Americans have been fascinated with the Pony Express since its riders first hit leather on April 03, 1860. The send off of the Pony Express was as exciting to the American people of the 19th century as the launching of the Space Shuttle was in the 20th century. The saga of the Pony Express symbolizes the spirit of America. It has been ranked as one of the most remarkable exploits in American history and was extremely important in the development of the West.
The young men hired to relay mail, personified the ancient Greek motto, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” They had to be expert horsemen, needed to know the terrain, accustomed to outdoor life, able to endure severe hardship, ride in all weather, under all conditions and able to look death in the face.
The horses they rode were mostly ‘high grade Kentucky stock, swift as the wind.’ They were grain fed to enhance their overall condition and increase endurance. The western divisions typically used mustangs, animals native to the country noted for their toughness and speed.
Nevertheless, for over 140 years there have been controversies surrounding the events that took place at the Pikes Peak Stables on that historic evening in St. Joseph Missouri. Unfortunately, the identity of that historic ride became a subject of debate. Was it Johnny Frye, or was it Billy Richardson? Both men had worked for Fish and Robidoux in 1859 and were part of the Pony Express division that ran from St. Joseph to Seneca Kansas.
Johnny Frye, a handsome, courageous young man born in 1840 in Bourbon County Kentucky, moved westward with his family in 1849. He lived on a ranch in Wathena Kansas. Frye was well-liked in early St. Joseph and an exceptional horseman who frequently rode in local horse races. Frye was the home town favorite admired by the ladies and became the subject of charming poems and stories.
Billy (William) Richardson (not to be confused with the Richardson who rode in Nevada) had accompanied his family on a Wagon Train as they traveled westward from Virginia. He was one of four children whose parents were killed in an Indian raid. They, like many children, were orphaned. An aunt, the guardian of the children sent three of the children back to the East to a boarding school to be educated. It was during the time of their stay on the east coast that Billy was shanghaied onto a sea going freighter. He was a shanghaied sailor for a number of years before he found an opportunity to make a successful escape. He made his way back to St. Joseph, a city on the edge of western civilization. Only then, did his family learn of his past fate.
William Richardson was 26 years old when he applied for the job, “Orphans preferred. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily.” He took this oath “I DO HEREBY swear ‘before the great and living God’ that during my engagement with 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 other employees in 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.” He was one of the first riders hired by Division Superintendent A.E. Lewis for Majors, Russell and Waddell. After signing the pledge, Billy Richardson was presented with a small leather-bound Bible.
In 1913, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument of Billy Richardson in St. Joseph, Missouri to commemorate the starting point of the Pony Express. Up until this time the identity of the first rider wasn’t a topic of debate. Although popular folklore insisted that Fry was the first rider, none of the newspaper accounts named him as such.
Then in 1923, Louise Platt Hauck, a well-known author and capable researcher from St. Joseph was commissioned by the St. Joseph Pony Express Celebration to make a thorough investigation of the question of the first rider. After sorting through the fact and fiction, she came to a conclusion also shared by Raymond and Mary Settle, authors of Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (considered by Pony Express historians to be one of the most complete works on the Pony Express).
Her search brought to light the long missing files of several newspapers from St. Joseph and nearby Elwood Kansas (where Billy lived in 1860) that carried articles on the start of the Pony Express. She investigated the statements of eyewitnesses and consulted municipal records, old letters, diaries, and very old scrap-books. After exhaustive research she reported that an analysis of the evidence clearly favored Richardson.
Ms. Hauck put-forward several reasons that so many people might honestly believe that Frye made the first ride. First, the hour the actual ride took place at 7:15 p.m. was dark excluding the starting point, which was most probably well illuminated. Secondly, Johnny Frye did make the second run on April 10th, at 4:10 pm. All the eyewitnesses she contacted agreed that the horse he rode was jet black. Lastly, Johnny Frye made the final lap into St. Joseph with the first mail from the West and received a great deal of publicity for his record breaking run on the occasion of the delivery of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. The Frye tradition had many ardent supporters.
The confusion however was further convoluted by a 1941 newspaper clipping from the St. Joseph News-Press. A 91 year old man also named Billy Richardson and who went through most of his life as an imposter claimed:
“It just happened that my brother, Paul Coburn, was the manager for the Pony Express here and he accidentally threw the mail pouch on my pony instead of Frye’s. We set off down the street with the ponies’ hooves clattering and my pony carrying mail. Down at the ferry, however, the mail was transferred to Frye’s mount; He was the one who deserved the credit,” recollected the man who would have only been 9 or 10 years old at the time of the Pony Express.
This statement alone challenged the credibility of the person who lived beneath the cloak of William ‘Billy’ Richardson, the actual express man. On April 4, 1860, the St. Joseph Daily West reported that at “a quarter past seven o’clock, last evening the mail was placed by M. Jeff Thompson, the Mayor of St. Joseph.”
This was a highly publicized event. It was the official celebration for the Pony Express, not a haphazard affair with the Mochila (saddlebags, designed especially to carry mail) being tossed carelessly on young boy’s pony by an irresponsible stable hand. The goal was to snare a million dollar government contract for delivery of the mail. Every move was orchestrated before hand by the company to impress the U.S. Government to secure a mail service agreement.
No where, in any accounts (eye witness or otherwise), do they mention Johnny Frye leaving the pony barn accompanied by a young boy on his pony ‘carrying the mail’ down the street to the ferry. The magnitude of this event alone would have been monitored by a representative of Russell, Majors and Waddell; who would certainly have not allowed such an oversight to go uncorrected before ‘we set off down the street with the pony hooves clattering and my pony carrying [mail],” as the 91 year old Richardson boasted.
The contemporary photograph of the four riders made from the old tintype that was acquired from an elderly man in Kansas City; who was given the keepsake from his father who had been a stableman for the Pony Express in St. Joseph. His father had told him that the one standing on the left in the “funny shirt” had been a sailor.
In the picture of the four express men, he is wearing a sailor’s hat and jacket that were customary for sea going sailors at that time in history. The photograph had to have been taken before October 1863; the year when Johnny Fry was killed by confederate guerillas at Baxter springs Kansas. The photograph also captures the ‘Richardson’ jaw and chin, a family trait of the Richardson clan, even today.
Lee Starnes, a member of the St. Joseph Historical Society spent over thirty years diligently searching “to locate material that would more clearly identify the first rider, whoever he might be,” affirmed Starnes. Without prejudice, he made a point to contact as many ‘old timers’ as possible. In one such interview, R.I. Young of St. Joseph identified Richardson as having been a sailor, but believed he had learned his horsemanship in Virginia as a boy. In 1944, Young told Starnes that his father had been good friends with Richardson’s father when he lived in Virginia and was friends with both Frye and Richardson, who used to ride and race horses on the popular race track on their farm adjacent to Sparta road in the late 1850s and 1860s.
What really happened on the night of April 3, 1860? Della Richardson, who was at the Pikes Peak Stables on that evening, gave this account. She said, “The riders drew straws to determine who was to be the first pony rider. Johnny Frye drew the shortest straw, so he was going to be the first rider. However when the time came to ride, Johnny was unable to make the ride.” apparently, Frye injured himself the day before when he attempted to ride an untrained horse and was thrown. He badly sprained his wrist, “Billy who had drawn the next shortest straw made the ride.”
It is documented; the train from Hannibal to St. Joseph that held the Mochila was running late. The first run was already behind schedule. After the mayor had finished speaking, Billy mounted the spirited mare with the Mochila and galloped off into the darkness of the night and obscured in the pages of history.
The next day, on April 4, 1860, St. Joseph Daily West (written within hours of the actual event) and reprinted on April 7 in the St. Joseph Weekly West reported: “Horse and rider started off amid the loud and continuous cheers of the assembled multitude, all anxious to witness every particular of the inauguration of this greatest enterprise, which it has become duty, as a public journalist, to chronicle. The rider is a Mr. Richardson, formerly a sailor, and a man accustomed to every description of hardship, having sailed for years amid the snows and icebergs of the Northern Ocean. He was to ride last night the first stage of forty miles, changing horses once, in five hours; and before this paragraph meets the eyes of our readers, the various dispatches contained in the saddlebags, which left here at dark last evening, will have reached the town of Marysville, on the Big Blue, one hundred and twelve miles distant-an enterprise never before accomplished even in this proverbially fast portion of a fast country.”
Francis M. Posegate, the owner and editor of the St. Joseph Daily West (published by F.M. Posegate & Co.) and most likely the author of the article that named Mr. Richardson as the first rider. He refers to Mr. Richardson as an experienced sailor. Frank Posegate lived in St. Joseph for ten years when the article was written was as familiar with the residents of the area as much as anyone living there.
Steve Williams, Posegate’s great grandson believes the dispute over the question of the first rider can be traced to an article History of Buchanan County 1881 published by The St. Joseph Steam Printing Company (owned and operated by F.M. Posegate).
According to the article, contestants had three hours and 30 minutes to run the longest race in America. 5,000 people stood on the river bank and watched as Johnny Fry landed on the ferryboat with five minutes to spare. Fry was first rider into St. Joseph on a horse named ‘Sylph.’ “I wonder if this is not what some foggy memories were recalling 30-50 years later when they insisted Johnny Fry was the first rider,” contended Williams.
When the Pony Express discontinued, Billy joined his sister Della in Fort Laramie in the Nebraska Territory (Wyoming) where she was employed as a civilian school teacher. It was there, that Billy came down with pneumonia and died. He was buried in the old Fort Laramie cemetery. He was only 28 years old.
Billy Richardson symbolizes the courageous, hardy individuals, with hearts of lions, which proved to be some of the most durable horseman to ever ride across the pages of history. He was, as has been described; “Wiry, with a constitution of iron, capable of riding through storms of hail, snow, ice and sleet, through terrific and torrential streams, past the deadly lurking savage foe, carrying mail always into the west and back to the east.” This was Billy Richardson, the official Pony Express rider.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Editors, Kansas Historical Quarterly Vol. 14 / No. 4, page 456: Errata and Addenda, Volume XIV
Elwood Directory (1860 – 1861): p. 7, H. Fotheringham & Company
Hartnagle, Ernie and Elaine The Correct Identity of Billy Richardson, the Pony Express Rider, History Buff.com, 2004
Root, George A. and Hickman, Russell K. Kansas Historical Quarterly Vol. 14 / No. 1, p. 36-92. February 1946: Part IV – The Platte route – Concluded. The Pony Express and Pacific Telegraph.
Settles, Raymond W. and Settles, Mary Lund, Saddles and Spurs: the Pony Express Saga, University of Nebraska Press, 1955
Starnes, Lee, The Pony Express Mystery, Museum Graphic Vol. 3 / Winter 1951 /No.1: 4, 10-11
Williams, Steve, The West and the Controversy Over the First Pony Express Rider, Northwest Missouri Genealogical Society Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, p. 7–19, 2001