Recently, we brought you behind the scenes of the Pony Express Family Festival. The April 3rd date of the festival is drawing near and Public Programs intern Emily Shapero is busy putting the final touches on activities for the program. Here’s a peek into Emily's latest project: busting Hollywood myths about the Pony Express!When I was offered the Postal Museum’s Family Programs Internship, I did not expect to add to my resume: “able to quote every line from a variety of old Hollywood westerns and Pony Express TV shows.” After several hours of watching YouTube clips of Roy Rogers rescuing damsels in distress and characters from "Bonanza" riding off into the sunset, it was getting difficult to have conversations without a western accent. But all of this was worth it because these clips are some of the best educational tools around—primarily because they get everything wrong. I knew it would be a challenge to change all of the misconceptions our visitors have about this brief period of American history, but why not tackle them at the source: Hollywood.
romanticizing the Pony Express.
I selected six different Pony Express TV shows and movies as evidence in our case against Hollywood’s historical mishaps. "Bonanza" (1966), "Young Riders" (1989), and "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok" (1951) compose our TV culprits, with "Winds of the Wasteland" (1936), "Young Bill Hickok" (1940), and "Frontier Pony Express" (1939) as our feature-length frauds. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to bust the myths propagated by these slick productions. We had to think of a creative way to (as all experienced museum educators say) interpret them.
Enter Craig, or as our visitors will get to know him, Johnny Dakota, Pony Express rider! Craig has graciously volunteered to be our costumed interpreter for the April 3rd program. This is no small task, as Craig must take on the persona of an 1860 Pony Express rider, master a western accent, and wear a vest that is slightly too small; all while remembering a significant amount of historical information. As Johnny Dakota, Craig will leap up halfway through the screening of the video clips and excitedly set Hollywood straight with nostalgic anecdotes about his days on the trail.Throughout the day, Johnny Dakota will also be available to answer questions, pose for photos, and puzzle over visitors’ cell phones…or “miniature telegraph machines” as he knows them.
Take a look at these video clips and see if you can spot the historical inaccuracies! I’ve listed a few below—and this is just the beginning!
These clips were specially selected for both their high entertainment value and their glaring historical inaccuracies. How many of these errors did you catch?
Mail transfers and the culture of the station house: Riders relied on fresh horses and each other to relay the mail across the west. These clips do a pretty good job of showing that these transfers took place, but most of them leave out one detail: the horn. Some riders carried a horn with them, using it to alert the station masters to be ready with a fresh horse. In a "Young Riders" clip, one of the riders hollers “YAHHHOOOOOO” instead of using a horn, which is what several riders would do instead of carrying a horn. While the show gets that part correct, it also portrays the station house as a very social place. In fact, it was probably quite lonely. As Johnny Dakota tells us, “there never woulda been a whole darned party waitin’ at the station!”
Serious Shooting: In many of these clips, the Pony Express riders rely on their guns to get out of tough jams. Whether they faced wild animals or a villain in a black hat, fictional riders were always packing heat. Truthfully though, Pony Express riders rarely carried excessive weaponry. A lighter revolver would have been carried but rifles would have been left behind—they were too heavy. If you want to be fast, you have to be light. Hollywood spices up plot lines with bad guys and wild animals but rarely shows one of the main difficulties on the trail—the weather!
The Pony Rider as a Hero: Although we can call the Pony Express riders of 1860 heroes for their bravery on the trail and their dedication to uniting the nation through mail, they were hardly so in the Hollywood sense. The "Frontier Pony Express" includes a scene in which Roy Rogers chases down a run-away stage coach to rescue a southern belle. Although historical characters like Buffalo Bill probably would have claimed to have done something like this, riders would have been way more focused on getting the mail on its way as quickly as possible.
The Pony’s Last Ride: In one of the last clips, two riders discuss the telegraph and the end of the Pony Express. Luckily for them, Russell, Majors, & Waddell let them take home their ponies at the end of the service. This scene is probably more fact than fiction, especially because the Pony Express was never intended to be a permanent service.
There are two main lessons I’ve learned from busting all of these Pony Express myths. The first: don’t believe everything you see on the silver screen. The second: the true history of something is usually just as, or even more, interesting than the Hollywood version.