lake City and the Humboldt River. Egan established his headquarters at Deep Creek.

In the spring of 1858 General Albert Sidney Johnston’s troops approached Utah with what at the time constituted nearly a third of the entire U.S. Army. Howard Egan was appointed as a major in the Nauvoo Legion together with Lot Smith to guard the mountain passes. He left his son, 16-year-old Richard Erastus “Ras” Egan, in charge of the Egan Salt Lake home. His instructions were to burn the house if the soldiers occupied the City. Major Egan served as a bodyguard for Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who journeyed to Washington, D.C., to achieve a peaceful settlement of the “Utah War.” Following the accord between the federal government and Utah, the U.S. Army encamped at Camp Floyd in Rush Valley. Ras Egan was hired by the government to carry mail between Great Salt Lake City and Brigham City.

At about this time, 1858–1859, the John Petee House opened as a hotel at St. Joseph on the east bank of the Missouri River. This building would serve as an eastern terminus and headquarters for the Pony Express. In western Utah Territory, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell established a Station near Shell (or Schell) Creek that would later be called the Egan Station.10

In 1859, Howard Egan purchased a ranch in Ruby Valley, on the Egan Trail, in western Utah Territory. Here he opened a store and then another store at Deer Creek (to the west). His son, Ras was placed in charge of three 6-mule teams carrying freight and mail between Great Salt Lake City and Carson City.11 Ras accompanied the superintendent of Indian Affairs to make a treaty with the Shoshone Tribe in the Humboldt River area.

Russell had planned the horse mail transport system expecting a government mail contract. Russell, Majors and Waddell had already set up a passenger and freight business in competition with the government-favored Butterfield Overland Express. Russell did not readily obtain government assistance, so he financed a “Pony Express” operation using his own resources. In February 1860, Russell and his partners organized under the name Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company.

With great whoopla, the “Pony Mail” Express of Russell, Majors, and Waddell started their runs on April 3, 1860.12 It was intended that horseback riders carrying mail would leave simultaneously from the headquarters at St. Joseph headed west and from Sacramento through Placerville headed east. The route was organized into four Divisions with the halfway point at the Great Salt Lake City Station at the “Salt Lake House” on Main Street in the Territory of Utah.

The “ponies” of the Pony Express typically were Plains horses crossed with Southern Thoroughbreds. These were fast, tough desert horses of great endurance selected to carry lightweight riders.13

The B. F. Hastings Building in Sacramento housed the Western terminal office for the Pony Express. Between St. Joseph and Sacramento, nearly two hundred Stations were outfitted at intervals about 10 miles apart for over two thousand miles of the Central Route.

In March of 1860, other young Utah boys, in addition to the sons of Howard Egan, received word that they would be hired as Pony Express riders. These included brothers William Frederick “Billy” and John Fisher, plus Alexander Toponce and Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, who became the most famous of the Utah riders. Other locals were James and Sam Gibson, Johnny Hancock, Thomas Owen King, George Edwin Little, Elijah Maxfield, George and Henry Thatcher, and Elijah Nicholas “Nick” Wilson.14 “Uncle Nick” Wilson of Grantsville, known as “the white Indian boy,” in a skirmish with Indians at Spring Valley Station was shot in the head by a flint arrow. Howard Egan helped nurse him back from near death, but Wilson thereafter carried a terrible scar two inches above his eye.15

On April 3, 1860, Johnny Fry (some think it was Johnson William Richardson) was the first westbound rider on the Pony Express, which departed from St. Joseph.16 He carried 49 letters, 5 telegrams, and special editions of the New York Herald and Tribune newspapers specially printed on lightweight paper.

A relay Pony Express rider arrived at the Great Salt Lake City Station, namely at the Salt Lake House, on April 9. The westbound delivery from St. Joseph arrived at the western terminus in Sacramento, having taken a total of 11 days.

On April 4, 1860, William “Sam” Hamilton was the first eastbound rider on the Pony Express to have departed from Sacramento and Placerville. He galloped off into a rainstorm. After July 1, 1861, Placerville, first called “Old Dry Diggins,” near the original gold discovery, was the western terminus of the Pony Express.17

In a driving rainstorm Howard Egan, himself the oldest of the riders, carried the first eastbound mail of the Pony Express from Rush Valley the 75 miles to Great Salt Lake City. The trip took several days. Along the way, with a cold north wind and sleet in his face, he passed through Five Mile Pass into Camp Floyd and thence to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Arriving in the Valley, the horse lost its footing crossing a plank bridge over Mill Creek. Horse and rider tumbled into the creek. They climbed out and resumed delivery to the Salt Lake House Pony Express Station, arriving about April 8, 1860.18

Ras Egan’s assigned Pony Express run on his sorrel, “Miss Lightning,”19 was the 75 miles between Great Salt Lake City and Rush Valley. Billy Fisher made his first Pony Express ride taking the mail relay from a rider coming from Egan’s Station to the west. Fisher’s assignment was primarily between Ruby Valley and South Pass. On April 13, 1860, the first eastbound Pony Express letters arrived at St. Joseph. The mochila contained 69 letters.

In the spring of 1860, Indian depredations on the Pony Express Stations intensified. In May they attacked the Deep Creek Station, shot an attendant, and stole a band of horses. Paiutes raided the Williams Station and killed five men. The Pony Express attendants were chased away from the Stations between Diamond Spring and Carson Valley. During one of his runs, Ras Egan came upon a stagecoach express that had been held up, the passengers killed, and the horses stolen. An Indian chased Egan but when Ras turned around unexpectedly and rode directly at the attacker, the startled Indian turned and fled. On another occasion while crossing a bridge, the pony fell and broke its neck. Ras was dumped into the stream. He had to walk five miles to Camp Floyd carrying saddle and mochila.20

As one of the four division superintendents of the Central Overland & Pikes Peak Express Company, Howard Egan supervised Division Three, Salt Lake House Station to Roberts Creek Station. Benjamin Ficklin was in charge of all the Pony Express divisions.21 Egan Canyon on the west side of the Egan Range, the Egan Pony Express Station, and nearby Egan Creek were each named for the immigrant Mormon scout who came to America from Kings Offaly, Ireland. He was now in his 45th year, having been born June 15, 1815.22 Egan Station was located on the rim of Ruby Valley in the west end of Egan Canyon five miles southwest of Cherry Creek.

May of 1860, Company B of the 4th Artillery assigned to Camp Floyd was sent to Ruby Valley to establish a military base for protection of the Overland Route against Indian attacks. On July 16, 1860, at the Battle of Egan Canyon Station, three soldiers were killed by Indians, but the Pony Express rider escaped unharmed from a planned ambush. Some 18 Indians were killed in the battle.23

William Fisher was at Ruby Valley at this time. While he was heading east, a band of “raging injuns” appeared over the horizon. Following the general instructions to Pony Express riders to gallop away if attacked, Fisher rode to the next Station, warned the keepers, and finally ended up riding 300 miles all the way back. It took him 30 hours and eight horses to cover the 300 miles from Ruby Valley to Great Salt Lake Valley. Nevertheless, Fisher did not best 15-year-old William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s ride of 322 miles in 21 hours, 40 minutes.24

Riders carried a Spencer or Sharp carbine rifle strapped to their backs, a navy Colt revolver holstered in the saddle, plus a sheathed knife at their side. However, the carrying of rifles was later discouraged because of the added weight. Instead, they depended upon the speed of their mount.

The Shell Creek Station was raided on August 13, 1860. A company of soldiers came to the rescue, and many Indians were killed. Two days thereafter, a Pony Express horse arrived at Carson River without rider or mochila. It was only the second occasion of lost mail by the Pony Express.25

Ras Egan made a Pony Express run in record time with the news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as U.S. President on November 6, 1860. The following New Year’s Day, Richard Erastus (Ras) Egan married English emigrant Mary Ann (Minnie) Fisher, the sister of Pony Express riders John and Billy Fisher. Father Howard gave the newlyweds a melodian.26

On April 13, 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. In July because of the Civil War, the U.S. Army’s Camp Floyd was dismantled and the provisions sold as surplus. When dispatched to Utah four years previously, General Albert Sidney Johnston’s purpose was to quell a supposed Mormon rebellion. Ironically, now it was General Johnston himself who had rebelled against the Union. He was killed at the Battle of Shiloh.27

October, 1861, Edward Creighton’s Transcontinental Overland Telegraph was completed by James Gamble. The lines strung on poles from Omaha in the East and from San Francisco in the West were joined when the last pole was set on Main Street in Great Salt Lake City. The first telegraph messages were sent to General H. W. Carpenter, president of the Overland Telegraph Company, by an employee and by Brigham Young. With the Civil War raging, Brigham Young used the new telegraph line to reaffirm to Washington that Utah remained loyal to the Union.

With the success of the telegraph in bridging the continent, there was no longer a need for the Pony Express to dispatch rapid messages.

The Pony Express officially ceased operations on October 26, 1861. However, the last run of a rider was November 21.28 It is estimated that 35,000 pieces of mail were carried a total of over 600,000 miles. For Russell, Majors and Waddell, the Pony Express had been a public relations success, but a financial disaster. Having lost some half million dollars, the Company went into bankruptcy and sold out to the Ben Holladay Overland Stage Line. Having gained control of Butterfield Overland Mail Company in 1860, a “grand consolidation” in 1866 united Wells Fargo, Holladay and Overland Mail Stage lines under the name Wells Fargo & Company (originally founded 1852).29

Howard Egan continued as superintendent for the daily Overland Mail beginning July 1, 1862. He was given oversight of the stagecoach runs between Great Salt Lake City and Carson City, Nevada. After their first child was born, Ras and Mary Egan left Great Salt Lake Valley to ranch in Ruby Valley.

On July 14, 1862, the U.S. Congress moved the Utah–Nevada Territorial boundary east from the 39th to the 38th longitudinal meridian.30 This was a distance of 53 miles, which contained six of the Stage Express Stations west of the Deep Creek Station. Egan Station in Ruby Valley was now in the Territory of Nevada. The Act also gave the northeast corner of Utah to Wyoming Territory, which added seven Stations to Wyoming. The number of Stations remaining in Utah Territory was reduced to 25.31

On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad lines were joined at Promontory, Utah Territory. The route north of the Great Salt Lake left Egan’s operations at Deep Creek stranded. Howard Egan turned his attention to mining. Egan Town was a mining camp with a store, a blacksmith shop a post office, a school and many houses.32 In 1870, gold was discovered in Manning Canyon, later known as Mercur.

Major Egan returned to Salt Lake City, where he was partner in the Margett’s tannery located across the street from his home. For a time, he lived quietly with his family.33 In 1874, Brigham Young called “Brother” Howard to serve on a “Lamanite” or Indian mission to Deep Creek Valley. Egan, who spoke the Goshute language, was said to have baptized three hundred Goshutes, including a hundred Indians in a single day. Following completion of his mission, he returned to his Salt Lake City home.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the first run of the Pony Express, it is appropriate to cite the late professor of history Andrew Love Neff, who eloquently spoke about the achievements of the Pony Express in “demonstrating beyond all cavil” that the Middle, or so-called “Central,” Route was the superior passageway across the continent to unite the Nation.34

“Exhibiting admirable fortitude in the performance of messenger trust, these mere specs on the western horizon, these lone horsemen amid the solitude of the wilderness, little dreamed of the larger significance of their doings in western drama. The spectacle of solitary riders maintaining continuous passage through sandstorm and blizzard, over mountain and deep snow dissipated the illusion of the impracticability of the middle way . . .”

“The Pony Express stirs the imagination and stimulates the emotions as perhaps no other carrier institution. Though fleeting in time and character, the equestrial messenger system breathes the glory and glamour of its generation. Recitals of it will excite thrills as long as men revel in dashing deeds of daring, especially so as this sensational triumph of its day constitutes for all time the superlative achievement of its kind.”

The author is very pleased to thank Kimberly Olson, Jennifer Schultz, Kathy Baker, Kellyn Bailey, Sons of Utah Pioneers, the Utah Historical Society, and Utah State University for their assistance with this article.

  1. Jaromy D. Jessop, “Pioneer played key role in story of Old West,” Micro International, xphomestation.com, 2005, 3.
  2. “Descendants of Howard Egan,” geocities.com/Heartland/Luffs/9179/eganhow.htm.
  3. William M. Egan, Pioneering the West, 1846–1878 (Skelton Publishing, 1916); and J. Raman Drake, Howard Egan, Frontiersman, Pioneer and Pony Express Riders, M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1956.
  4. Raymond W. and Mary Lund Settle, Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (Google Books, 1955); and LeRoy R. Hafen, The Overland Mail, 1849–1869 (Arthur Clark Co., 1926); and Juanita Brooks, John Doyle Lee (Arthur Clark Co., 1964), 132.
  5. Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, The Right Place: The Official Centennial History (Utah Division of State History, 1995).
  6. William G. Hartley, “Howard Egan’s 1848 Trek,” Mormon Historical Studies (2000): 37.
  7. Hartley, 56.
  8. Clair T. Kilts, A History of the Federal and Territorial Court Conflicts in Utah, 1851–1874, M.A. thesis, BYU, 1959.
  9. Settle & Settle, 87.
  10. “Pony Express Stations in White Pine County, Nevada,” White Pine Historical & Archaeological Society (2009): 3.
  11. “Richard Erastus Egan,” bountifulutah.gov/Historical Commission/EganR01.html, 2009.
  12. Robert F. Riegel, America Moves West (Holt & Co., 1930), 417; Ted Shead, “Pony Express: They Rode the Wild and Vacant Land,” Real West Yearbook (spring 1974): 44; and Richard Frajola, G. Kramer, and S. Walske, The Pony Express: A Postal History (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Foundation, 2005).
  13. “Horses of the Pony Express,” Western Horsemans ( Jan.–Feb., 1942).
  14. Wayne Howard, “National Pony Express Association,” Tooele Transcript–Bulletin Publishing Co., 2005.
  15. Jeffrey D. Nicholls, “Pony Express Men,” History Blazer; 1995; Howard R. Driggs, The Pony Express Goes Through: An American Saga Told by Its Heroes (Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1935), 72–78; and Elijah Nicholas Wilson and Howard Roscoe Driggs, The White Indian Boy: The Story of Uncle Nick among the Shoshones (Infibeam, 2001).
  16. “The Pony Express History: A Western Tale,” ComSpark (2003): 5.
  17. “Placerville-Overland Pony Express Route in California,” California Historic Landmarks, No. 701, 1.
  18. Egan, Pioneering the West.
  19. Dave Rhodes, “Miss Lightning,” ponyexpresspoetry.com.
  20. “Richard Erastus Egan.”
  21. “Howard Egan’s Division,” xphomestation.com/ stakeepers.html. p. 2.
  22. “Descendants of Howard Egan,” p. 1; and Joseph J. Di Certo, The Saga of the Pony Express (Mountain Press Publishing Co., 2002). James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock was one of the station keepers associated with Howard Egan.
  23. “The Battle of Egan Canyon,” ponyexpresspoetry.com/eganstation.html.
  24. Linnie May Fisher Palmer Carlson, “William Frederick Fisher,” bountifulutah.gov/HistoricalCommission/Fisher W01.html; and Eli Patten, “Journal of William F. Fisher,” xphomestation.com. p. 4
  25. “Pony Express Stations in White Pine County, Nevada,” 4.
  26. Mary Egan Evans, “Mary Ann (Minnie) Fisher Egan,” bountiful.utah.gov/HistoricalCommission/EganM01.html.
  27. Charles P. Roland, Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (Univ. Press of Kentucky; 2001).
  28. Roy S. Bloss, Pony Express: The Great Gamble, (Howell–North; 1959), 137; and James Gamble, Wiring a Continent: The U.S. Transcontinental Telegraph Line, telegraph-history.org.
  29. Wells Fargo History Service: Our History, Wells Fargo History, San Francisco, 2009.
  30. “Nevada: Consolidated Chronology of State & County Boundaries,” Newbury Library (2009): 6; and James Allan, “Evolution of County Boundaries in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 23 (1955): 261–78.
  31. Patrick Hearty, “Utah Stations,” National Pony Express Association, Utah (SLC, 2005); Richard E. Fike and John W. Headley, The Pony Express Stations of Utah in Historical Perspective, Bureau of Land Management, Utah (1979); and Kate B. Carter, Utah and the Pony Express, Centennial Edition (Salt Lake City: Pony Express Commission and Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1960).
  32. Donna Frederick, “Egan Town,” (White Pine County Research, 1999), 3.
  33. The “Great” in Salt Lake City was dropped under pressure from the U.S. Post Office in 1868. Reference: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Vol. 19, 901. Howard Egan kept a personal diary from 1846 through 1878; Shewsbury, “Major Howard Egan’s Diary,”manataka.org/page559.html.
  34. A. L. Neff, History of Utah: 1847 to 1869, ed. L. H. Creer (Salt Lake City: Lauretta Neff, 1940), 727, 729.
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