Bill's Story

This story was originally submitted as an essay in a writing contest sponsored by the Genealogical Society of Sonoma County, California. It presents a particular personal touch to the history and lore of the Pony Express as the author is the great great grand daughter of William Waddell.

On June 14, 1997 the National Pony Express Association will be conducting the 137th Anniversary Rerun ride over the historic Pony Express Trail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. During the ten-day event over 500 riders and horses will carry the mochila filled with commemorative letters 1,966 miles. It is the longest event held annually on a historical trail in the nation even surpassing the famed Iditarod.

When Bill Waddell was a young man of 17 in 1824, he used to sit on the banks of the Ohio River and watch the Steamboats paddle their way up and down the river. He listened to the stories of adventure and wondered if he would ever get the wide open, wild west of Missouri!

He ran away from home at one point, to seek his fame and fortune, and work in a lead mine in Illinois. It didn't seem as though that kind of labor would get him the rewards he had in mind and so he tried clerking in a store. He soon came back to Mason County Kentucky where his father John, got him a job working on the William Byram plantation. There is where he met and fell in love with Susan Clark Byram. They courted exactly two weeks and were married January 1, 1829. Susan's father was pleased with their union and as a wedding gift gave the couple Negroes, horses, sheep and fifteen hundred dollars. Bill and Susan both worked toward one goal, TO GO WEST!

In 1836 Bill moved his family, which had grown to include two sons and two daughters, to Lafayette County Missouri and the town of Lexington. Bill bought a dry goods store and soon was selling all sorts of merchandise. Replacing his inventory was fairly easy Since Lexington was right on the Missouri River and goods came right up the river by Steamboat.

Bill prospered in Lexington, his family increased by two more sons and an equal amount of daughters. Lexington was a small town and most everybody traded and did business at his store. The family went to the local Baptist Church, and here is where Bill met his future partner William H. Russell. The two men were so different from one another and this was probably, what drew them together. Bill Waddell was careful, plodding and very stolid. Russell was flamboyant, a bit of a schemer and as Susan put it, a plunger. Since Russell was operating a small wagon train to supply one of the Forts and Waddell supplied the goods to fill the wagon trains, the merger was rather made in heaven. Russell soon went after so many contracts that the business of Russell & Waddell soon grew to include the best wagon master alive, Alexander Majors. All the Western Forts were being supplied goods by Russell, Majors & Waddell. The first year they were in business they made phenomenal amounts of money. Bill sold the farm they owned and bought a huge mansion in town and on the same street that William H. Russell lived.

The competition for government contracts was intense between Russell, Majors & Waddell, Wells Fargo and Butterfields. The key to the contracts was the mail runs. The company branched out to include the Pikes Peak & Overland Express Stage. Bill was the manager of the whole business and liked to keep a close eye on where the expenses were going and also to oversee just exactly what was needed on each train to go West. Some of them were as long as four miles. This took lots of organization from the purchase of oxen down to wagon wheel grease. Bill rode along on at least four trips to the West. He loved it, he'd sit right up in the front wagon. He didn't worry about the business in Lexington he left his sons Milton and John in charge.

Some of the Wagon Trains ran into real trouble on the plains, what with the Indians and some of the Mormons. They destroyed wagons, Oxen and goods which grew very costly to replace.

Russell panicked and decided not to confer with the other two and lined up a scheme that the government would have to renew their contracts with them, and the scheme was the Pony Express. If they could get the mail to Sacramento faster than the Stage Lines the Government would have to give the trio the corner on the contract. When Russell told the others about his idea Major's and Waddell backed him 100 per cent. People ridiculed the men, saying that they were never going to make a trip like that in just 10 days, "they were crazy" they said. It took the men less time than you can imagine to assemble the horses and riders and before anybody knew, the very first Pony Express Rider left on the evening of April 3, 1860 from the Patee House, where the partners had their operating offices.

Among the dignitaries were, Mayor Jeff Thompson who gave a glowing speech, most all of the townspeople, including Bill Waddell his son Milt, his daughter Alice Waddell Slayback and her husband Alonzo W. Slayback, Atty. who recently had set up his practice in St. Joseph. Slayback had drawn up the Partnership papers between the three men. They were all there gathered around amid the sound of cannons going off, whistles blowing, gunfire and banners waiving for the first effort to take the mail to Sacramento.

Ten days later the Rider arrived in Sacramento to just as much of a fanfare as the sendoff had been. It lasted just a few short months but showed the country it could be joined together, East to West, kept California in the Union, forged the way for the Telegraph and Railroad. The feat was a costly disaster. The firm never got the contracts that they expected and creditors were not paid off and consequently the Company sold out to Wells Fargo and Bill Holladay. Bill Waddell eventually went totally blind and couldn't look out over the vast plains west of Leavenworth, he died in 1872 a broken man and was never able to recoup his losses.

How little he knew that the hair-brained scheme of Russell would live on in History as full of romance, adventure and the whole lore of the wild west. Names like Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody and Pony Bob would live on and on. It would become the subject of novels, radio programs, television shows and movies. There was even a famous painting done of the "Coming and Going" of the Pony Express by Frederic Remington.

In 1960 the 100th Anniversary celebration was headed by a gt. grandson of Bill's, Waddell F. Smith, a special plaque was placed on Bill's grave commemorating the Pony Express and it was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Waddell F. Smith spent many hours promoting the history of the Overland Freight Company and the Pony Express. Many of Bill's descendants live in California, from Vallejo, Napa, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, Carmel Valley and Sonoma County.

Since this story deadline is so close to the re-run of the Pony Express, I thought I'd take this opportunity as the author of this and the gt. gt. granddaughter of Bill to pay him a little tribute and sincere applause.

The end.

Copyright 1997 Deanna Adams Holm (Holm
All Rights Reserved not to be reproduced in part or whole without the authors permission.

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