Historian finds Pony Express ad
By Don Thompson
March 20, 2005
SACRAMENTO – The advertisement has been famous for generations: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
It’s on T-shirts and other souvenirs celebrating the short-lived Pony Express that carried mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and San Francisco from April 3, 1860, to late 1861.
Joseph Nardone, national executive director and historian of the Pony Express Trail Association, spent years searching through newspaper archives looking for the ad, before concluding it’s a hoax dating no earlier than 1902.
But in his search he discovered the true first, and apparently only, newspaper advertisement seeking Pony Express riders, though other ads of the period sought horses to run the mail route. Riders switched to fresh horses every 10 to 15 miles, handing off to a new rider every 75 miles or so to complete the 1,943-mile route.
The brief ad ran in the Sacramento Union newspaper exactly 145 years ago yesterday.
Nardone and other aficionados spent the day dedicating a monument in historical Old Sacramento commemorating the ad and the hotel where job applicants gathered.
“Men Wanted! The undersigned wishes to hire ten or a dozen men, familiar with the management of horses, as hostlers or riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City. Wages, $50 per month and found (room and board). I may be found at the St. George Hotel Sunday, Monday and Tuesday,” reads the ad, signed by William W. Finney, the agent for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company.
“Two hundred people showed up for about 10 to a dozen positions,” said Nardone, referring to a subsequent Sacramento Union account.
The granite monument shows the ad and an artist’s rendition of riders demonstrating their skills outside the long-since demolished four-story hotel, considered one of the largest and most handsome structures in California when it was built in 1856.
The “orphans preferred” version of the ad was generally accepted for decades, though Nardone said no one has been able to find the original publication that is usually merely attributed to an unnamed California newspaper.
Nardone and the association have been placing monuments at historical locations along the trail since April 3, 1990, when the first was unveiled in St. Joseph to mark the 130th anniversary. By the end of April, 50 will be in place the length of the route. Less than a handful more will be needed before the Pony Express’ 150th anniversary in 2010, he said.