The company trafficked in gold dust and mail.
When Wells Fargo (Wells, Fargo and Company) established its express and banking business in the California gold country in July 1852, it inadvertently inspired two additional enterprises. As the company exchanged, stored and transported gold for miners, a succession of robbers emerged to steal the gold. Wells Fargo, in turn, hired detectives to track down the robbers.
The company, cofounded by Eastern expressmen Henry Wells (1805–1878) and William Fargo (1818–1881), had formed in New York the prior March to take advantage of gold rush opportunities in California. Although the company blossomed out West, neither its founders nor its first president, financier Edwin Morgan, made their homes in the Golden State.
At its offices in California, Wells Fargo sometimes bought raw gold outright. Other times it sent a miner’s gold to San Francisco to be minted into coins and returned to the miner; the company would pay an advance on the assayed value and settle the difference on its return from San Francisco. As California had been a state just three years, there was little regulation of either banking or the express industry.
Wells Fargo faced heavy competition at first, but with perseverance and business sense, it gained a near monopoly. Wells Fargo quickly established a network of express lines to transport gold, letters and packages. The Letter Express was perhaps more important to the average Californian than the transfer of gold, as everyone wanted news from “home.” From 1849 to 1869, the letters went by steamship to San Francisco, by steamer upriver to Sacramento and then by stage to the mining towns. Initially, many Wells Fargo express agents in the gold country also operated a Wells Fargo bank. During the 1855 Panic, the company closed its doors only for a few days before reorganizing its assets and reopening. Wells Fargo decided that its banks would only be in main cities and that its agents would have accounts there. Meanwhile, the rival Adams Express Company failed.
In 1857 investors in several express companies, including Wells Fargo, created the Overland Mail Company, which the following year established a regular mail and express service across the West. The new company carried passengers and mail on stagecoaches or the lighter celerity wagons. (The short-lived Pony Express ran from April 1860 to October 1861.)
It is not known when robbers first made off with the contents of a Wells Fargo strongbox (or “green treasure box”). Back in 1855, Rattlesnake Dick stopped a mule train and robbed the Rhodes & Lusk Express. The next year, members of the Tom Bell Gang attempted the first stagecoach robbery, but Langton’s Express, not Wells Fargo, was transporting the money. There apparently was not much in the way of robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches until the mid-1860s. By that time, the green treasure boxes had become too tempting to pass up. Constructed of pine, oak and iron and usually transported under the stagecoach driver’s seat, the boxes held gold dust, gold bars, gold coins and stock certificates. When fully loaded, they weighed between 100 and 150 pounds, the maximum weight a driver could carry on his shoulder.
During the 1860s, Wells Fargo expanded its express offices into the Pacific Northwest, Montana Territory and Colorado Territory. In 1864 the company acquired the Pioneer Stage Company, and in 1866 it bought the stage lines of Ben Holladay. Wells Fargo wanted to extend its service area to the Missouri River and also hoped to connect the advancing ends of what would be the first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in May 1869. That same year, Wells Fargo stopped operating any stagecoches and thereafter contracted the handling of their treasure boxes to whatever stage line operated in a particular region.
Wells Fargo extended its express operations into Arizona Territory in the 1870s and prospered under the direction of Lloyd Tevis (Wells Fargo president from 1872 to 1892) and other railroad-centered capitalists. In 1888 Wells Fargo became the first nationwide express company, describing its services as “Ocean-to-Ocean” to emphasize its link to America’s expanding global economy.
Outlaws’ potential pickings had expanded with the company: They now had trains to rob as well as stagecoaches. Between 1870 (when the first train robbery took place) and 1884 the company experienced at least 317 robberies (only four of which were of trains), resulting in a loss of $415,000. On top of that, $513,000 was paid out in rewards, lawyer fees and guard salaries. Wells Fargo fought back by employing its own private detectives. In 1873 the company hired veteran lawman James B. Hume, who served as its chief detective for 30 years and who in 1885 compiled a “Robbers’ Record,” in which he described outlaws to assist in their capture. Indeed, Hume thwarted many would-be robbers, and when he died in 1904, he was described as having been “a terror to stage and train robbers.” The most famous robber Hume confronted was Black Bart (Charles E. Boles), who pulled off 27 successful stagecoach robberies and baffled Wells Fargo agents and California lawmen. He was finally caught after leaving a handkerchief behind during his last holdup; Hume and Wells Fargo agents traced a laundry mark on it to a laundry in San Francisco. Black Bart (who was calling himself Charles E. Bolton) served four years in San Quentin, then vanished.
In addition to detectives, Wells Fargo also hired heavily armed gunmen, who carried sawed-off shotguns and rode beside the stage driver. Among the more famous shotgun messengers who worked for the company were Robert H. Paul and brothers Wyatt and Morgan Earp in Arizona Territory. Nevadan Eugene Blair (see story in February 2009 Wild West) was one of the most reliable, if lesser known, messengers. In the 1870s Wells Fargo began offering rewards—$200 or more for the capture of a robber, and $100 for information leading to his arrest. In 1884 the company distributed $73,451 in rewards. By then stagecoach robberies were in sharp decline. Three years later, bandits made off with a grand total of just $300 from stagecoaches. In 1888 more than 1,700 Wells Fargo express offices dotted the map. Railroads, not stagecoaches, were what made business profitable in the late 1880s and 1890s, and outlaws knew that.
Wells Fargo stopped delivering letters in 1895, with the U.S. Post Office adapting many of its concepts. In 1918 the federal government forced Wells Fargo and other private express companies to form the federally governed American Railway Express Company. That left only the banking division. Wells Fargo Bank was at first a “bankers’ bank” serving the West. It grew statewide in the 1980s and became multi-state in the 1990s.
In 2007 it was the 25th largest employer in the United States, ranking fifth in assets and sixth in market value among financial institutions. Wells Fargo announced its plan to acquire Wachovia in October 2008, and the merger was completed by year’s end. Through the acquisition it will create a major rival for the Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase and extend its banking service nationwide. Many people still identify the image of the stagecoach with Wells Fargo, carrier and protector of the timeless treasure box.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.