Irish Pony Express trailblazer had four wives and nine children

“Pounding hoofbeats that were heard around the world.”

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 6:00 am
Pony Express painting marking the launch of the service on April 3, 1860

That was America’s Pony Express and 160 years later the story of those hoofbeats still resonates.

It existed for just 19 months but it has gone into legend - the romance and drama of swift horses and the 80 young, fast and fearless horsemen who rode nearly 2,000 miles through prairie, desert, plains and mountains to ‘unite’ the far west of the United States with the ‘civilized’ east.

And (of course!) an Irishman played a big part in the story, as Mitchell Smyth discovered.

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'Orphans preferred.' Recruitment Poster for the Pony Express

Former Coleraine journalist Smyth, from Ballycastle, once researched the Pony Express story while following part of the Express route when he was travel editor of the Toronto Star.

“Howard Egan, from Tullamore, County Offaly, was a kingpin in the Express, both as a rider and as the boss of one of the most dangerous stretches of the Pony Express trail,” he tells me.

“But he was much more - a trailblazer, trader, wagon master, lawman, gold prospector and rancher.”

And he was also a murderer!

Howard Egan in his 50s

But more about that later.

The Pony Express, Smyth says, came into being in 1860 because there was a need to get mail across the country in less than the six weeks the stage coaches took.

Between Missouri, where the westbound telegraph lines ended, and California, 1,966 miles away, relay stations with fresh mounts were set up 10 to 15 miles apart, where the riders switched horses and mail pouches (called mochilas) in less than two minutes flat.

Each rider - 40 in each direction - covered about 100 miles a day.

Howard’s first wife, Tamson, with one of her children

The Express guaranteed mail in “ten days or less,” and they delivered.

The first riders hit the saddle on April 3, 1860.

That’s where Howard Egan comes in.

When the Pony Express was conceived, he was an official in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Having blazed a route from there to California for his commercial trade, he was appointed superintendent of the Express trail between Salt Lake City and Carson City, Nevada (322 miles), an especially hazardous section.

At 46 years of age he was in theory too old to be a Pony rider (the company preferred teenage lads) but as the boss he could make his own rules, so he got in the saddle.

On the very first eastward run he picked up the mochila at Rush Valley and carried it 50 miles to Salt Lake City, riding through the night and through a snowstorm.

He continued to ride regularly, as did two of his sons.

Generally the Native American tribes tolerated the service. There were occasional skirmishes but the young riders could always get away. As Egan explained - the Pony’s grain-fed mounts were much faster than the grass-fed ponies of the attackers.

On a daylight run Egan once came upon a Paiute encampment (North American indigenous inhabitants) in a narrow canyon.

Rather than lose time making a run-around, he rode straight in, guns blazing, and was away before the braves could mount.

On another occasion his horse was disabled five miles from the relay station and Egan grabbed the mochila and ran the rest of the way on foot.

Aside from his adventures with the Pony Express, other aspects of his life were similarly colourful.

After the Egan family left Ireland for Canada and settled in Montreal, Howard began to wander.

The year 1838 found him in Salem, Massachusetts, where he fell hard for a young lady called Tamson Parshley.

They married. He was 23, she was 13.

Both were Protestants but they soon converted to the new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and Howard was part of the Mormon vanguard that went west to settle in what would become Utah following religious persecution in the east.

He quickly rose in the hierarchy of the Mormon church, becoming bodyguard for leader Brigham Young and a major in the Mormon militia.

And he quickly embraced the Mormon practice of polygamy, taking three more wives. (The Mormon Church rejected plural marriage in the 1890s, but it is still practiced by some sects in Utah),

In 1849 Egan joined the gold rush (“the Forty-Niners”) in California.

When he returned two years later he found his first wife Tamson was pregnant by their friend James Monroe.

Egan sought him out and shot him dead, saying: “This vengeance is sweet for me.”

He was tried for murder.

His lawyer, summing up, said that under “mountain common law…the man who seduces his neighbour’s wife must die and her nearest relative must kill him.”

The jury took 15 minutes to agree.

Egan raised the child as his own son.

Howard Egan died in 1878 at the age of 63.

As noted, the Pony Express began in April 1860; the last rider dismounted on 20th November 1861, four weeks after the coast-to-coast telegraph line was completed.

Eight years later the last spike was driven in the transcontinental railroad - built partly on trails that had carried the Pony Express.

And the legend took over.

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