This article previously appeared in Pioneer Magazine, 2010 Vol.57 No.2
by Kristine Wardle Frederickson, History & Women’s Studies, BYU & UVU
“If we who came in early years, to this then desert country, had only kept journals, what a romance or rather what romances might have been written; (but then who would have believed it)! [And in truth] the very paper needed to write upon was scarce. …[Nevertheless] by your request I will try and write you a short outline of my early life history on the pony express.”1
Thus begins a brief account, written by Thomas Owen King, Jr., a Pony Express rider in Utah in 1860. Although short and sketchy King’s remembrances are rich history since few riders wrote personal accounts and few records were kept by the Pony Express Company. The little information that exists comes primarily from newspapers and magazines written in 1860 or 1861.2
T. O. King, Jr., joined the Pony Express when he was barely twenty years old. It was not his first experience with the rigors of “cowboy life” although his early life made him an unlikely candidate for such adventurous occupations. T.O. was born five miles from Cambridge, England in the village of Sawston, on April 27, 1840. His granddaughter explained that prior to emigrating to Utah his father, Thomas Owen King, had “high hopes for his only son, a young boy of eleven, to inherit the estate from him, to acquire a private school education, and go on to graduation from Cambridge.”3
However, his mother, Hannah Tapfield King, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after hearing the missionary message from her dressmaker, lois bailey, and was baptized in 1850. Hannah hoped to emigrate and join Church members in Utah but there was little hope of doing so until one day the Mormon missionaries administered to Thomas King after his physician could not stop a bout of nasal hemorrhaging and feared he would bleed to death. True to a promise, that if the missionaries healed him he would move to Utah, Thomas sold his ancestral estate and the family traveled to the United States to join the Saints in the West.
It was a challenging transition for the family and they apparently were not careful in managing the money earned from the sale of their estate. In England they were respected members of the gentry with position, prestige and a full household staff to attend to their needs while in Utah the family found itself in reduced circumstances, surprised at the austere frontier conditions. When they arrived in Salt Lake City,
“The people were all about as rich as one another—no body having very much and a stove a curiosity. . . . The people traded with each other what they had for what they needed. Tallow candles were as good as gold for a ticket to the Ball.”4
The terrain, the city, new customs and primitive circumstances—compared to their life in England and the comforts it afforded—made the transition difficult for Thomas Owen and his wife Hannah, although she never regretted her decision to join with fellow Saints in Utah.
T.O. King, Jr., however, seems to have settled comfortably into pioneer life and became “known as a good ‘cowboy’ in his youth.”5 He quickly realized the need to help the family as well as fend for himself. In later reminiscences he described some of the ways he earned a livelihood as a young man.
At age fifteen,
“In 1855 I went to Carson Valley as a guard to Judge [Orson] Hyde.”6
In the fall of that year,
“I went to Humboldt Well to arrest Alfred Harvo accused of murder. Fall of 1856 [and 1857] I went on a Gov. Surveying Expedition under Chas. Morgan [of Sevier and Sanpete Valleys]. . . . In May of the same year I joined Young’s Express Co. Just before spring broke in 1858 [I] was called out with a large company to follow Indians west that had run off a lot of horses.”7
The group eventually lost the trail in a blinding snowstorm and returned empty handed. Before age twenty, T. O. was an Indian War Veteran and during the Utah War performed “military duty at [Fort Bridger], Fort Supply, Green River, Ham’s Fork, etc.”8
The work was hard and T. O.’s mother worried for her son’s safety. When he went to work for Young’s Express developing a trail station at Deer Creek, over four hundred miles east on the Mormon Trail, she wrote,
“May 26th, 1857. 8 o’clock A. M. My beloved Tom Owen has just started with his baggage on one arm and his rifle on the other…I am glad that he is going to be useful in the Kingdom of God, but I cannot but feel [anxious] at parting with him. Oh! My Father! Look graciously upon my child and give Thine Angels charge concerning him. . . . May 27th. My mind is full and somewhat melancholy today engendered by parting with my beloved boy.”9
Much of what T. O. earned with Young’s Express, and later with the Pony Express, went to help his family. As early as 1855 he was already donating to the family, as seen in his mother’s diary entry,
“Christmas Eve, 1855. . . I would here write that [T. O.] has shown a first rate spirit towards us with his means. Paid his tithing, etc., bought me a pair of overshoes, and when I was so weak through illness and my bad thumb, he paid for some fine bitters for me at Golbe’s, the auxiliary of which was the finest port wine. And it went far in restoring my health and strength under God’s blessing. And may the Lord bless him, as He will, for his goodness to me.’10 On Christmas Day the family ate roast beef and plum pudding, “thanks. . . to money her son had earned the previous month on an expedition as part of a posse. [Hannah] was particularly proud of Thomas Owen:”11
T. O’s work with Young’s Express Company was a natural precursor to riding with the Pony Express. Young’s Express provided local stage service for passengers at stations between Salt Lake and Wyoming. The concept of way stations for passengers and freighters carrying goods between the East and the West, combined with the desire for quicker communication and faster mail service led to the creation of the Pony Express.
The Company used existing or built new relay stations, some well-kept and offering respite for weary Pony Express Riders. Green River Station was a clean comfortable main station,
“the home of Mr. Marcarthy. . . [with] the indescribable scent of a Hindu village. . . . The ground about had the effect of an oasis in the sterile waste. . . the stream supplying excellent salmon-trout.”12
Conversely, there were a good number that were squalid habitats. One of the stations that T. O. serviced was Hams Fork Station,
“Made of native rock, [it] was built as a stage station in 1850. David Lewis, a Scottish Mormon, managed the station along with his two wives and large family. It was a squalid, filthy place, full of flies. The furniture, such as it was, was cobbled together from parts of dilapidated wagons.”13
Richard F. Burton, the British explorer, traveled to the United States.14 He also described Hams Fork Station,
“it was a disgrace; the squalor and filth were worse almost than the two – Cold Springs and Rock Creek – which we called our horrors. . . . The shanty was made of drystone piled up against a dwarf cliff to save backwall, and ignored doors and windows. The flies – unequivocal sign of unclean living! – darkened the table and covered everything put upon it: the furniture, which mainly consisted of the different parts of wagons, was broken, and all in disorder; the walls were impure, the floor filthy.”15
Although the stations might vary in quality, in purchasing horses for Pony Express riders the Pony Express Company did not skimp. They purchased the choicest mounts they could find and chose different types of horses best suited to the differing terrains. They understood that the success of the Pony Express and at times the life of the riders depended “on the spirit, intelligence and endurance of the horses.”16
The next task was to find riders willing to place themselves in danger whether it be fending off Indians or besting the terrain and surviving the often brutal weather. Utah was a unique location. There were twenty-six stations over 275 rugged miles with sometimes brutal ascents and descents. Passes through the mountains could be heaped with fifteen-foot snowdrifts and in summer vast desert stretches could blister at temperatures topping 110 degrees with little water for many miles.17
The Pony Express Company promised service from St. Joseph, Missouri to California in ten days or less and advertised by word of mouth and by poster, “Wanted / Young, skinny wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. / Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week. / Apply, Pony Express Office inside”18
Hundreds of applicants were winnowed down to eighty and T. O. King was a perfect match as he was, “no stranger to the hard life of the frontier, . . . [a] skilled horseman and hunter, accustomed to dealing with Indians, self-reliant and resourceful. Above all [he was] drawn by the spirit of adventure.”19
T. O. had also “helped build many of the Pony Express stations east of Salt Lake City,” and familiar with the terrain and physical demands he “became a rider.”20 He earned $100 a month and his routes included the “Weber River in Utah to a point twelve miles beyond Fort Bridger [and]. . . . from Salt Lake City to Bear River.”21
The risks and dangers encountered by Pony Express Riders were every bit as fearsome as anticipated and T. O.’s experiences indicate just that. His reminiscences begin in March of 1860 when A. B. Miller hired him as a rider. Not only were there main stations along the route with a standing structure, stables, supplies and a station manager, there were also many austere relay stations, barebones affairs where riders often simply met someone offering a fresh mount, perhaps meager food, and they were off again. As a rider, T. O. was assigned to both main and relay stations.
About the 20th of the month T. O., Henry Worley, George Leonard and Miller took “a lot of horses” and “stock[ed] the road from Salt Lake to Bridger.”22 They stopped at Snyder’s Saw Mill, Farley’s Fork and went out to the mouth of Echo Canyon where, as T. O. described,
“I stopped, being my home station. I was to ride to Bear River [and]. . . on the 7th of April at noon, the long expected Pony Express came. I forgot if I had dinner or not, but it took but a minute or two before I was in the saddle and off.”23
T. O. described that first ride,
“20 miles up Echo Grade, slow at first and increase speed as I went, gave my horse one or two breathing spells. I went into the station with a yell as tho I was running for the Derby. The yell brought Frenchey out with my other horse. The change being made I rode to Bea-Bug Cave, 5 miles, when it commenced snowing.”24
With the snow, conditions became treacherous. T. O. describes,
“the snow was deep which had not as yet thawed and there was only a trail made by mules carrying the U. S. mail to follow. If you got out of that trail down you went belly deep to a horse, and perhaps deeper, according to the lay of the ground you happened to get off at. It was all uphill and if I could only reach the top before the trail filled up I did not care, as I thought I could stumble down thru it in some shape going down, for I knew it was pretty steep.”25 T. O. explains that he lost his way in the storm and the trail disappeared and “for ten miles the snow was deep but I made schedule time. I got to Bear River at 4 o’clock then George B. Leonard took it.”26
T. O. was far from finished. He then had to ride from “Weber to Muddy, 60 miles. . . . I started from the Weber at eight o-clock P. M. and arrived at the Muddy (60 mi.) at a quarter of two next morning.”27 When he arrived at
“the Muddy. . . I laid down under an old wagon until sunrise, got breakfast and at 12 the exchange came and I started back and arrived at the Weber at half past five, riding 120 miles in 22 1/2 hours minus the time I stopped at the Muddy.”28
Pony Express riding was not for the faint of heart.
Another early adventure occurred carrying the east- bound mail in April 1860 when T. O. lost the mochila, the leather coverlet with the bags sewn into it holding the mail. While he was riding,
“Twenty miles from the fort, [T. O.] encountered a bad storm. King’s horse stumbled and threw him, and the mochila flew off the saddle and went over a cliff.”29
In the blizzard T. O. had to scale the rock face, retrieve the leather mail bag, throw the twenty- five to thirty pound weight over his skinny shoulders, ascend the cliff and make his way back to his horse,
“Once remounted, he urged his horse on. When he reached his destination he had made up the lost time and delivered the mail intact and on schedule.”30
Often, Pony Express riders passed one another going opposite directions. There was barely time for a wave or catcall. On one occasion, after a long night ride T. O.,
“reported that he had not encountered his opposite rider, Henry Worley, on the way. When Worley pulled into his station, he reported the same thing—he had not seen King.”31
But as T. O. later explained, “We often passed each other fast asleep but on our horses going at the usual rate.”32 Even as their horse hurtled along the trail, “It was not uncommon for riders to sleep on their routes, trusting their horses to find the way.”33
On another trip
“I shall never forget it, before getting to Echo Canyon going east, there is quite a wide and level space, from half a mile to a mile wide between the high bluff and the Weber. In the distance I saw a wagon coming. It was about 12 o’clock at night. I was riding a horse that had only been rode a few times. Not thinking I got between the wagon and the river, to pass, when something scared [my horse] and taking the bit in his teeth he started for the river. Here I knew the banks of the river to be [at] least 20 feet to the water. In less time than it takes to write it I knew I must be close to the bank and turn him I could not.”34
Fearing that he was about to hurtle off the cliff, possibly to his death,
“I had just thrown my feet out of the stirrups to throw myself off when the horse turned. I only had a snaffle, [a bit for a horse jointed in the middle with rings on either end where the reins are attached] but the remainder of the distance to the station he just flew to please me.”35
T. O. described the longest ride he made,
“at a time when the express did not connect. I forget the date out but it was late in July of 1860 or beginning of August. I started, as usual, about ten Monday and rode to Bear River, 80 miles. Tues. at 10 o’clock another express came and I had to take it on east. I rode to Hams Fork, 65 miles, before I found another to take it, and at sunrise the eastern express came & I rode back to Bear River 65 miles and ate a hasty breakfast then rode to East Canyon Creek and ate dinner, gotten up by our mutual friends San Juan Gulilmo and James McDonald; from there to Salt L. City, by 7 o’clock that P. M. being 145 miles that day. Lacking two or three hours of 48, in which time I had ridden 200 miles and was not tired. For I very well remember taking a walk with my best girl that evening.”36
Clearly Pony Express riders had to be durable, flexible, able to endure wretched conditions, and skilled horsemen. There was,
“Another time the express came wrong and I had to take it west to Fauste Station in Rush Valley, I believe 75 miles.”37
Riding at top speed, with only a short respite to trade horses and carrying on when circumstances demanded was yet another challenge riders often faced. Many of the riders were rough and tumble individuals but,
“Despite all the rough work and tough characters with whom he associated. . . many of his companions say the worst swearing he ever uttered was ‘By Jings!’”38
T. O.’s experiences certainly would have continued but in September 1860 he was called to be a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and “I left the Company to go to England [for four years] on a mission.”39 Even then his experiences with the Pony Express were not quite over. On his way east to board a ship to England he described,
“As we pass[ed] big or little Sandy, an express rider had been thrown, his legs broken, with no surgeon nearer than Fort Bridger. Our esteemed citizen John Kay being in the party, he set the boys leg and we drove on.”40
Although the Pony Express only provided mail service between April 1860 and October 1861, its mystique endures. T. O. King, Jr.’s account does nothing to diminish that mystique. Though a brief narrative, readers gain a real sense of the danger, adventure, and intrepid courage required of Pony Express riders. It is not hard to imagine that if paper had been available and more accounts had been recorded, “what a romance or rather what [additional] romances might have been written.”41
- Private letter to H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr., in possession of Dorothy Brewerton, great-granddaughter of T. O. King, Jr., 1.
- Bill and Jan Moeller, The Pony Express, A Photographic History (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002), vii.
- Private letter written by Bertha Eames Loosi, granddaughter of Thomas Owen King, Jr, to Carol Catlin. In possession of Dorothy Brewerton, great-granddaughter of T. O. King, Jr.
- Brief autobiography by Thomas Owen King, Jr., probably written later in his life, in private possession of Dorothy Brewerton, great, great granddaughter of T. O. King.
- Private letter by Bertha Eames Loosi.
- Private letter to H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr.
- Carolyn Gorwill, ed. The Journals of Hannah Tapfield King: Supplementary Information on the Pioneer Lives of Her Three Children (Privately published, 1985), 35.
- Carolyn Gorwill, ed., The Journals of Hannah Tapfield King (Privately published, 1984), 131.
- Leonard Reed, The Songstress of Dernford Dale, The Life of Poetess, Diarist and Latter’day Saint Pioneer Hannah Tapfield King (Unpublished manuscript, 2009), 94.
- Joseph J. Di Certo, The Saga of the Pony Express (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002), 125. 13 Moeller, 78.
- Burton spent a good deal of time in the Far and Middle East studying different religions. He traveled to the United States to observe the Mormons in Utah and described his adventures, as he followed the Pony Express route, in his book, City of the Saints.
- Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints, Among the Mormons and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (Santa Barbara, CA: The Narrative Press), 136.
- Fred Reinfeld, Pony Express (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), 40.
- Di Certo, 127.
- Moeller, 4.
- Reinfeld, 39.
- Moeller, 84.
- Gorwill, Pioneer Lives of Children, 35.
- H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr., 1.
- Ibid., 1–2.
- Ibid., 2.
- The mail was carried in a mochila, a piece of leather with 4 padlocked leather boxes sewn onto it. It was shaped to fit over the Spanish saddle used by vaqueros, and chosen for the Pony Express, because it was lighter.
- Moeller, 84.
- Ibid., 84.
- H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr., 2.
- Moeller, 84.
- H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr., 2.
- Ibid., 2–3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Private letter, Bertha Eames Loosi.
- H. Y. Faust from Thomas Owens King, Jr., 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 1.