Frontier Days

Frontier Days

Bartenders were in great demand during California's gold rush days, and those with big fingers often made out quite well. After serving a beverage of choice, the bartender would reach into the customer's "poke" and take a pinch of gold dust, the standard price of a drink. He would deposit the pinch in a box and remove the residue from his fingers by running them through his beard. At the end of the day's work, in the privacy of his own home, he would carefully rinse his beard over a basin. In this manner he was able to amass a sizable second income, usually much greater than his wages as a bartender!

Some remarkable people lived in California during the gold rush days, among them a stage coach driver named Charlie Parkhurst, known throughout the region as Old Charlie. Word was that as a youth he had run away from New Hampshire poorhouse and had been hired as a stable boy. With his affinity for horses Charlie was considered an expert reinsman and came to California to drive for a stagecoach line. Old Charlie won a reputation as one of the fastest and safest stagecoach drivers in California. He drove passengers and gold shipments over the most dangerous routes in the mother lode country.

Charlie was well liked and respected by the other drivers; he smoked cigars, chewed tobacco, drank moderately, and frequented saloons and gambling halls, but never used profanity. He was generally a sociable but very private person. Although he was slight of build and short in stature, no highwayman had dared hold up a stage driven by Old Charlie. It was well known that the first two who tried were shot dead in their tracks.

After almost thirty years of stage driving Charlie went into the cattle business and, as he got older, lived alone and quietly. In 1879 visiting neighbors found Old Charlie dead at home. When his body was being dressed for burial, it was discovered that Charlie Parkhurst was a woman!

In the frontier days of the American Southwest it was common to sell to a "greenhorn" outcroppings of white rock alleged to be silver. It all began as a joke, a sort of initiation for the raw recruit, but gradually evolved into an organized racket. Then finally the joke boomeranged. After buying the white rock, one of the greenhorns took it to San Francisco to have it chemically analyzed. Upon receiving the results, he quickly bought up all the greenhorn silver he could find. This fine quality of borax still bears his name, colemanite.

An expression of disbelief familiar to almost everyone is the statement "Thar ain't no such animal!" The speaker is probably unaware of the animal to which it refers but knows only that it's an amusing way to suggest that seeing is not believing. Actually the origin of this crude and ungrammatical phrase was the Southwest during the late 1850s. At that time the U.S. Army had imported a number of camels from Arabia to be used as beasts of burden on various desert trails in the arid Southwest, particularly Arizona.

The exact day of the following event is not on record, nor is the name of the communicator, but enough people witnessed the incident to keep the expression alive. It seems that several camels were tied to a hitching post in Tucson, Arizona, when a man, several sheets to the wind, came staggering out of a saloon and took his first look at a camel. He must have thought he was hallucinating from too much to drink because he loudly exclaimed in disbelief, "Thar ain't no such animal!" The expression took hold and is still popular in its original form. Translated as "There isn't any such animal," it seems to miss the point entirely.

On a sunny April 3, 1860, a young man embarked on the first leg of a 2,000—mile trek from St. Joseph, Missouri. Simultaneously in Sacramento, California, another rider began a journey in the opposite direction, and an American legend, the Pony Express, was born. It was a venture that lasted only eighteen months, yet its rugged spirit typifies the West even today.

The Pony Express was begun by freight magnate William H. Russell with the help of U.S. Senator William M. Gwin. They drew up plans and mapped a trail of 157 relay stations passing through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Prior to this new mail system, coast—to—coast mail often took as long as six months; now it was reduced to six to ten days. Of the eighty or so riders in the Pony Express, half were always riding in either direction. Each man rode an average of seventy—five miles, and horses were changed every ten to twelve miles. Only two minutes were allowed to change mounts, which left the rider with no time for a rest or a change of pace.

The rider's trail was fraught with danger. He had to traverse unknown, barren deserts, cross raging rivers, sweep through pathless forests, or endure the wintry blasts of mountain passes. In stormy spring weather the stubborn mud gripped the horse's every step. And of course there was the ever—present danger of outlaws and hostile Indians or bears, mountain lions, and other hungry carnivores. Small wonder that recruitment posters read "Orphans preferred."

Movie and television producers have wildly embellished the story of the Pony Express riders. It seems a shame to kill the exciting stories that Hollywood has fabricated, but despite the merciless nature of the Old West, which constantly challenged the mail carrier, only one Pony Express rider was actually killed in the line of duty. His horse, without a rider, managed to get to the next station with the mail intact!

The brief life span of the Pony Express was less the result of occupational hazards than its inability to exceed 250 miles a day. For a nation threatened by a Civil War, this rate of news transmittal was inadequate. As Western Union extended its telegraph lines, the route of the Pony Express was continually shortened. On October 24, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph line was completed, and the Pony Express became history.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth