Let’s Talk History – Wells Fargo and their “Bandits”..

Wells, founder of Wells and Company, and Fargo, a partner in Livingston, Fargo and Company, were major figures in the young and fiercely competitive express industry. In 1849 a new rival, John Butterfield, founder of Butterfield, Wasson & Company, entered the express business. Butterfield, Wells, and Fargo soon realized that their competition was destructive and wasteful, and in 1850 they decided to join forces to form the American Express Company. Soon after the new company was formed, Wells, the first president of American Express, and Fargo, its vice-president, proposed expanding their business to California. Fearing that American Express’s most powerful rival, Adams and Company (later renamed Adams Express Company), would acquire a monopoly in the West, the majority of the American Express Company’s directors balked. Undaunted, Wells and Fargo decided to start their own business while continuing to fulfill their responsibilities as officers and directors of American Express.

On March 18, 1852, they organized Wells, Fargo & Company, a joint-stock association with an initial capitalization of $300,000, to provide express and banking services to California. The original board of directors comprised Wells, Fargo, Johnston Livingston, Elijah P. Williams, Edwin B. Morgan, James McKay, Alpheus Reynolds, Alexander M.C. Smith and Henry D. Rice. Of these, Wells, Fargo, Livingston and McKay were also on the board of American Express.

In 1855 Wells Fargo faced its first crisis when the California banking system collapsed as a result of unsound speculation. A run on Page, Bacon & Company, a San Francisco bank, began when the collapse of its St. Louis, Missouri, parent was made public. The run soon spread to other major financial institutions all of which, including Wells Fargo, were forced to close their doors. The following Tuesday Wells Fargo reopened in sound condition, despite a loss of one-third of its net worth. Wells Fargo was one of the few financial and express companies to survive the panic, partly because it kept sufficient assets on hand to meet customers’ demands rather than transferring all its assets to New York. Surviving the Panic of 1855 gave Wells Fargo two advantages. First, it faced virtually no competition in the banking and express business in California after the crisis; second, Wells Fargo attained a reputation for dependability and soundness. From 1855 through 1866 Wells Fargo expanded rapidly, becoming the West’s all-purpose business, communications, and transportation agent. Under Barney’s direction, the company developed its own stagecoach business, helped start and then took over the Overland Mail Company, and participated in the Pony Express. This period culminated with the ‘grand consolidation’ of 1866 when Wells Fargo consolidated under its own name the ownership and operation of the entire overland mail route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and many stagecoach lines in the western states.

Wells Fargo’s involvement in Overland Mail led to its participation in the Pony Express in the last six of the express’s 18 months of existence. Russell, Majors & Waddell launched the privately owned and operated Pony Express. By the end of 1860, the Pony Express was in deep financial trouble; its fees did not cover its costs and, without government subsidies and lucrative mail contracts, it could not make up the difference. After Overland Mail, by then controlled by Wells Fargo, was awarded a $1 million government contract in early 1861 to provide daily mail service over a central route (the Civil War had forced the discontinuation of the southern line), Wells Fargo took over the western portion of the Pony Express route from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. Russell, Majors & Waddell continued to operate the eastern leg from Salt Lake City to St. Joseph, Missouri, under subcontract.

By 1866, Holladay had built a staging empire with lines in eight western states and was challenging Wells Fargo’s supremacy in the West. A showdown between the two transportation giants in late 1866 resulted in Wells Fargo’s purchase of Holladay’s operations. The ‘grand consolidation’ spawned a new enterprise that operated under the Wells Fargo name and combined the Wells Fargo, Holladay, and Overland Mail lines and became the undisputed stagecoach leader. Barney resigned as president of Wells Fargo to devote more time to his own business, the United States Express Company; Louis McLane replaced him when the merger was completed on November 1, 1866. The Wells Fargo stagecoach empire was short lived. Although the Central Pacific Railroad, already operating over the Sierra Mountains to Reno, Nevada, carried Wells Fargo’s express, the company did not have an exclusive contract. Moreover, the Union Pacific Railroad was encroaching on the territory served by Wells Fargo stagelines. Ashbel H. Barney, Danforth Barney’s brother and cofounder of United States Express Company, replaced McLane as president in 1869. The transcontinental railroad was completed in that year, causing the stage business to dwindle and Wells Fargo’s stock to fall.

Central Pacific promoters, led by Lloyd Tevis, organized the Pacific Union Express Company to compete with Wells Fargo. The Tevis group also started buying up Wells Fargo stock at its sharply reduced price. On October 4, 1869, William Fargo, his brother Charles, and Ashbel Barney met with Tevis and his associates in Omaha, Nebraska.. There Wells Fargo agreed to buy the Pacific Union Express Company at a much-inflated price and received exclusive express rights for ten years on the Central Pacific Railroad and a much needed infusion of capital. All of this, however, came at a price: control of Wells Fargo shifted to Tevis. Ashbel Barney resigned in 1870 and was replaced as president by William Fargo. In 1872 William Fargo also resigned to devote full time to his duties as president of American Express. Lloyd Tevis replaced Fargo as president of Wells Fargo.

Until 1876, both banking and express operations of Wells Fargo in San Francisco were carried on in the same building at the northeast corner of California and Montgomery Streets. In 1876 the locations were separated, with the banking department moving to a building at the northeast corner of California and Sansome Streets. The bank moved in 1891 to the corner of Sansome and Market Streets, where it remained until 1905.

Some Coach Handlers – One of the most famous Jehus was Henry James Monk, who drove the stage from Genoa, Utah to Placerville, California. Different names have been attributed to him, such as “Knight of the Lash,” or the “King of Coachmen.” Most people knew him as “Hank.” He would drive stages at breakneck speeds along the winding Sierra mountain roads. 

Hank became famous for the ride he gave Horace Greeley, a journalist for the New York Daily Tribune, over the Sierra Nevada mountains, from Virginia City, to Placerville. Greeley had complained to his driver, Hank, that the trip was going too slowly and he needed to reach Placerville, where he had a lecture engagement. It seems the constant grumblings from Greeley caused the driver to speed up and drive his team furiously. Hank yelled to Greeley, “Keep your seat, Horace; I’ll get you there on time!” Stories about the trip were written and retold in many mining towns. Even Mark Twain and Artemus West used the story to embellish their own lectures. 


George Monroe – Considered one of the most skilled whips during his lifetime, a mulatto named George Monroe, sometimes called “Alfred,” gained renown driving stages for United States presidents. He held the reins when President Ulysses S. Grant visited Yosemite in 1879 and again during the visits of Presidents James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. He also drove for General William T. Sherman. (7)  Monroe never gave his reins to any passenger except for U. S. Grant. He also provided transportation for eminent artists, including Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt-both well known for their striking landscape paintings of Yosemite.

Monroe was employed in 1866 by A. H. Washburn and Company (later known as the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company). His employer, Henry Washburn, used wagons built by Henderson & Son in Stockton, California. (8)  A few of the wagons Monroe drove can be seen today in the Yosemite National Park at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. Washburn remarked that George was, “the greatest of all.” Monroe earned the title “Knight of the Sierras.” His daily stage route took visitors along the Wawona Road, from Mariposa into the Yosemite Valley.

Monroe was not a very tall or large man, but was strong and considered one of the most skilled of reins men. He was a quiet with an easy manner. He wore long white gauntlet gloves and always dressed neatly. Born a slave in Georgia in 1844, he came to the Mariposa area when he was eleven. His father, who worked as a barber in the mining camps of California, purchased his freedom. Monroe drove stages for over twenty years without injury to passengers, horses, or to the vehicles. (9)  Unfortunately he died as a result of injuries sustained in a wagon crash on November 15, 1886. Monroe was not the driver that day, but a passenger. 



About trovegeneralstore

TROVE GENERAL EST.2010 Trove General, located in Paoli, Pennsylvania, is a men's and women's clothing and accessories store, with a curated collection of home wares, books and apothecary. Stocking brands that value quality and craftsmanship, Trove merges aesthetic and authenticity with heritage brands such as Belstaff, Pendleton, Woolrich, Filson, Blundstone, and Dubarry, while also aiming to constantly introduce fresh brands and ideas suited for an outdoor lifestyle. Harkening back to the days of the original general store, Trove is rooted in it's location and community.. A place meant to make life simpler and more enjoyable. Welcomed feedback or inquires please email info@trovegeneral.com. 19 Paoli Shopping Center Paoli, PA 19301 Monday-Saturday: 10-5 Sunday: 12-5 P~ 484.320.8626
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