In 1859, noted eastern journalist Horace Greeley visited the region he promoted with the oft-quoted recommendation "Go West young man." During his travels, he came to Genoa, the period's chief settlement on the eastern slope of the Sierra. Pressed to arrive in time to give a speech in Placerville, California, across the mountains, Greeley boarded a stage and made his needs known to Hank Monk, the driver. The ensuing incident was eventually recounted throughout the nation.
According to the story, Monk slowly ascended the summit, causing Greeley to frequently ask about their unhurried pace. "I have my orders," was Monk's repeated, laconic response, increasing the impatient Greeley's aggravation.
Once at the summit, Monk set his team loose to race down the crude road, wheeling around mountains past cliffs and assorted hazards. Greeley then implored the driver to observe some caution and to proceed more slowly. "Keep your seat, Horace. I'll get you there on time," was Monk's new reply. True to his word, Monk delivered his charge to a Placerville welcoming party before the appointed time.
The veracity of details is open to debate, but there is no question that the story's popularity quickly made it a favorite in western folklore. The tale also entered into American literature. During his visit to the West in 1863-64, comic Artemus Ward heard the story and incorporated it into a book about his tour of the region.
Mark Twain, a resident of Nevada from 1861 to 1864, heard the story and also used it. Twain's approach reveals, however, that the Monk-Greeley anecdote was beginning to wear thin. In 1866, Twain told the tale in his western lecture series, but he exploited the fact that audiences would find it tiresome. When people failed to laugh, Twain repeated it again and again, until everyone understood the joke, realizing that Twain was mocking the story's overuse.
Twain also employed the story in his 1872 publication, Roughing It, maintaining that while traveling across the Sierra thirteen times over six years, he had heard the "deathless incident 481 or 82 times. I have the list somewhere. Drivers always told it, conductors told it, landlords told it, chance passengers told it." Twain humorously maintained that when he silenced someone who wished to tell the story, the man died, unable to handle the stress caused by attempting to hold it in. Because of its overuse and perhaps in part due to Twain's satire, the story ceased to be popular.
Despite the completion of the oral tradition's life cycle, the Monk-Greeley story had an eastern manifestation. In 1866, U.S. Congressman Hulburd from New York read it on the floor of the House of Representatives to ridicule Greeley.
Finally, a tradition developed that Monk asked Greeley, either with a letter or through Territorial Enterprise editor Joe Goodman, for a position should the journalist win his 1872 bid for the presidency. Greeley's response was allegedly that "I'd rather see you 10,000 fathoms in hell than give you even a crust of bread. For you are the only man who ever had the power to place me in a ridiculous light before the American people, and you villainously exercised that power." Greeley lost the election and died shortly afterwards.
Some maintained the story of the 1859 wild ride across the Sierra affected Greeley's unsuccessful bid for the White House. This is a matter of conjecture, but it is clear that the tale's humor exploited politically-charged stereotypes of rugged western individualism pitted against effete, eastern elitism.
Hank Monk continued his Nevada career as a driver for several decades after taking Greeley for a ride. In 1882, an eastern traveling show offered him $250 a month to join its tour, but Monk declined, saying he "don't want to be hauled about the country in a dry goods box, and exhibited between a fat woman and a big 'snaik.'" Henry "Hank" Monk died the following year.