The major holiday Frontierado is just over two months away, so as a followup to last week’s look at the first Pony Express riders Balladeer’s Blog explores the one-man stand and death of 14-year-old Expressman Billy Tate.

pony express ridersBILLY TATE – Born in 1846, Billy Tate traveled west with his family in 1857 as part of the Baker-Fancher Wagon Train from Arkansas. In September of that year, Billy’s family were among the pioneers slaughtered at the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah. The massacre was perpetrated by Mormons disguised as Native Americans.

Billy and possibly other child survivors (accounts vary) were taken in by Mormon farmers and worked on their farms. By some accounts Billy’s original last name was Miller but it was changed to Tate to match the family who took him in.

In 1859 the government ruled that any child survivors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre should be returned to relatives back in Arkansas. Billy, not wanting to be sent back east, ran away, ultimately signing on as a bullwhacker with the parent company of the Pony Express in December of that year. By the April 3rd 1860 launch of the Express Billy Tate was serving as a rider.

Tate earned a reputation as one of the fastest Pony Express riders in the organization’s first month. In early May the Paiute War broke out in what is now Nevada, and among the casualties in this bloody conflict were several Pony Express employees at the relief stations along the way toward California. One rider was also killed during the war – Billy Tate.

ruby valleyBilly was riding from Egan Canyon Station in Utah to Dry Creek, Nevada when he was attacked by 12 Paiute warriors according to Paiute authorities. The warriors pursued Tate through Ruby Valley until Billy was forced to dismount and seek shelter among rocks in the hills.

The young Pony Express rider engaged in a drawn-out battle with his attackers, holding out until he had exhausted the ammunition for his pistol. Weight requirements for an Expressman’s load limited them to carrying just one six-shooter and twelve bullets.

Billy Tate shot seven of the Paiutes to death before being riddled with arrows. The young man’s horse – carrying the cargo of mail – reached the Dry Creek Station on its own, since it knew the path its rider always took. A search party went in search of Billy and, led by circling buzzards, found the boy’s body surrounded by his dead foemen.

Tate’s body had not been scalped or mutilated in any other way. Some accounts claim that his corpse was not violated as a sign of “respect” for how valiantly he had fought. Paiute and Bannock Indians, however, stated that Billy Tate’s body went unmolested because it was considered bad luck to mutilate the body of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed figure.

Again, that came from contemporary Native American sources, who described Billy’s hair as being like the sun and his eyes the color of the sky. Fictional accounts of Billy Tate’s life have been written, but I tried to limit this entry to the few facts that came to light about this brave young man.         


Filed under FRONTIERADO, Neglected History


  1. Wonderful story of Billy Tate , very brave and courageous man! Loved to read it 🙂

  2. Absolutely love your posts about the old West.

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