383: Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

by Gerard


383.1430973: Corbett, Christopher. Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. 255 pp. ISBN 0-7679-0692-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 380: Commerce, communications, and transportation
  • 383: Postal communication
  • 383.1 Mail handling
  • 383.14: Transportation systems, collection, and delivery
  • 383.143: Overland mail
  • +0973: United States

We know this much is true: In 1860, the business trio of Russell, Majors, & Waddell set about to revolutionize overland mail delivery in the United States. Backed by a congressional blessing (but not by congressional money), they sought to deliver mail to the citizens of California faster than ever before. Normally, mail took anywhere from one to six months to go from the East Coast to the West Coast, but the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company strove to cut that down to ten days. From the moment the first rider struck from St. Joseph, Missouri, the Pony Express became steep in folklore and American myth. Christopher Corbett’s Orphans Preferred tries to wrangle truth from the mouth of history to get to the most accurate picture of the Express he can.

One of the problems of undertaking this history, as Corbett immediately points out, is that it is nearly impossible to get true historical data on the Express. None of the business’s accounting papers have been found and the most reliable histories of the express were written 50 to 75 years after the Pony Express stopped operations in 1861. The route comprised 184 stations where wiry young men would quickly dismount and remount a new horse, transferring the mail satchel with them. After a few horses, a new rider was entrusted the mail and off he went. For eighteen months, this was the fastest way to message to folks out in California. Once the transcontinental telegraph and railroads were completed, there was no need for the Pony Express.

All in all, this book was informative, catchy, and fun. Corbett readily accepts the burden of fleshing out a thin historical narrative, and so interweaves stories from Buffalo Bill Cody (an early rider for the Express), Mark Twain, and Sir Richard Burton to give a better picture of how life in the Wild West was. There are lot of times he simply states that there is no real answer for the questions he is asking, and that’s just fine. In an era filled with romantic stories and tall tales of daring-do, it’s probably best that there’s also a little mystery to the men who raced against technological progress. A rich and entertaining book.