Pony Express Historian
Joe Nardone’s Gifts from the Trail
By M. Patricia Morris
M. Patricia Morris is the Bulletin’s long-time copy editor and a frequent contributor. She has specialized in interviewing and writing profiles of staff, board members, and donors to the Library’s collections. To date, she has written twenty-two articles of which eleven were profiles.
One hundred fifty-eight years ago, on April 3, 1860 at 7:15 P.M., the first Pony Express rider mounted his horse and set out westbound from St. Joseph, Missouri, to begin the mission of this new enterprise to transport mail by the fastest means possible via a central route across America. It just so happened that I scheduled an interview with Pony Express Historian Joe Nardone in the California State Library’s California History Room on April 4, 2018. Did we miss the auspicious date by one day, the day when the first Pony Express rider would have headed east from Sacramento?
As one who has made a quest of finding the truth about the history of this nineteen-month period in which the Pony Express existed, Nardone set the record straight with amazing precision telling me that on April 3rd, 1860, at 3:45 p.m., the Pony Express rider in San Francisco arrives for the mail, rides from that office to the river steamer, The New World, and comes up the river to Sacramento. The steamer gets here at 2 o’clock in the morning of April 4th. On April 4th, Hamilton (the rider) gets the mail and takes off.
There you have it, our meeting took place on April 4, 2018, the 158th anniversary of the first Pony Express rider’s departure on horseback eastbound from Sacramento.
About Joe Nardone
Joe Nardone’s study of the Pony Express began not long after his retirement in 1982. He was looking to write about one of America’s western trails or a branch of one of the trails when a National Park Service employee and friend asked him a question about accuracy of the 1,966-mile length of the Pony Express Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. It was a question that piqued his curiosity and set in motion his 36-year fascination with the “Pony.” He has traveled the trail by seven different modes of transportation: horseback, airplane, hiking, 4-wheel drive, mountain bicycle, dual-sport motorcycle and recreational vehicle (1). He has participated in the marking of Pony Express stations along the trail and mapped every Pony Express mile. Over the years, Joe visited, in his words, “every repository you can think of from coast to coast. Going through their archives and reading all their newspapers in print in the 1860s.” It is the California State Library, though, where most of his research has taken place. He came to the Library for its extensive materials covering 1860–1861, and in particular its California newspaper resources.
A Gift for All to See
Unlike so many days spent in the rare book room or at a microfilm reader, Joe Nardone was not in the California History Section’s Rare Materials Reading Room this day to conduct research, but to talk about a major gift he is making to the State Library. When complete, the donation will include statues, artifacts, books, maps, and pamphlets, all illustrative of Pony Express history.
Why did he choose the State Library as a repository for the donation? Mr. Nardone replied that it was his relationship with former Principal Librarian for Special Collections and current Foundation Executive Director Gary Kurutz. Kurutz came down to Joe’s home in Southern California, and they talked about what the Library might like to have. “Can we do this, Joe?” Gary asked. Joe said, “We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”
When visitors step into the California History Section’s Rare Materials Reading Room now, they will be able to see the physical objects he is presenting to the Library. They will be housed in and on two display cases. The cases are being constructed by Burnett & Sons, a Sacramento company that is a historic entity in itself, having been in business since 1869. The books, pamphlets, maps, and other ephemera will be incorporated into the State Library’s collections and known as the Joe Nardone Memorial Pony Express Research Collection.
The Three Statues
Prominently on view will be three statues, all depicting Pony Express riders in the saddle, in full motion, with the intent expressed on their faces of moving the mail as fast as the horses can carry it. Pointing to the largest of the three statues, Nardone said, “That one knocked my socks off.” The statue is about three feet high and weighs nearly 200 pounds. It was produced by internationally renowned sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks. During his career, Fairbanks created more than 100 public monuments portraying historic figures and events. Four of his statues are in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C.(2).
Bill Harrah of hotel and casino fame hired Fairbanks to sculpt two larger-than- life Pony Express statues. One is situated outside Harrah’s in Stateline, Nevada. The other is at Harrah’s in North Kansas City, Missouri. Nardone arranged with the Fairbanks family to create the one-half scale replica that now resides in the California State Library.
The middle-sized statue will be familiar to anyone who has spent time walking the streets of Old Sacramento. Thomas Holland, an artist who also happened to be a polo player, created the original to honor the stopping point for the Pony Express in Sacramento. Fifteen feet in height, he based the rider’s clothing on a description in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (3).
Nardone purchased this replica in an antique store in Sacramento. Holland made twenty-five of these statues. He interviewed Mr. Holland, who lived in Southern California, before he died. “A really nice guy,” Nardone said. He asked the artist why the rider wasn’t carrying a gun to which Holland replied, “Well, our governor who is now President Reagan, said, “The riders rode so fast, they didn’t need one.”
Nardone found the third and smallest of the trio in an antique store in St. Joseph. Since this statue was made by a company that specializes in bookends, it was thought to be a bookend replica. “Everyone collects something,” Mr. Nardone observed. The little statue was never intended to be a bookend. This horse and rider represent a larger-than-life Pony Express statue located in the civic center of St. Joseph, Missouri. The artist, sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil, was commissioned to create it to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Pony Express. It was dedicated in St. Joseph on April 20, 1940.
An Educational Moment
The Pony Express, though brief, still stirs excitement in the American imagination. Many myths about the venture have been repeated so often they are believed to be true. During Joe Nardone’s many years of study, he has made it a point to discern fact from fiction. Before we continue to talk about his wonderful gift, let’s pause here for an educational moment.
The common belief is that Pony Express riders leaped on their steeds and galloped the 10 or 15 miles to the next station where they changed horses. Indeed, all three of the young men portrayed in the statues are going, in a phrase I heard Mr. Nardone use for one of them “hell bent for leather.” But did they always ride at horse-race speeds? Not according to Nardone. “They were riding maybe 4 to 5 miles an hour, maybe 7 in the daytime when they can see. At nighttime, probably 4. You only have to do 6 miles an hour to do the trip in 10 or 11 days.” If they did that, they would meet the goal of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, the parent organization of the Pony Express.
Mochila & Saddle
One of the two cases planned for the California History Room will house a life-size saddle and mochila. A mochila is the distinctive pack Pony Express riders used to carry mail. It could be easily thrown across a saddle and featured four cantinas, or pockets where riders inserted the letters, telegrams, and waybills. Looking at the three statues in the Library, you will see all of them are equipped with a mochila.
“There is not an original mochila in the world,” Nardone said. The gift mochila and saddle he is donating to the Library are replicas. He has had ten reproductions made of them. The Autry Museum of the American West acquired one of the replicas, and the others were presented to museums along the Pony Express Trail (4). If there are no original Pony Express mochilas, how did Nardone achieve accuracy in the replicas? It’s quite a story.
“The earliest mochila that we have on record,” Nardone said, “is at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming (5). In 1897, Cody hired a man to make a replica mochila for his Wild West Show.” The mochila in the possession of the Cody museum had the name of the mochila maker, Louis Hook, and SLC [Salt Lake City] printed on the back. With assistance from a friend who is a genealogist, Nardone learned that “not only was this saddle maker running his own business in 1880 in Salt Lake, but he was an apprentice saddle maker in 1860 in Salt Lake City when the Pony Express was getting underway. Why wouldn’t he have made it as similar as he could recall,” he said.
Nardone then contacted the Smithsonian Institution to find out who was the museum’s saddle maker. He was referred to an outfit in Kearney, Nebraska, the Henderson Family. The father had passed away, but his son, Lyle Henderson had taken over the business. “In fact,” Nardone said, “his father had ridden in the 1960 centennial as a Pony Express rider.” Nardone obtained the dimensions. The leather had to be very flexible and they were able to obtain it from Australia. Nardone said, “Lyle totally duplicated the one that was at the Cody Museum.”
Nardone read a Pony Express rider’s memoir in which the writer talked about the front cantina being taller and narrower than the rear one for the rider’s legs. That is how the Hook mochila was made. You will see in looking at the mochila in the Library the differences in size between the front and rear cantinas.
Then on to the saddle. Henderson found a certified 1860 saddle tree which Nardone took to a saddle tree maker in El Paso, Texas, who put one together. They even used square nuts in the stirrups, because they didn’t have the hexagonal nuts then that they use today.
1858 Russell, Majors, & Waddell Pony Express Bible
What were these riders like who ventured across the wild American countryside to deliver the mail? It is known that the average age was over 21 years according to the 1860 U.S. Census. They were expert riders and of good character, at least, that’s the kind of men the Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company strived to employ. Indeed, newly hired Pony Express riders were required to take an oath and sign it. Nardone said the oath simply stated, “You won’t swear, you won’t get drunk, and you will treat animals kindly.”
Among Joe Nardone’s gifts to the Library is an original “Pony Express Bible.” It is 5–7/8 inches high, 4 inches wide, and 2–1/8 inches thick, and exceedingly rare. Two thousand of these Bibles were ordered from the American Bible Society in New York. Today, there are only twenty-two of them known to be in existence. The scroll work on the leather covers as well as the lettering are in gold gilt. Printed on the spine are the words HOLY BIBLE and on the front cover:
RUSSELL, MAJORS, & WADDELL
If the Pony Express wasn’t started until 1860, why does this Bible have the date 1858 written on it? The three founders of the Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell were operating a very large freighting business. “They had a big contract with the federal government to supply all the western forts,” Nardone said. “Russell was the president. Waddell was in many ways the bookkeeper of the company. So Majors was the one who hired everyone, and he was a devout Christian.” In 1858–1859, Majors hired 5,000 men. He had each new employee take the oath described above, and then according to Nardone, “He would hand the men a Bible as a gift.”
However, it is Nardone’s feeling that few, if any, Pony Express riders got one when hired in 1860–1861. Majors conducted his business from his farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska, 150 miles north of the Pony Express Trail, and his original order of Bibles was insufficient to give copies to every one of the company’s newly hired men. Majors did order 300 more Bibles in 1860 that were received in 1861. “But it is a totally different Bible in size, in text, and in style,” Nardone said (6).
In his opinion, Nardone believes Bibles like the one now on view in the State Library’s California History Room should have been called the “Alexander Majors Transportation Bible.” Whatever it is called, this Bible speaks to the nature of the company that distributed it and calls to mind powerful associations with the history of the period.
There was so much to learn from this interview, this seems to be a good time to pause again for an educational moment. More often than not, one reads that the Pony Express started in St. Joseph, Missouri, and ended in Sacramento, California. From Mr. Nardone’s studies, his conclusion is that San Francisco was the true terminus. “Eighty percent of the Pony Express mail,” he said, “was coming into and out of San Francisco.” When the Pony Express rider got off his horse in Sacramento or the train from Folsom, then an agent continued with the mail on a steamer to San Francisco. “Twenty other times,” Nardone said, “when this 2 p.m. river steamer was missed, they continued by horse to San Francisco via Benicia, Martinez, and Oakland.”
“It cost a lot to send mail by the Pony Express. They were mostly businesses that were participating,” Nardone said. He knew of only one personal letter sent to a wife, and that letter was from a rich businessman who could afford it. Though the price was reduced over time, when the Pony Express first started the cost of a half-ounce letter in an envelope was five dollars. “It was like spending eighty-five dollars today,” Nardone said.
Letters require postage. Philatelists will be especially delighted to see eight stamps in the newly installed Pony Express display cases. But what is this? They are all Wells, Fargo & Co. Pony Express stamps. In addition to the stamps in the case, there is a Wells, Fargo & Co. non-denominated, franked envelope. How did Wells, Fargo become involved with the Pony Express? The answer is in the looming American Civil War, a change in the awarding of U.S. government mail contracts, and the fact that Wells, Fargo & Co. was in both the banking and express businesses.
While the Pony Express had transported mail across a central transcontinental route, the Overland Mail Company had carried mail by stagecoach since 1857 via a southern route from St. Louis, Missouri, through Texas to Fort Yuma, to Los Angeles, and up to San Francisco. The southern route was now at risk from the upcoming war. The Civil War, in fact began on April 21, 1861. In March 1861, Russell, Majors, and Waddell, lost the new government mail-delivery contract when Congress awarded the Overland Mail Company one million dollars to move its operation to the central route. “As of July 1, 1861,” Nardone explained that the Overland Mail Company “was to operate a daily stagecoach in both directions and a pony express twice a week both ways until the telegraph line was finished.”
A day after this contract was signed, according to Nardone, the Overland Mail Company made an offer to William Russell to subcontract a portion of the line. Russell, Majors, and Waddell would continue to deliver mail between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City, Utah. This portion represented over sixty percent of the route. It should be noted that according to Joe Nardone, “The Overland Mail Company had two big powerful members on their board: Mr. Wells and Mr. Fargo.”
Wells, Fargo & Co. began issuing Pony Express stamps in April of 1861. The set of five stamps donated by Mr. Nardone were issued in two time periods: two stamps in the first and three stamps in the second. These stamps were used only on mail heading east to St. Joseph, Missouri, and later to Atchison, Kansas. Different colors were used to distinguish the different amounts. Britton and Rey, the highly regarded San Francisco lithography company, designed them. In addition, there was another type of stamp used on westbound mail called a “garter stamp.”
Wells, Fargo & Co. issued three more stamps for a Pony Express route it had established between Placerville, California, and Virginia City, Nevada Territory. The route, which was in operation from 1862–1865, had no connection with the “Transcontinental Pony Express” except for the name “Pony Express.” Mr. Nardone’s gift includes the three stamps — a 10 cent brown stamp and two 25 cent stamps, one blue and one red, from this Virginia City line.
Medallions and Belt Buckles
Rounding out the display, you will find two limited-edition belt buckles and nine medallions. They attest to the romance and fascination this brief but colorful period in American history evokes even today. The belt buckles were made by none other than Tom Holland, the sculptor mentioned earlier who created the statue of the Pony Express rider in Old Sacramento. Indeed, the buckles sport the image of this statue on them. One is in silver, and the other in bronze.
In 1902, for example, Wells, Fargo & Co. issued a silver medallion in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the company’s founding. It was the first medallion to display a Pony Express rider and scene. One of these medallions can be seen in the case along with the even rarer presentation box.
The first reenactment of the Pony Express took place from August 31, 1923 to September 9, 1923. Wells Fargo was also involved in this event. Gold medals went to the members of the winning team. Bronze replicas were presented to new depositors. Nardone said, “If you opened up a savings account in a bank, they gave you one of these medallions.” Mr. Nardone donated two bronze medals. The medals were designed by renowned artist Maynard Dixon. Nardone observed, “He is one of our favorite artists right here in the Library.” Indeed, Maynard Dixon painted the dramatic mural that stretches the length of the Library’s Gillis Hall, as well as four mural panels that reside on the second floor of the Library & Courts Building.
There are four medallions in the exhibit from the 1935 Pony Express Diamond Jubilee issued by the American Pioneer Trails Association. At this re-ride of the Pony Express trail, they gave dignitaries a medal in 10 karat gold. Nardone said, “There were only fifteen of them.” He was able to acquire the one now seen in the display case along with two medals produced in “nickel-silver,” which have the appearance of being made of silver, without actually having any silver in them. There is also a 1947 medal that corrects a minor error, removing a line under an “s” in the 1935 issue.
Included in the exhibit are two U.S. Mint medallions created for the Pony Express Centennial in 1960. One of them, 2–1/4” in diameter, the Founders Medal cast in silver, features Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the men who initiated the Pony Express. The other U.S. Mint medal — labeled “Riders Medallion” — is a bronze medallion of the same size awarded to riders who participated in the National Pony Express Centennial Association Reenactment.
One Place for Pony Express Research
In addition to the physical items we have described, Joe Nardone recently brought twelve boxes of books, pamphlets, maps and other ephemera from his personal library to Sacramento. Six of these boxes of materials will be added to the Library’s already extensive Pony Express collection. “What I wanted was one place where historians could go and do all their research on this subject, instead of what I did going to every repository you can think of from coast to coast, going through their archives and reading all their newspapers in print in the 1860s, and making Xerox copies of articles.”
A Telling Question and a Lasting
Journalist and media producer Kit Tyler was in the room with us filming during the interview. Mr. Tyler had previously asked a question, and in reply Nardone said, “nobody has ever really asked me and that made me think.” The question was “after all this time you put in the Pony what do you want people to think of you? What are you trying to leave?”
“What my goal is and has been is to straighten out this adventure,” Nardone said, “because I find it more romantic, more rewarding, more fun than what people used to think it was.” During our two-hour interview, he recounted many stories about errors he had discovered and corrected in his research with the energy and engagement of one who was just starting out. Unfortunately, there was only space to include a fraction of them. He stressed that he is not a revisionist. “I’m talking a good story,” he said, “but I have to back it up with the facts.”
Thus, Joe Nardone has provided for patrons and public visitors an exhibit for their delight of Pony Express artifacts and memorabilia. He has expanded the State Library’s Pony Express resources, so that Pony Express historians will not have to go farther to find all the information they require on the subject. No doubt, Mr. Nardone’s greatest contribution is discovering and sharing the facts about the Pony Express story.
Is This the End of the Pony Express Trail for Joe Nardone?
No. It’s not the end! There is something very exciting on the horizon. Joe Nardone has hired Folsom, California artist Stephen W. Ward to create a series of Pony Express paintings. Together, they are working on a pictorial history of the Pony Express in 115 paintings and are aiming to publish it in 2022. The paintings will be printed in the order of the history of the Pony Express. When you open the book, an illustration will be on the right side and Joe Nardone’s story of the individual painting will be on the other side with a map indicating where the incident took place. It will be filled with anecdotal stories correcting “the little errors” Nardone has found in his years of study. Reflecting his insistence on accuracy, he even consulted with an astronomer at the Fleishmann Planetarium on the University of Nevada campus in Reno who showed him how to access sun, moon, and star charts, so that even a comet, an aurora borealis, and the stars above will be depicted as they were when the Pony Express rider was coming through.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #121. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
1. To find out more about Joe Nardone and his research discoveries relating to the Pony Express see “Joe Nardone’s Long Ride on the Trail of the Pony Express,” by M. Patricia Morris, CSLF Bulletin, №87, 2007, pp. 2–9.
2. This website provides biographical information about sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks: www.fairbanksartbooks.com/AboutAvard.html.
3. This information came from an obituary in the Los Angeles Times for Mr. Holland published on January 21, 2004. See articles.latimes.com/jan/21/local/me-passings21.
4. Nardone, Joe and Western Trails Enterprises. Brochure. “Pony Express Saddle and Mochila,” 2016, p. 2.
5. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is a complex of five museums located in Cody, Wyoming, one of which is the Buffalo Bill Museum.
6. Only two of the 300 Bibles Alexander Majors ordered in 1860 are known to exist: One is at the Alexander Majors Historical Museum, Kansas City, Missouri. The other is at the Alexander Majors Old Freighters Museum, Nebraska City, Nebraska.