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The Correct Identity
of Billy Richardson, the Pony Express Rider

By Ernie and Elaine Hartnagle
Email the authors

I am not writing to dispute who was the first Pony Express rider out of St. Joseph on April 03, 1860. I will leave that argument to others.

I am writing to establish the correct identity of Johnson William Richardson, my great uncle, whose picture, along with Johnny Fry, and two other pony riders, Charlie and Gus Cliff that has been displayed in the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph Missouri.

My name is Elaine Hartnagle (Helen Elaine Gibson). My father was Neville Zorne Gibson, known as "Bill" and my mother was Nina Helen Keller (Gibson). Her family came from Clay/Platt Counties in Missouri.

My grandmother, Delaware Richardson Gibson (a school teacher) had one sister, Jemimah Richardson, who also became a school teacher in McCook Nebraska. She had two brothers. Samuel Richardson, the oldest sibling who was a freighter and a bullwhacker on the Oregon Trail, and later settled in Oregon. The youngest brother, Johnson William Richardson gained recognition as a Pony Express rider.

The parents (my great-grandparents) of these four children were killed in an Indian raid. They had come from Virginia. The surviving children including my grandmother were taken to St. Joseph and cared for by an aunt.

As a point of interest, in the original layout of St. Joseph Missouri, there is a Richardson Street and a Gibson Drive located near the Patee House in the proximity of the Pony Express stables.

Grandmother Delaware explained that there were political ties to Washington D.C. The guardian to the children (an aunt) sent the two girls and the youngest brother, Johnson William known as "Billy" to a boarding school there to further their education.

It was during this time that "Billy" was shanghaied onto a sea going freighter. He was a shanghaied sailor for a number of years before he found an opportunity to make a successful escape. It was only then, when he made it back to St. Joseph that his past whereabouts became known.

"The rider is a Mr. Richardson, formerly a sailor, and a man accustomed to every description of hardship, having sailed for years amid the snows and icebergs of the Northern ocean." St. Joseph Weekly West, April 07, 1860.

Uncle Billy who was 26 years old at the time, applied for a job as a rider in the Pony Express. He was one of the first riders hired. He was employed by Russell, Majors and Waddell until the Pony Express was discontinued. My grandmother, Delaware Richardson Gibson was at the Pikes Peak Stables on the evening of April 03, 1860 along with her sister Jemimah Richardson.

She was there to watch her brother, Billy Richardson as he left the pony barn. He was mounted on a black horse as he carried the Mochila down the street and onto the Ferry.

Regardless of the controversy that developed over who was the first rider, the newspaper account was printed the next day in the St. Joseph Daily West on April 4 (written within hours of the actual event) and reprinted on April 7 in the St. Joseph Weekly West stated that Johnson William Richardson was the first pony rider.

Grandma said that the controversy that later spawned over this event was mostly of a political nature. This is her account as she related through her entire lifetime.

She said that the riders drew straws to determine who was to be the first pony rider. Johnny Fry drew the shortest straw, so he was going to be the first rider. However when the time came to ride, Johnny was unable to make the ride (for reasons unknown to me), so Billy who had drawn the next shortest straw made the ride.

The train from Hannibal to St. Joseph that held the Mochila was running late. A large crowd had gathered to watch the event of start of the Pony Express. Grandma said there was a lot of fan fare. The first run was already behind schedule. Billy mounted a black horse with the Mochila and galloped down the street to the Ferry. The rest is history.

The details of this event were thoroughly researched by Louise Platt Hauck under commission by the St. Joseph Pony Express Celebration in 1923. Her exhaustive research reported that Billy Richardson was the first rider. Be that as it may be. There was never any doubt that "Billy" Richardson was none other than Johnson William Richardson.

I didn't know the person who claimed to be Billy Richardson identified as W.B. Richardson (who's brother's name was Paul Coburn or Couburn) in an article titled "Uncle Billy Richardson, 91 Today, Disclaims Fame." In the article he claims that his brother "accidentally" threw the "mail pouch" on his pony instead of Frye's. In my opinion, this statement alone challenges the very credibility of this person who lived as an impostor (for most of his lifetime) beneath the cloak of Billy Richardson, the actual Pony Express Rider.

First of all, Johnson William Richardson was one of the first men hired by Lewis for Russell, Majors and Waddell. Do you think for even a moment that the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell would have hired a 9 or 10 year old immature child for such a dangerous job? The young men that rode in the Pony Express were wiry, courageous, and hardy individuals. They were tough men with an iron will capable of riding in all weather and all conditions and able to look death in the face.

Secondly, this was a highly publicized event. This was the official send off for the Pony Express. It was not a haphazard affair with the Mochila being carelessly tossed on a boy's pony by an irresponsible stable hand. Every move was orchestrated before hand by the company to impress the U.S. Government to secure a mail service contract. I don't dispute the fact that there was a man who went by the name of "Billy Richardson." We have no further information about him. But what is certain, the man who was officially hired, and authorized to ride for the Pony Express was Johnson William Richardson (J.W. Richarson). The photograph of the four pony riders circa 1860, clearly establishes that he was not a 9 or 10 year old boy. He was a grown man. We know for a fact, the photograph had to have been taken before October 1863, the year when Johnny Fry was killed by Confederate guerillas at Baxter Springs Kansas.

No where, in any accounts (eye witness or otherwise), do they mention Johnny Fry leaving the pony barn accompanied by a young boy on his pony "carrying the mail" down the street to the ferry. The magnitude of this event alone would have been monitored by a representative of Russell, Majors and Waddell; who would certainly have not allowed such an oversight to go uncorrected before "we set off down the street with the pony hooves clattering and my pony carrying [the] mail." The photograph also captures the "Richardson" jaw and chin which are family resemblance of the Richardson clan, even today. Billy Richardson is shown wearing the sailors hat and jacket that was customary for sea going sailors at that time in history.

When the Pony Express discontinued, Billy went to join his sister Delaware in Fort Laramie in the Nebraska Territory (Wyoming) where she was employed as a school teacher. It was there, that Billy came down with pneumonia and died. He was buried in the old Fort Laramie cemetery. He was only 28 years old at the time of his death.

He was, as has been described "wiry, with a constitution of iron, capable of riding through storms of hail, snow, ice and sleet, through terrific and torrential streams, past the deadly lurking savage foe, carrying mail always into the west and back to the east." This is the true identity of Johnson William AKA "Billy" Richardson, the official Pony Express Rider.