“ Broncho Charlie (Miller),” who “ did up” a number of credulous ones in Carleton Place, Ottawa and elsewhere with his Wild West Show, has now turned up in Kingston. Pity they wouldn’t keep him there”.
The popular image of the Pony Express was carefully cultivated by Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, feathered by countless amateur historians, then carried on by Hollywood in numerous spaghetti westerns. Additional confusion was created by the fact that the Express ended in bankruptcy and a bond scandal that ruined the reputation of the founders. To clinch the difficulty in studying the Express, the business records of the Pony’s parent company, which would be able to shine light on the Express for historians, have never been found.
It might surprise you to know that the Express operated for only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861, when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph put it out of business. In addition, the “men” were usually teenage boys, the “horses” were sometimes mules, and they almost never carried anything other than business correspondence and newspapers printed on tissue-thin paper. I’m sorry to disappoint the romantics in the audience, but during the Civil War era, $5 an ounce would make for an awfully expensive love letter!
Even more entertaining is the tale of “Broncho Charlie” Miller, who presented his life in Broncho Charlie: A Saga of the Saddle, and whose story was increasingly embellished over the years. While it’s unlikely he was a Pony Express rider, we do know that Broncho Charlie was actually a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, performed for the Queen of England, and carried the razzle-dazzle and lasso skills he honed with Buffalo Bill into fabricating his own improbable life story.
By his own accounts Charlie was born on a buffalo robe, “delivered by an Indian squaw” in Hat Creek, California in 1849 or 1850, and lived to 105. We know from the New York Times online archives that he died in Glen Falls, NY in 1955, but a birth certificate has not been found.
In the best vaudeville-style manner, Charlie probably credited himself at the Carleton Place Opera Hall as a rider with the Pony, although even if he were born in 1849 he would’ve been a mite young for the Express at age 11. Various accounts of Broncho Charlie’s life include assertions that he was a Texas Ranger, fought with Jesse James, supped with Teddy Roosevelt on his North Dakota ranch and won $120 in gold pieces off of a bet with General Grant.
Charlie claimed to have met everyone from Bat Masterson (he said they were friends) to President Lincoln, General Custer and Davy Crockett (who died in 1836, prior to Charlie’s birth). Charlie Miller did crack a mean whip and kept the romance of the Pony Express and the Old West alive for a modern audience, even if he didn’t ride with the Pony. No doubt they didn’t believe him in Carleton Place either.