The Pony Express and Jack Slade


If you cross the Union Pacific tracks and the South Platte River from Julesburg, you will enter a hallowed piece of America’s past. To a stranger, the river road heading southwest from Julesburg is merely a lonely gravel strip in Colorado’s northeast corner, extending only about 10 miles and leading nowhere. But in the 1850s this road bore the names of the great westbound routes that have captivated American imaginations ever since: the Oregon Trail, the Emigrant Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Overland Trail and the Pony Express.

Some 5 miles west of Julesburg, you reach a seemingly nondescript stretch where two historical markers stand side by side. At first glance, amid the weeds and brush, it’s difficult to conceive that on this barren spot, near the bank of a largely dried-out river, the future of the United States — and, consequently, the future of modern democracy — once hung in the balance.

For in the summer of 1859, at the very moment that the northern and southern states were breaking apart over the slavery issue, this was the spot that the struggling new Jones & Russell stagecoach line chose as the critical junction where its two westbound lines would diverge: one southwest to the new mining town of Denver, and the other northwest to Salt Lake City and from there to California.

At that moment the Jones & Russell line constituted the federal government’s only northern link with America’s richest state: California. Without a fast and reliable northern line of communication, it was conceivable that, as the North and South split apart, California would cast its lot with the South or break off and form an independent nation of its own.

As early as 1858 a grizzled French-Canadian trapper named Jules Beni had operated a trading post and saloon at this so-called Upper California Crossing of the South Platte. His cluster of a half-dozen buildings — the largest settlement along the 350-mile stretch between Fort Kearny in the Nebraska Territory and Denver — came to be called Julesburg (not to be confused with the present-day town of Julesburg located 5 miles to the east). And when the stagecoach line came through, “Old Jules” Beni seemed the logical choice to manage the company’s station there.

But Old Jules lost no time in demonstrating that he was the wrong man for the job. From his first day, horses, hay and other valuable company property — even the U.S. Mail itself — began to disappear, often to be speedily returned for a reward arranged through Beni’s kindly offices.

Partly as a result of this mischief, Jones & Russell was out of business by October 1859, its U.S. Mail contract taken over by the newly organized Central Overland, California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. The irrepressible William H. Russell, who remained as president of the reorganized company, was deeply in debt. In his desperation, he concocted an audacious gamble to recoup his partnership’s losses.

Russell proposed to supplement Central Overland’s heavy stagecoaches with a unique horseback relay service that could reduce the cross-country mail delivery time from three weeks to as few as eight days. In the process this “Pony Express” would win his partnership a much more lucrative U.S. Mail contract. It might also keep California and all its gold wealth in the Union. But everything depended on finding someone to clean up the weakest link in Central Overland’s chain. In effect that meant cleaning up Julesburg, which meant confronting Julesburg’s de facto feudal lord, Old Jules Beni himself.

The man chosen for this assignment, Joseph Alfred Slade, stood just 5-foot-8 — hardly a physical match for the hulking Beni. Slade’s build was not lean but husky: He weighed about 160 pounds. His hair was reddish, and he spoke in a high-pitched voice. Of Slade’s physical characteristics, only his dark, piercing eyes could be described as intimidating.

Yet, at the age of 28, Slade was already a legend along the Overland Trail. As a teenager he had served in the Mexican-American War. As a wagon master and stagecoach superintendent during the 1850s, he had organized mobs of unruly men and animals into efficient teams capable of defying floods, droughts, blizzards, outlaws and hostile Indians. Less than six months earlier, he had quelled an incipient mutiny on a wagon train by shooting the apparent ringleader dead. Slade was said to be educated, polite, soft-spoken, rigorously honest and a devoted husband, but word of mouth had amplified his ferocious reputation wherever freighting men camped between the Missouri River and the Pacific.

In the fall of 1859 — because of his reputation — Slade was appointed superintendent of Central Overland’s Sweetwater Division, which covered nearly 500 miles from Julesburg west toward the Rockies. This was considered the most dangerous section of the company’s 1,200-mile route between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City.

Rarely has a man risen to a challenge so superbly. Slade quickly established order along his division by conspicuously capturing and hanging a few robbers and horse thieves and letting word of mouth drive away the rest. In a land devoid of courts and law enforcement — present-day Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming — he functioned as a benevolent feudal lord of the prairie, protecting settlers, emigrants, stagecoach passengers and the U.S. Mail. Along the Overland Trail he became known as “The Law West of Kearny.”

Beni, cowed by Slade’s reputation, stepped aside peacefully as stationmaster, and relations between the two men appeared to be civil at first. But in the early months of 1860, as Slade drove his men relentlessly to prepare for the scheduled April 3 launch of the Pony Express, Beni stewed unnoticed at Julesburg, his fury stoked by a succession of petty slights by Slade. The last straw, apparently, occurred when Slade rode into one of Beni’s corrals and appropriated two mares he believed Jules had stolen from the company.

In mid-March, on an inspection tour, Slade arrived by stagecoach at Julesburg. When Beni noticed that Slade was unarmed, he disappeared into his house and emerged moments later with a Colt revolver in his hand, emptying its contents into Slade’s body. Then Beni reached inside the doorway of his house for a double-barreled shotgun and dispensed its contents into his adversary as well.

Remarkably, Slade survived this barrage. While Beni fled to Denver and then farther west, a Pony Express rider galloped 175 miles to Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming, to fetch a military surgeon, who a day or two later picked out a few pistol balls from Slade’s body. A few weeks later, in a tribute to Slade’s value, the Central Overland Company transported him a thousand miles by stagecoach and rail to St. Louis, where skilled surgeons removed more (but still not all) of the lead from his body. By June of 1860 Slade was back at work.

In August 1861, when Beni foolishly returned to Slade’s division and threatened to finish him off, Slade posted a reward for his capture. At Cold Spring station — some 25 miles southeast of Fort Laramie — Slade’s men killed Beni while attempting to arrest him. When Slade sliced off the dead man’s ears as souvenirs, that gesture added yet another page to his already grisly legend.

After the Pony Express had closed shop and Indians devastated Slade’s division in a series of raids in the spring of 1862, the stage company responded by moving its line 300 miles south through Denver, a safer and more heavily trafficked location. Yet at precisely this moment — with his authority firmly established and the stagecoach line finally on solid financial footing — Slade degenerated into a brawling drunk incapable of managing himself, much less a stagecoach line. After holding the line together for four years — at a time when other men burned out within months — Slade seemingly cracked.

When inebriated, he took to riding his horse into saloons, shooting glasses off the shelves and picking fights with his best friends, one of whom he shot and wounded. On one occasion he killed a sleeping dog; on another, he cut the ear off a mule. When sober, he apologized profusely and paid for the damages he had caused.

In the process, Slade lost not only his job but also his life and his reputation. Following a two-day drinking binge in March 1864, Slade was lynched by vigilantes in the new gold-mining camp of Virginia City, Montana, although he had committed no crime there other than disorderly conduct. He was only 33.

Despite Slade’s critical role in opening the West and saving the Union, most historians and Western writers subsequently dismissed him as a “notorious gunman,” a “desperado” and even an outlaw. His name, as one acquaintance put it, “became synonymous for all that is infamous and cruel in human character.”

The explanation for Slade’s tragic downfall remains elusive to this day. To some observers, Slade was an early example of a split personality, decades before Robert Louis Stevenson penned The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

To western writer Kenneth Jessen of Loveland, Slade was “a responsible manager who happened to be an alcoholic” at a time and place where “the only response was to hang him.” John DeShazo, a U.S. medical officer who served in Vietnam, speculates that Slade may have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome stemming from his near-fatal ambush by Beni. “A wounded soldier is a changed soldier,” DeShazo notes.

The original Julesburg, where that shooting took place in March 1860, is no more. It was burned by Cheyenne Indians in February 1865. The present-day town of Julesburg, established in 1880 some 5 miles upstream from the original, is actually the fourth place to bear that name and it is proud of its history.

In 1960–61, following the Pony Express centennial celebration, Julesburg residents were inspired to launch the Fort Sedgwick Historical Society. The society has since spawned two impressive museums, one of them in the town’s old Union Pacific Railroad depot. Throw in an antique car museum and the preserved 1940s bandstand developed by Lee Kizer, Julesburg’s former mayor, and you have a tourist attraction waiting to be discovered.

Kizer, now in his 80s, became a history buff listening to the stories of old timers who sat in his barber chair over more than half a century. Of course, he adds — what is perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Jack Slade: “People always tell negative stories, never nice ones. It’s still that way today.”

Dan Rottenberg is the author of Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend (Westholme, 2008). A paperback edition was published in April 2010. For more information about the book and Jack Slade, visit