Balladeer’s Blog always marks the holiday called Frontierado, which is observed every year on the first Friday in August. This year that will be August 5th. Frontierado is about the myth of the old west, not the grinding reality.
A topic I haven’t covered in the past is the legendary Pony Express, which operated from April 3rd, 1860 to October 26th, 1861. Prior to the spread of telegraph wires all the way across the continent, the Pony Express was the fastest way of getting messages – and mail – from Missouri to California and vice versa.
Their riders, officially titled Expressmen, faced perils from nature, bandits and hostile Native Americans depending on circumstances at any given moment. Everything boiled down to speed, so to save on weight on the horses Expressmen were only permitted to carry one pistol after a few riders were caught carrying two pistols and a rifle or more.
I will cover many of the other riders as we get closer to the actual date of Frontierado, but for today here is a brief look at the first Pony Express riders to depart from Saint Joseph, MO headed west and from Sacramento, CA headed east. There is still some dispute about which men officially count as the first riders, with two men put forth for both routes.
WEST FROM ST. JOSEPH – The first potential riders from St. Joseph, MO were, alphabetically, Johnny Fry and “Sailor Billy” Richardson. After ceremonial speeches by politicians and businessmen, a cannon shot inaugurated the first ride westward around 7:15PM on April 3rd, 1860.
JOHNNY FRY was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1840 (exact date unknown) and in 1857 his family moved to Missouri. After the firing of the cannon, whoever the first rider was, Fry or Richardson, they galloped to the ferry Denver waiting at the landing on Jules Street. The Denver carried the rider across the Missouri River to Elwood, KS where that first ride resumed.
Fry served in the Pony Express until it went under in late October, 1861. Johnny then enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War which had started in April of that year. In 1863 Johnny Fry was killed in action during the Battle of Baxter Springs on October 6th.
“SAILOR BILLY” RICHARDSON, real name Johnson William Richardson, was born in 1834 (exact date unknown) in Virginia. In his youth, gambling and drinking with a bad crowd, he was shanghaied aboard a North Sea freighter and spent an unknown number of years serving on ships at sea before leaving that life behind him. He continued to wear the distinctive sailor’s hat and jacket for the rest of his life, and is even wearing it in the famous tintype picture of him with Johnny Fry and the Cliff Brothers.
By 1859 Billy was working as a hostler (groom or stable hand) for Fish & Robidoux in St. Joseph, MO while also serving as a jockey in horse races at the track on Sparta Road. Richardson was a natural for work in the Pony Express. The Saint Joseph Daily West newspaper reported Billy as the first westward bound Expressman but other sources dispute this and name Johnny Fry instead.
Richardson was one of the many Pony Express employees to be seriously wounded when his route led him through dangerous territory during the Paiute War that started in May of 1860. Sailor Billy, like Johnny Fry, rode for the Express until its end in late October, 1861. He moved to Laramie, WY and died before the end of the year from unknown causes.
EAST FROM SACRAMENTO – The dispute over the first rider from Sacramento headed eastward is a bit more cut and dried and boils down to a technicality.
JIM RANDALL was technically the first California Pony Express rider to carry the mochila (mail bag) while sitting on horseback. He was on the ferry the Antelope which arrived in Sacramento from San Francisco around 2:45am. Though prepared to ride his palomino down the gangplank as the ferry pulled in to its pier, he was told to toss the mochila to the waiting rider Sam Hamilton to save time.
WILLIAM “SAM” HAMILTON then grabbed the packet, mounted his horse and rode off, headed eastward. In addition to that, when the first westward bound mail arrived at Placerville, CA Hamilton carried it from there to Sacramento. Sam Hamilton vanished into history afterward.
The oath sworn by all Expressmen: “I,……….., do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”