History Near You: The Riders in The Storm
By Jerrad Hardin
Tim Levitch said that Bullshit is the common language that every citizen in every country of the world speaks. I hereby proclaim before the flat earth that the commonly told story of the Pony Express is of such language. That the Majors, Russell, and Waddell firm created the Pony Express is easily known. What is much harder to glean is the oft-omitted fact that it was created primarily to achieve “world-wide recognition” at, what William Russell went on to say, “no matter the cost.” Euphemistically, the design of the Pony Express campaign was to market their organization–not just for fame, but for the renewal of a million-dollar contract with the U.S. government. Like Buffalo Bill in later years, convincingly romanticizing the violence of a drunk, sick, and suicidal Wild West on posters and in newspapers, the Pony Express would convince the nation (especially Saint Joseph) that a horse relay delivering mail to California was an important achievement for humanity. Perfectly in line with other tall-tales of the west, the Pony Express set out to be known as one of the greatest business efforts the world had ever seen.
But the Pony Express was not, alone, a business. Neither was it a business model, as it was generally thought to be a really bad idea. Aside from the likelihood that it originated as a bet between Russell and a wall-street broker, the Pony Express was certainly never meant to last. Operating at different times under different directors, by 1859 their organization was known as the Overland Mail Company. In the industry since around 1850, their horse and carriage operation had long been hauling goods and people under contractual agreements made with the United States government. Government contracts were a mostly sure thing, especially when the military was plundering. In the decade of 1850, with bank accounts brimming for the owners of the means of production, due in no small part to the slave economy, thousands of these self-made men (Majors, Russell, and Waddell were each slave owners) increased their wealth through the hard work of selling off the spoils of the Mexican-American war.
The crazy year of the Pony Express flashed by, advancing child labor and animal abuse in ways the nation had not yet seen. Since the Pony Express wasn’t ever meant to turn a profit, and since it’s operating costs increased the debt for the Overland Mail Company, William Russell went to Washington to get a handout. Unable to secure the million dollars he applied for, and growing ever-more in debt because of unpaid United States contracts (unpaid because the federal government needed money for the coming war), he convinced a clerk to hand over government bonds valued at a million dollars. Russell was quickly implicated in the crime and charged, along with a congress person. At the same time the US fell into mass violence, their crimes were “forgotten” and neither were ever convicted.
Decidedly bankrupt and in some amount of trouble, the Overland Mail Company was auctioned off to another Titan-of-government-contracts, who sold the Pony Express trademark 6 years later to Wells-Fargo for one and a half million dollars. Wells-Fargo used the Pony Express trademark to extend their ponzi scheme across the world for the next century, having only stopped its use in the last couple decades. Russell, Majors, and Waddell, often regarded as failures, and least for the fact the US government stiffed them on payments, died many years later in intentional obscurity and quite frankly, in peace. The story of the Pony Express, commonly believed to be a well-meaning business venture and total financial failure, is instead perhaps one of our nations most successful marketing gimmicks, and also one of the longest running bullshit stories.
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