In 1836, Willard E. Pond, a traveling salesman from Connecticut, met and married Eurana Woodford in Tompkins Co., N.Y. The young couple and their rapidly growing family lived in a succession of different towns in upstate New York before Willard and his uncle "caught the Illinois fever" in 1843 and convinced their families to emigrate west. Settling first in Illinois in 1844, and then in Alto, Wis., in 1847, the Ponds eked out a meager living farming the prairie. Cash was scarce for the family, and the Ponds lived in constant debt, always on the edge of poverty.
Born in 1838, James Burton Pond was one of the oldest of the 11 children of Willard and Eurana. His father, an ardent abolitionist, had raised his sons with an iron hand, inspiring fear as much as attention to proper conduct. At the age of eighteen, James followed his conscience and left home to join John Brown in the antislavery struggle in Kansas, and he fought with the man he considered to be a noble Christian for almost a year. After Brown's defeat at Osawatomie, James wandered to St. Louis, where he worked as a call boy at a theater and as a printer at a religious newspaper, before ending up in Janesville and a position on the staff of a newspaper. Not being one to remain anywhere for too long, James joined a gold mining expedition to Colorado in the spring of 1859, ending up with a party of miners at Clear Creek that included George M. Pullman and H.S. Curtis, son of General Samuel Curtis. When Pond's western adventure panned out in October, he returned "to the States" and his family home in Wisconsin.
As a staunch anti-slavery Republican, Pond joined a Wide Awake club in 1860, and he and his brothers were quick to volunteer for service at the onset of the Civil War. Arriving too late to find a berth in the 1st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, Pond attempted to enlist again after Bull Run, receiving a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in Co. G, 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, a company that included two of his younger brothers as well. The 3rd Cavalry served in Kansas and Missouri throughout the war, engaged in some of the nastiest guerrilla warfare. The 3rd Cavalry Regiment and 2nd Kansas (Colored) Infantry were victims of a brutal surprise attack and massacre by William Quantrill's irregulars in October, 1863, during which Pond distinguished himself for his courage in single-handedly manning a howitzer and repelling the raiders. Despite his efforts, Quantrill's men killed Maj. H.S. Curtis and 65 Federals at Baxter Springs, and many more at the camp Pond defended, many of whom were executed after they had surrendered. Pond and both his brothers came through unscathed, a fact they attributed to the prayers of their devoutly religious mother. Pond was later promoted to Captain.
After the war, Pond traveled throughout the country, ending up in Salt Lake City in the early 1870s. In about 1874, an opportunity presented itself for Pond to make some money, when Anna Eliza Young, 19th wife Brigham Young, "apostasized" from her Mormon faith and was enticed to embark on a speaking tour in the east. Pond, in the right place at the right time, secured a position as booking agent for what became a highly lucrative tour, and subsequently branched out in conjunction with the Redpath Lyceum Bureau into managing other speaking tours throughout the U.S. and Canada. He left Redpath to begin his own lecture bureau in New York City in 1879, and over the next twenty years, became the nation's premier lecture agent. Pond promised his solidly middle-class audience "concerts, lectures and all descriptions of musical, lyceum and literary entertainments," and delivered such luminaries as Henry Stanley, George Kennan, Bill Nye, James Whitcomb Riley, Thomas Nast, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, P.T. Barnum, George Washington Cable, Ellen Terry, Joseph Jefferson, and Henry Ward Beecher.
Pond wrote numerous magazine articles, autobiographies and stories, as well as at least four books based on his experiences as a tour promoter and manager. His books included Overland with Mark Twain (Elmira, N.Y., 1992), A Summer in England with Henry Ward Beecher (N.Y., 1887), and Henry Ward Beecher (Brooklyn, 1897), and Eccentricities of Genius (N.Y., 1900).