by lyle e davis
When you think of Wells Fargo today’s young folk probably think of shiny bank buildings with gentrified folks wearing store bought clothes, great big smiles, and the quiet efficiency of a modern day bank.
There was a time, though, when Wells Fargo would conjure up visions of hard runnin’, hard sweatin’ horses . . . with teamsters driving them on . . . and they were likely sweating too. Or freezing, depending upon where the stagecoach was. Yes, this was the stagecoach era. Colorful, exciting, dangerous, uncomfortable, but memorable.
The rides over rutted mountain roads and with the prospect of outlaws, or wild Indians, hiding in the brush, just waiting for a chance to ambush the stagecoach and its valuable cargo, all made for a trip into the unknown.
It all started when a couple of well heeled gents from New York by the name of Henry Wells, originally from Vermont, and William Fargo sat down and figured out a way to make even more money.
They figured out right early on that since gold was discovered there was going to be a big demand for both transportation and banking.
To address the transportation issue they decided they’d just contract with a bunch of existing stagecoach owners. At least they did that in the early stages.
They were pretty sharp cookies, those two. They had already made their fortunes by helping to found American Express in 1850. Just two years later they came together to found Wells Fargo & Co. on March 18, 1852.
They rightly figured out that since there were no railroads, there would be a demand for stagecoach and wagon services to the many miners flooding the area, as well as freight services to businesses. Meanwhile, its banking division, Wells, Fargo and Co Bank, advertised both financial services and a general forwarding business for mail, valuable deliveries and freight.
Before the end of the first year Wells Fargo had established its first office in San Francisco, then Sacramento, Monterey and San Diego, and within no time, in most every mining camp in California.
The company quickly realized they had to develop a reputation for protecting their cargo so they initiated a ‘shotgun messenger’ who would sit beside the driver, often with the treasure chest under his seat. The coaches had leather storage compartments (boots) at the front and back of the coach. The compartment under the driver's seat usually carried the strong box where the passengers kept their money and valuables. The larger boot at the back carried the mail and the bags of the passengers.
In time, Wells Fargo would build the largest stagecoach empire in the world.
Right from the start Wells Fargo negotiated a contract to transport gold from the Philadelphia mint. This contract was a long one. It lasted until April 1854, when the United States Mint opened in San Francisco. But, not to worry, they also had a contract to deliver mail. True enough, there were post offices that had been in California since 1848, the public preferred the express companies, as they were cheaper and faster than the U.S. Mail.
When 1855 rolled around there was a significant drop in mining activity in California. Several banks had even failed. But not Wells Fargo. Nope, they stayed on, and would soon become the dominant express and banking organization in the west. Why, they had become the only company making large shipments of gold, and continued to serve miners by delivering mail and supplies.
In 1857 Wells Fargo joined several other express companies to form the Overland Mail Company, which provided for regular twice-a-week mail service between St. Louis and San Francisco.
The new line became known as the “Butterfield Line” after its president, John Butterfield. It ran an impressive 2,757 miles through the Southwest via El Paso, Tucson and Los Angeles, before arriving in San Francisco. Traveling over deserts and mountains took about 25 days, stopping only to change horses or for passengers to get food.
The Concord Stage
A monopoly had been formed in California by the early 1860’s on the express business, boasting of 147 offices. Most of its stagecoaches were Concords, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire. Each carried fifteen passengers, nine inside and six outside, including the driver and a Wells Fargo messenger, and was drawn by six horses. Concord coaches weighed 2500 pounds, and they cost $1100 each, including leather and richly patterned cloth interior.
Inside each coach was a list of rules for passengers. These included:
•Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
• If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
• Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
• Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
• Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
• Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
• In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
• Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
• Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.
National events would force a change in the routes. A thing called the Civil War broke out, and the route had to move northward across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains, before snaking its way to California.
In 1866 Wells Fargo expanded its operations again, buying Ben Holladay’s Overland Mail Express, to create the largest stagecoach company in the world. With this acquisition, they controlled virtually all the stage lines from Mississippi to California.
The Wells Fargo stagecoaches averaged 4 passengers daily, usually only 1-3 in the wintertime and occasionally up to 6-7, and 6-9 and occasionally 10-13 in the summertime. Hence passenger service in the winter was usually curtailed. At peak summertime there were 15-20 passengers daily. Most passengers were men; in 1868 only 9% of the ridership was female. This might be owed to the largely male populace of mountain mining communities. The coaches typically had six horses apiece, needed for the rigors of steeply-graded mountain travel.
Wells Fargo drivers were highly paid for skill that was nothing short of legendary. Billy Updike and Jake Hawk were masters of the "six in hand," able to navigate a stagecoach with six horses with speed and precision up and down steep, winding and treacherous mountain grades. Going downhill was no easy task. In fact, it could be a difficult and dangerous one, an accident able to cause great harm to life and limb, and stage drivers skilled at driving teams were admired in their world.
Bad guys with guns tend to follow businesses with lots of money. And so it was with Wells Fargo. Outlaws began to focus on Wells Fargo stagecoaches. One of the most notorious was a fella named Black Bart. He not only robbed 28 stages before he was caught . . . but he would add insult to injury by leaving poems about the holdup. Lawmen did not like his poetry. Not at all. They were the grumpy sort. Not at all artistic, nor sensitive. They just wanted Black Bart.
Black Bart . . . the poet stagecoach robber.
He loved to tweak Wells Fargo and law enforcement with his poems
A couple examples of Black Bart’s poetry:
"I've labored long and hard for bread
for honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you've tred
You fine haired sons of Bitches
-- Black Bart, the Po8" (1)
"here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morrow
perhaps success perhaps defeat
and everlasting Sorrow
let come what will I'll try it on
My condition can't be worse
and if theres money in that box
Tis munny in my purse
-- Black Bart, the Po8" (2)
After so many successful robberies, Black Bart thought his luck would continue forever. But it was not to be. On November 3,1883 he returned to Calaveras County and the site of his first hold-up. Stagecoach driver McConnell, however, was better prepared than most. He had fastened the Wells Fargo box to the bottom of the passenger compartment instead of the expected place beneath the driver's seat.
He also had brought his friend Jimmy Rolleri who had brought his friend--a new Henry rifle just in case he wanted to go "a-huntin." Right after Jimmy left the stage to find some game, Black Bart sprang from the bushes. But the box was bolted in a different place and it took far more time to complete the robbery. This gave Jimmy time to return and he took deadly aim at the flour sack. Black Bart had run out of time and luck. Jimmy fired three times, startling the highway man. As Black Bart fled, he dropped his derby and a handkerchief with the laundry mark FXO7.
Wells Fargo detective James Hume and his agents traced the mark through 91 San Francisco laundries to find that the handkerchief belonged to Charles E. Bolton a.k.a. C. E. Boles a.k.a. Black Bart, a respectable mining engineer who was staying at Room 40, 37 2nd Street, in San Francisco. Hume had him arrested and in his report recorded that Black Bart was, "A person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances. Extremely proper and polite in behaviour, eschews profanity."
Black Bart was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for six years but it was shortened to four years for good behavior. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released. They asked if he were going to rob anymore stagecoaches. "No gentlemen," he smilingly replied, "I'm all through with crime." Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. He laughed, "Now didn't you hear me say that I am through with crime?" Soon after that, he disappeared forever.
But Black Bart (who was not black, but white) was just one of the many men who attempted to make a career of robbing stage coaches; others included the James-Younger Gang, the Red Jack Gang, “Rattlesnake Dick,” and dozens of others. During the 1860’s alone, the company suffered 313 stagecoach holdups totaling to the amount of $415,000.
Between 1870 and 1884, Wells Fargo stages were the target of 347 robbery attempts, an average of about two a month across the system. Getting the stage and its cargo through was not a job for the fainthearted, and some of the most respected lawmen in the West accepted the challenge. Among those who spent time driving stagecoaches were Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and William Fredrick “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Gold dust, gold bars, gold coins, legal papers, checks and drafts were transported in green treasure boxes, stored under the stagecoach driver’s seat. A loaded box weighed from 100 to 150 pounds. Because they carried the most valuable assets of the West, these sturdy boxes – made of Ponderosa pine, oak and iron – were much sought after by bandits.
The real security of the strong boxes came from those who protected them—the Wells Fargo shotgun guards. They were “the kind of men you could depend on if you got into a fix,” according to Wells Fargo detective Jim Hume. If would-be thieves were foolhardy enough to try to steal a treasure box in transit, they found themselves staring down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot.
By 1880 the Wells Fargo Stagecoach Company had 573 offices and agents. It was now the most powerful stagecoach company in the American West.
While all this was going on there were other gents busy figuring out how to make money by cashing in on the big move west. They decided to build a railroad out west. They began hammering spikes and laying track and in 1869, the Golden Spike joined the rails of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Well, what was Walls Fargo going to do now? Their overland stage operation was effectively ended. Oh, they continued hauling freight to a lot of smaller burgs where the railroad didn’t go. So, they figured it you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And Wells Fargo soon got into the railroad express business. Then soon became a major part of their business. Wells Fargo was good at adapting to change. It began to invest in railroad companies and in 1888 Wells Fargo established the first transcontinental express via rail.
They stayed in the business, successfully, until the early 20th century.
Well, don’t you just know that those bad guys didn’t take long at all to figure out that if they could hold up stage coaches and get away with a lot of money they could probably do the same by robbing trains. They were sometimes smart, these bad guys. Colorful, smart, and sometimes dangerous.
For awhile the bad guys had to draw straws to see if they’d hold up a stage coach or a train. But, since there were fewer and fewer stagecoaches to rob, they opted to hit the trains.
The first big train robbery occurred in 1870 when the Central Pacific out of Oakland was held up near Truckee, California and seven masked men got away with $42,000 in gold and gold coin. As a result, Wells Fargo hired James B. Hume as its Chief Detective. Hume was with the company for 32 years and became one of the most famous detectives in the country. During his tenure, it was said "There are two institutions dangerous for bad men to tinker with— the United States Government and Wells Fargo."
By the turn of the century, Wells Fargo had more than 3,000 offices in nearly every state and in Mexico.
In 1904 Wells Fargo & Company moved its office to New York City, and the following year it separated its banking and express operations.
Wells Fargo was told to "throw down the box" from a Concord stage for the last time in 1908. The bandits were immediately pursued, this time in automotive vehicles. The last horse-drawn stage carrying Wells Fargo cargo ran between Tonopah and Manhattan, Nevada, in 1909.
In 1918 the express company merged into the American Railroad Express Company, leaving only the banking portion to hold the title of Wells Fargo.
In 1923 Wells Fargo banking interests merged with the Union Trust Company, which still exists today.
Today, Wells Fargo & Co. provides financial services at some 6,000 locations. In fact, you’ll find them located throughout North San Diego County.