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Tag Archive: history

Mar 11

Fascination with Pony Express still strong after 150 years

From The Pony Express Rider, 1861—“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

When I was a kid growing up in northwest Missouri where the Pony Express originated, its lore and legend was a familiar part of our culture, but the Pony Express was never so mundane that it lost its magic.

It was romantic then, an icon, one that stirred visions of Buffalo Bill and of pell-mell dangerous rides through the perilous Wild West.

It is just as idolized and quixotic now.

Thus, it is no wonder that fans and historians alike are looking forward to its 150th anniversary, April 1 to 3, in St. Joseph, where the Pony Express legend began.

It is not stretching the truth to say that back in the 50s, my siblings and I daydreamed about riders who dared to battle the dangers of the Wild West. On many a day, we stood on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River and pretended to be Pony Express riders.

Perhaps, the Pony Express fascinated us so much because of its lightening-fast horses and courageous, fearless young riders. After all, Pony Express riders traveled 75 miles per day through rugged terrain, fierce elements and unknown threats as fast as the horse could trot.

We thought that thrilling and exhilarating.

And that same excitement must have sparked the imagination of Americans on April 3, 1860, when the first Pony Express rider, Johnny Fry, left Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph. He carried U.S. mail bound for Sacramento, nearly 2000 miles away.

He was not a big person, Johnny Fry. The Pony Express horses could not carry heavy anything or anyone as they trotted at a fast-paced gait to a relay station, either 5 or 20 miles away. Horse and rider would travel to either a Swing Station where the rider would change mounts or to the Home Station where the rider would sleep.

Bold intrepid riders began their journey in St. Joseph, Missouri, and rode through Kansas along the Oregon Trail to Nebraska and on to Wyoming and Salt Lake City, and then through the Utah-Nevada dessert and over the Sierra Nevada mountains to California.

When Johnny Fry left St. Joseph on that day in 1860, he carried with him, according to records in the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, forty-nine letters, five private telegrams and newspapers meant for folks in California.

Normal coast-to-coast mail delivery in those days took nearly a month by boat or stagecoach, but the Pony Express accomplished the impossible in only 10 days. A Herculean feat. Previously, it sometimes took the government of the United States six months to get an official message to the west coast.
Then just as fast as its horses and riders rode from one relay station to the next, the Pony Express ended its operation as suddenly as it started.

The “Pony Express Rider” published this explanation: “The completion of the telegraph line to California spelled the end of the Pony Express in October, 1861. Its lifetime had lasted only eighteen months but the imagery of a lone rider making a perilous journey against all odds made an indelible impression on the nation’s collective memory.”

Incidentally and according to legend, Buffalo Bill (William Cody) made the longest non-stop ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back when he found that his relief rider had been killed. The distance of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous portions of the entire trail was completed in 21 hours and 40 minutes using 21 horses.
And as Buffalo Bill once recalled: “Excitement was plentiful… as a Pony Express rider.”
No kidding.

(Note: The Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, Mo, will host a three-day sesquicentennial event April 1-3. Details available at www.ponyexpress.org.)

Jul 02

I still believe in Betsy Ross

Call it a fable if you will, but I still believe Betsy Ross sewed the first flag for this great country!

My belief doesn’t waver despite the fact that vexillologists (flag experts) have disagreed for decades on whether or not this widowed upholsterer from Philadelphia sewed and embroidered such a masterful creation as our American Flag.

Surely she did.

I also believe Paul Revere rode into the night warning his fellow colonists about the emanate invasion of the British.

I will draw the line, however, at the notion that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Delaware River.

Come on. That river is just too wide.

But, when it comes to Betsy Ross, I won’t budge!

Her grandson, William Canby, by most historical accounts, addressed the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870 to honor his grandmother, Elizabeth (Betsy) Griscom Ross, for her service to the country.

Lots of folks knew about Betsy sewing the flag back then.

At the time, however, newspapers did not write this story or much else for that matter. There were few newspapers anyway, and journalism was a far cry from what it has become today.

CNN and FOX trucks were not hovering outside her house as she sewed.

There was no Associated Press, no Reuters, no radio, no internet, no bloggers, no text messaging, no cell phones, and no wire service.

Good grief. They didn’t even have wires.

People had to rely on word of mouth—long known to be the best advertising in the world.

That’s why I believe this story.

Betsy’s children and their children learned their Grandmother’s flag story by heart. It was passed down from generation to generation until it became our story, too.

Eventually, critics began to cry that the tale is a fabrication because, get this argument they offer, there are no newspaper accounts of the story.

I just answered that.

Young William Canby was only 11 when his grandmother died. Thus, some historians and journalists have concluded that he couldn’t possibly remember this correctly.

Well, I beg to differ.

I can remember plenty of stories from my grandmother at about that age, and my mother and aunt continued to remind me of those over the years. Of course, William got the story right. Don’t you know his mother did not let him forget his grandmother’s account of how she made the first flag for the brand new nation.

Critics also say there is no documented proof that Washington was even in Philadelphia when Betsy supposedly met with him. However, if you “Google search” Betsy Ross long enough, you will find that Washington’s own records put him there at that time.

Betsy’s family remembers, according to grandson William, that sometime during late spring and early summer of 1776, a Congressional Committee came to call at Betsy’s upholstery business. They included George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross.

Here, the plot thickens.

George Washington (we all know who he was) attended the same church as Betsy Ross, Christ Church Episcopal, in Philadelphia. Accounts of Betsy’s life on her internet Betsy Ross Home Page mention that she often sat in the same pew as Washington.

Pew 12 to be exact.

Since she was an upholsterer and Washington knew her well and needed an upholsterer…draw your own conclusions.

Committee member #2, Robert Morris, was considered by many to be quite wealthy and owned large parcels of land—no doubt, the money guy in this project.

The third man on the flag committee was George Ross.  John Ross, Betsy’s late husband, was George Ross’s nephew.

I could rest my case now, but there are two more points that need mention.

Naysayers explain that there is no Congressional Record of Betsy Ross ever being commissioned for the project.

Turns out, at that time in history, Congress appointed scads of committees, many secret. I have to wonder, as do Betsy’s archivists, if anyone paid much attention to the one trying to find a seamstress!

Historians note that there is no receipt for Betsy’s labor showing that the Continental Congress or one of its three committee members paid her.

My answer to that is they had precious little paper anyway. Maybe she should have sewn them a receipt made out of material.

Americans have dubbed their flag with fond names such as Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, and the Red, White and Blue.

We sing about this flag; we write poems about it; and we revere it because it symbolizes our freedom and provides hope to others seeking that as well.

William Canby, however, did something a bit different than we when he gazed upon this flag.  I’m guessing he thought of his sweet grandmother, Betsy Ross, every time he saw it, and he remembered her great deed well.

We should all be so lucky to have such a grandmother and such a grandson.

I still believe in Betsy Ross!

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