Review of “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express” by Jim DeFelice

The Pony Express was the name given to the mail service provider of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company. It debuted in April of 1860 and only lasted for eighteen months, but managed in that short time to become one of the most evocative symbols in American history of the Wild West.

The Pony Express, as the author explains, did only one thing: deliver mail and assorted telegraph messages. But it did so quickly; it took only ten days for a message to travel from Missouri to Sacramento.

The author points out that “Those of us who have lived through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century may think we invented the idea that information is a commodity.” On the contrary, he writes, information has always been a commodity, “one prized so highly that humans will drop old habits of gathering or sharing it quite readily if some new method promises more speed or efficiency.”

Poster from the Pony Express, advertising fast mail delivery to San Francisco. (Credit: Public Domain)

Unfortunately for both the author and the reader, most of the records involving the Pony Express have been lost to history. This means a great deal of the author’s story about the Pony Express itself is speculation. But he does fill us in on how the Express operated (i.e., infrastructure, changing horses, management, and so on), what the political climate was like at the time, and fills in gaps of documented knowledge with other relevant stories.

For example, he provides tales about some of the “Wild West” heroes of the time, including Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson, and about the technological developments of the period, such as the Colt revolver. He gives background on the partners who started the firm that was the parent company of the Pony Express: William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, and fills us in on the operations of its competitors, like Wells Fargo.

Pony Express riders. (Credit: Public Domain) Like modern jockeys, there was a weight limit to qualify.

A number of factors contributed to the demise of the Pony Express in 1861, from [alleged] embezzlement by one of the partners to the increasing ubiquity of telegraphs and railroads, to the development of monopolies that crushed lesser businesses. But the author wants us to know that the Pony Express survived in memory because:

“The values that we see in the Pony riders are values we cherish . . . adventure, speed, determination, endurance. The values of the service itself: dependability against all odds, unflagging commitment to a mission – these are values we too want to emulate…”

The famed frontier showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody claimed that he was a Pony Express rider at the age of 14. But the author says he almost certainly never rode for the service.

The book ends up with a detailed Appendix, explanation of sources, notes, and a rather extensive bibliography that is excellent and includes relevant websites.

Evaluation: Your reaction to this book may depend on whether you prefer your histories loose and breezy, like this one, or a bit more rigorous. Personally I am a fan of the latter, especially because with the right author, such as Hampton Sides, one can still find meticulous accounts that read like thrillers.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018

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2 Responses to Review of “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express” by Jim DeFelice

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I had no idea The Pony Express only lasted 18 months. I’d like to read more about it.

  2. Beth F says:

    This is on my list! I don’t mind some loose and breezy, though I like rigorous too.

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