The history of the American West is rife with the deeds of men ahorseback. Some tales defy credulity, and with good reason. Despite their bloviated claims to the contrary, neither William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody nor his pistol-wielding friend, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, ever rode for the Pony Express. Nor did Frank Hopkins, upon whom the Hollywood oater Hidalgo was very loosely based, ride in any of his touted endurance races, except in his imagination and on the printed page.

There was one man, however, about whom the stories were all true. Born Francois Xavier Aubry, his diminutive size—he stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall—earned him the sobriquet, “Little Aubry.” And he was indisputably the greatest speed and distance rider in the nation’s history.

Eighteen-year-old Aubry first appeared in St. Louis in 1843, after leaving his family’s Quebec farm in search of adventure. Within a few years, he had set himself up in business in Independence as a trader, hauling goods—everything from weapons and liquor to cloth, tools, and dried fish—along the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico Territory.

Aubry prospered, and in his second year in business, he offered to haul the westbound mail along with his stock of trade goods. It was a much-needed service, since people on the frontier were starved for news, and no provision had yet been made to deliver the post across the 800 perilous miles between Independence and Santa Fe.

Unfortunately, it took Aubry’s caravan more than two months to make the trip, rendering the news—albeit welcome—out of date by the time he arrived. Nonetheless, he agreed to carry the mail on his return caravan, which now consisted of dozens of wagons and a company of mounted Missouri volunteers.

Then Aubry did something unexpected. When the wagons were nearly two-thirds of the way back from Santa Fe, he left the train at a gallop, mail in tow. He soon arrived in Independence, having covered the remaining 300 miles in only four days.

Weeks later, Aubry assembled another train, and once again, he bolted ahead to Santa Fe. Despite being pursued by a bevy of hostile native tribes, he delivered the mail well ahead of his caravan’s arrival. People were now taking notice, and newspapers from Missouri to Santa Fe wrote of the diminutive horseman’s adventures. Setting speed records was fast rivaling Aubry’s interest in business, and in December 1847, he announced his intention to cover the distance from Santa Fe to Independence in 18 days—6½ days faster than the existing record.

This time, Aubry opted to ride mules, and—taking along five men and a couple dozen animals—he set out for Missouri. The trip was plagued with problems. Mexican outlaws stole nearly a dozen of his mules, and he and his men rode three more into the ground. They were again chased by native tribes, probably including the infamous Jicarilla Apaches. Despite being delayed by a blizzard, Aubry and his team reached Independence in only 14 days.

Word of Aubry’s record-setting rides spread throughout the West. In lauding the 22-year-old’s accomplishments, the Missouri Daily Republican also stressed the inherent perils, pointing out that to date, the Santa Fe Trail had claimed 47 lives as well as 330 wagons and 6,500 head of stock. As one biographer noted, “The threat of attack was always present, though for Aubry the danger was greatly magnified on his solitary dashes across the plains.” Each time Aubry spurred his mount, there was considerably more at stake than a speed record.

Aubry had established a pattern; he would accompany his trade caravan to Santa Fe, sell his goods, deliver the mail, and then race the clock back home to Independence. His exploits grew increasingly dramatic. On a ride that was calculated to set a 10-day record, he was captured by the Comanche, escaped, rode five animals to death, walked 40 miles to Fort Mann, requisitioned a fresh horse, and reached Independence—in only eight days, 10 hours.

By this time, the only records left to beat were his own, and he determined to make a show of—and a profit from—his next ride. He reportedly bet $1,000 (more than $30,000 in today’s dollars) that he could cover the distance from Santa Fe to Independence in a seemingly impossible six days.

Aubry planned this trip as never before, stationing fresh remounts along the route, each in the care of an experienced hostler. Before dawn on September 12, 1848, Aubry waved to a crowd of well-wishers and curiosity seekers and spurred east out of Santa Fe’s Plaza. Riding day and night, he stopped only to change mounts every hundred miles or so. Aware that exhaustion was as great a threat as Apaches or bandits, he tied himself to the saddle, eating and catching brief naps as he rode. At one relay stop, he mounted his favorite horse, a small light-colored mustang he’d named Dolly.

To his shock, after riding Dolly about a hundred miles to the next relay stop, Aubry found the hostler dead and scalped; the horses were gone, taken by the killers. Given no other option, he pushed Dolly another hundred miles. The little mustang bore up amazingly well, as Aubry later wrote in his journal: “made 200 miles on my yellow mare in 26 hours.”

Aubry finally switched horses at a wagon train he came upon and continued on through heavy rains and mud, swimming his mounts across raging rivers, killing six horses, and exhausting another half dozen in the process. Once, he had to walk 20 miles between remounts.

Late on September 17, an exhausted horse stopped outside the Merchants Hotel in Independence with a small wraith of a man tied on its back. The populace turned out, staring in hushed amazement as Aubry was cut from the saddle, fed, and put to bed. He had made his most dramatic ride in five days, 15 hours, winning his bet and setting a record that would never be broken.

By the time he reached his mid-20s, the ever-restless Aubry determined to redirect his trading business to the California goldfields. In August 1853, native tribes attacked his party, wounding Aubry eight times (“five of which cause me much suffering,” he wrote in his journal) and killing his mare Dolly. Completely out of provisions, the besieged herders were forced to eat their animals. “I have the misfortune,” Aubry wrote, “to know that the flesh we are eating is that of my estimable mare Dolly who so often saved me from death at the hands of Indians.”

The following year, Aubry was commissioned to seek out a viable transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis to California. He stopped in Santa Fe, where he ordered a drink at a tavern on the Plaza. An argument ensued between Aubry and Richard H. Weightman—sometime newspaper editor, failed West Point cadet, former territorial delegate to Congress, and a man of notoriously short temper. According to Weightman’s later testimony, Aubry drew his pistol, whereupon Weightman thrust his Bowie knife into his adversary. Within 10 minutes, Little Aubry was dead at the age of 29.

Aubry had been well liked in Santa Fe, and Weightman was expected to be duly punished by the court. Nonetheless, he was acquitted under the “code duello,” the unwritten law of the duel. A week after his trial, Weightman moved to Missouri. Seven years later, he was killed while commanding a Confederate brigade during the Civil War, at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

For a time, Aubry’s legend survived. Various towns throughout the West were named for him, including one (now gone) in Johnson County, Missouri. Shortly before his death, a steamboat christened the F.X. Aubrey was built in Pittsburgh and launched on the Missouri River for service between St. Louis and St. Joseph. As the Pittsburgh Dispatch proclaimed, she was “calculated for great speed … proudly bearing at the head of its flagstaff the gilt figure of a horseman riding at full speed.” Not surprisingly, she was the fastest vessel on the water.

Six years after Aubry’s death, freighter Alexander Majors, along with partners William Waddell and William Russell, established a service in which the mail would be carried across the continent in relays, by slight-built men riding fast horses. Years earlier, Majors had been running his westbound freight line when Aubry rode past on one of his famous races, and he had been impressed. “This ride, in my opinion,” Majors wrote, “was the most remarkable ever made by any man. … There is perhaps not one man in a million who could have lived to finish such a journey.”

Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s now-legendary enterprise was dubbed the “Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company,” although few ever called it that. The advertisement for riders stated:

“Wanted: Young, skinny wiry fellows … Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily.” As Alexander Majors freely acknowledged, the single role model for what became known to history and folklore as the Pony Express was Francois Xavier Aubry.

The Pony Express Museum Hall of Riders

The Pony Express operated from April 1860 to October 1861. The Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph lists 228 riders in the mounted mail service. The museum features a permanent Hall of Riders exhibit that chronicles the life stories of 22 of the actual riders, with information compiled from family histories, newspaper accounts, and other sources. You might see a trunk owned by one rider, a pistol carried by another.

One rider was Billy Fisher, whose great-grandson William Fisher II became an astronaut on the space shuttle Discovery and donated items to the museum. Billy’s story is about riding through a blinding snowstorm. Mesmerized by the snow, Billy dismounted to rest under a tree. He fell asleep and awoke only when a jackrabbit jumped on him, saving him from freezing to death, or so the legend goes.

Another rider was William Henry Streeper, who went on to raise and sell seed corn out West. The museum has a stencil plate he used to paint bags of seed corn with his company name.

Interactive exhibits tell the stories of the riders, such as where they came from, what they ate during their rides, and more. For example, many of the riders were born in Europe, and many were Mormons.

For more information about the museum, visit PonyExpress.com.