Elijah Nicholas “Uncle Nick” Wilson
Rider on the Overland Express Route
On this Day:
April 13, 1860 the Pony Express came into existence.
More than 1,800 miles in 10 days! From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California the Pony Express could deliver a letter faster than ever before.
In operation for only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express nevertheless has become synonymous with the Old West. In the era before electronic communication, the Pony Express was the thread that tied East to West.
As a result of the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1847 Mormon exodus to Utah and the thousands who moved west on the Oregon Trail starting in the 1840s, the need for a fast mail service beyond the Rocky Mountains became obvious. This need was partially filled by outfits such as the Butterfield Overland Mail Service starting in 1857 and private carriers in following years.
But when postmaster general Joseph Holt scaled back overland mail service to California and the central region of the country in 1858, an even greater need for mail arose. The creation of the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell became the answer. It was later known as the Pony Express.
Ad in the Sacramento Union, March 19, 1860
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.
On June 16, 1860, about ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized the a bill instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the building of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast.
The passage of the bill resulted in the incorporation of the Overland Telegraph Company of California and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. While the lines were under construction the Pony Express operated as usual. Letters and newspapers were carried the entire length of the line from St. Joseph to Sacramento, but telegrams were carried only between the rapidly advancing wire ends.
On October 26, 1861, San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. On that day the Pony Express was officially terminated, but it was not until November that the last letters completed their journey over the route.
Most of the original trail has been obliterated either by time or human activities. Along many segments, the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture. In the western states, the majority of the trail has been converted, over the years, to double track dirt roads. Short pristine segments, believed to be traces of the original trail, can be seen only in Utah and California. However, approximately 120 historic sites may eventually be available to the public, including 50 existing Pony Express stations or station ruins.
Pony Express Rider’s Graze With Death On The Pony Express National Historic Trail
There are many unbelievable tall tales, and legends from the brave people who worked on the Pony Express. They rode day and night, rain, or shine, regardless of the known skirmishes with Native Americans across the trail’s length. Some of the riders’ stories are so inconceivable that they could not possibly have happened. How are we to know the facts from fiction? Historian Howard Driggs trusted Elijah Nicholas “Uncle Nick” Wilson as a primary source for the Pony Express experience. Wilson was born in April 1842 and had the exciting childhood of a pioneer living in the west. When he was about twelve years old, he decided to go live with the great chief of the Eastern Shoshone people, Washakie, and migrated across their territory for two years following the seasons.
When the Pony Express started hiring young riders, 18-year-old Wilson joined up. He had learned to break wild horses when he lived with the Shoshone, and he didn’t shy away from a challenge. He figured joining the exciting new Pony Express was worth a shot. The work was exhausting, physically demanding, and dangerous, but Wilson said he got used to it after a while.
One outlandish event occurred on Wilson’s way back from driving horses to Antelope Station in Nevada, through Superintendent Howard Egan’s division of the Pony Express route. Wilson stopped at Spring Valley Station, where he was met by two orphaned boys who had been abandoned by the station manager to run the operation by themselves. They asked Wilson to stay for supper. After he let his horse out to graze, he noticed the horses going towards a patch of Cedar or pinion pine trees — they were being driven away by two Indians, likely Paiutes or Shoshone. Guns blazing, Wilson sprinted towards the horses, trying to reach them before they were taken away. He fired three times at the men and missed. One of the raiders shot an arrow at Wilson, the flint-tipped arrow striking him two inches above his left eye. As the raiders rode off with the horses, the two boys reached Wilson and tried to yank the arrow from his forehead, but it wouldn’t give. They broke off the shaft, leaving the flint tip buried in Wilson’s forehead. The boys rolled him under the trees, thinking he was as good as dead. As Wilson lay unconscious, they ran for help at the next station. This is where some of the details of this story get a little hazy. It is not known for sure if the boys ran for help at Antelope Spring Station about 13 miles to the east, or if they ran to Schell Creek approximately 10 miles to the west.
They came back the next day with more men to help with Wilson’s burial only to find him still alive! They carried Wilson back to the station and called for a doctor from Ruby Valley, 60 miles to the west, to treat the wounded and unconscious rider. Although the doctor was able to dig out the arrowhead, he didn’t think the outlook was good. He prescribed the station boys to apply wet cloths onto Wilson’s head, and he left. Six days into this treatment, Supt. Egan, happened by the station and saw Wilson unconscious but still alive! He sent for the doctor to come again from Ruby Valley and give further treatment. Wilson was unconscious for eighteen days. Once he awoke, he quickly recovered and returned to riding the dangerous express line.
Afterward, Wilson was always seen wearing a hat low over his forehead to cover his scar. The head injury plagued him with headaches for the rest of his life. The scrape with death didn’t slow him down; he continued to ride for the Pony Express until it shut down in October 1861. He would go on to live a full life as a pioneer of the west and making a reputation for himself as a storyteller. He picked up the nickname “Uncle Nick” from children who loved to hear him spinning yarns. He learned to read and write so he could share his adventures with a wider audience. His story was also portrayed in the 2000 film, “Wind River”.
First, a Story:
“The first trip of the Pony Express was made in ten days – an average of two hundred miles a day. But we soon began stretching our riders and making better time.” – Buffalo Bill
Second, a Song:
Wind River is an 1854 Wyoming historical drama, based on Tom Shell’s adaptation of the true life memoirs of Pony Express rider Nick Wilson.
Thought for the Day:
The pony was very quiet because he was a little hoarse …
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky