Mythic heroes of the plains

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

The Pony Express provides one of the enduring images of the American frontier -- the "one irreplaceable fixture of the Old West," writes journalist and novelist Christopher Corbett. Less celebrated but no less stirring are the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the black cavalrymen who served in the Indian wars of the late 19th century. Both the Pony Express rider and the Buffalo Soldier, however, are compounded of equal parts of myth and reality, as we are reminded in Corbett's "Orphans Preferred" and in "The Buffalo Soldiers" by historians William H. Leckie and Shirley A. Leckie.

Corbett, for example, shows us that the line between the historical record and a colorful yarn is sometimes hard to distinguish when it comes to "the Pony," as the Pony Express was affectionately known during its brief era of service. He makes the point with sly good humor when he describes the storied moment on April 3, 1860, when the first Pony Express rider left St. Joseph, Mo., heading for Sacramento, 2,000 miles away across a rugged and threatening wilderness:

"At 7:15 that evening -- depending on whose version of the story you prefer -- Johnny Frey (perhaps it was spelled Freye or Fry or Frye) or Billy Richardson, sometimes confused with Johnson Richardson

The black cavalry units of the U.S. Army in the period after the Civil War were victims of a different kind of myth-making and misunderstanding. Native Americans who encountered them in battle dubbed them "buffalo soldiers" because, according to one account from 1873, "their wooly heads are so much like the matted cushion that is between the horns of the buffalo." And, despite their proven courage and tenacity, they were sometimes victims of the racist assumptions of their own white officers, the Leckies tell us. Such was the fate of a black trooper who was listed as a deserter after he was sent on a mail run from Ft. Arbuckle on the Texas frontier in the dead of winter but never showed up at his destination: "Many months later his remains were found lodged in some willows along the Canadian River several miles below the fort," write the husband-and-wife team. "Still strapped to his back was the mail pouch for which he had given his life in an attempt to cross a swollen stream and deliver it to Fort Gibson."

Pony Express riders demonstrated some of the same spirit. They were forced to endure endless hours in the saddle as well as sparse provisions, primitive way stations, bad weather, wild animals, attacks by Indians and rough roads or no roads at all. The title of Corbett's book, "Orphans Preferred," was the phrase that reputedly appeared in newspaper ads seeking "young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen, willing to risk death daily." Only once did a Pony Express rider "dump the blanket," a contemptuous term for a coward who refused to ride in the face of danger and privation.

Corbett devotes fully half his book to an account of how the Pony Express passed, quickly and irretrievably, from history into popular culture, thanks to the efforts of impresario Buffalo Bill and dime novelist Ned Buntline, among many others. Even the famous "Orphans Preferred" advertisements, as Corbett points out, may have been wholly fanciful. The Leckies, too, touch upon the depiction of black soldiery in the movies in an epilogue to "The Buffalo Soldiers," which was first published in 1967 and appears now in a revised and updated edition. But there is a hard and cutting edge to both books.

Both the Pony Express and the Buffalo Soldiers were put to service in what we can now recognize as a war of conquest. Corbett calls the Pony Express "a daring and madcap and foolish idea." The whole enterprise lasted only 18 months before it collapsed in financial ruin. But Corbett shows that it was not merely a stunt; rather, the goal of carrying mail across the continent in days rather than weeks or months was essential to the success of American settlement and exploitation of the frontier. It was only the method, not the idea, that failed -- the Pony Express went out of business after the first telegraph line opened between New York and San Francisco in 1861.

The Buffalo Soldiers, of course, served on the front lines of a war that was real rather than metaphorical: the campaign to contain, suppress and kill the native peoples of the West. "[T]here is admittedly a haunting irony," say the Leckies, "to the fact that former slaves found themselves fighting against people who were in the process of being dispossessed of their land and whose culture was misunderstood and under attack." Here, too, we see something inevitable at work: The integration of the American armed forces, which did not fully take place until shortly before the Korean War, can be said to have its roots on the plains of the American West. *

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