Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wells Fargo and Company #western

Terry Irene Blain, author
 Wells Fargo and Company
by Terry Irene Blain

The story for Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold grew out of the location. Having driven through Durango on several occasions, I loved the place. Doing research on the history of Durango brought up the city’s connection with Wells Fargo. And reading about Wells Fargo I found that the company in the era of my story did in fact, have detectives. Many of the incidents that happened or are related to my hero as a Wells Fargo detective actually occurred (although I’ve used my hero, with changes in times and place).

The name Wells Fargo is intimately linked with the historical west. Wells Fargo were the dominate express company west of the Mississippi, although the founders were both East Coast men. Henry Wells, a leather worker at Batavia, New York, and William G. Fargo, a New York Central freight clerk at Auburn, New York were already involved in the express industry, as in 1850 the founded a company called American Express which did business in the Eastern United States. With the discovery of gold in California, they realized the west was wide open for exploitation. Wells and Fargo, while still running American Express, started a new company. In 1852 they founded Wells Fargo to do business in the West, and American Express would do business east of the Mississippi.

At that time, anyone with a wagon and team could call themselves an express company, but with their previous business experience, Wells Fargo by 1859 had 126 agencies between Canada and Mexico. In 1861 Wells Fargo has taken over not only the Overland Mail company but also the financially strapped Pony Express. The heart of Wells Fargo’s enterprise was the Express Department in the Parrott building on the northwest corner of Montgomery and California Streets. The historic building was constructed from stone blocks cut in China and assembled on the site by coolies. To communicate between office and various other business, they employed a cadre of boys to carry messages at twenty-five cents a message. Thus giving Wes his first job at Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo carried just about anything you can imagine that qualified as ‘fast freight.’ They hauled ice to Los Angeles, Vermont butter to the Mother Lode area. They hauled food, tools, liquor, clothing, but the name is most connected with the transportation of what then was called ‘treasure.’ The treasure of gold dust, nuggets, currency, drafts and notes, coins, gold and silver bullion. This treasure was transported in the famous green painted box wooden box bound with strap iron and sealed with a hasp and lock – which became a trade mark of the company. Keys were kept by the company agent, so any road agent had to carry the box away and then pry it open. Several times Wells Fargo employees went after robbers only to catch them before they could open the box (as Wes relates to Kate).

So if there was trouble in the smelters in Durango, it would have impacted Wells Fargo who transported the minerals produced by the smelters. Much to my surprise I found that several Wells Fargo detectives while working undercover held jobs as deputy sheriffs, or even country sheriffs. So Wes’ job working for the smelters isn’t as odd as it might seem.

The most famous Wells Fargo detective was James Hume, responsible for the capture of Black Bart, the notorious stagecoach bandit know for leaving poetic messages at the site of his robberies. At what turned out to be Black Bart’s last robbery, he was wounded and fled the scene. One of the items left behind was a handkerchief with a laundry mark. Hume and another Wells Fargo detective went to over ninety laundries in San Francisco, and traced it the customer and his boarding house. The suspect confessed to the robber.

Wells Fargo eventually separated their express business and their banking business. By 1905 E.H Harriman, the financier and dominant figure in the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, had gained control of Wells Fargo (the same E. H. Harriman whose men are chasing Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance kid in the film of the same name). There followed several other takeovers or mergers in the early 1900s.

The company lost its express business in 1918, as a wartime measure, the U. S. government nationalized the express business into a federal agency, the Railway Express Agency (which ceased to exist in 1975).

A firm foundation enabled the remaining banking half of Wells Fargo to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1962, the bank’s name officially became Wells Fargo Bank. Other first were in 1967 along with two other banks, Wells Fargo introduced what was to become MasterCard.

Eventually in the 1990s Well Fargo was merged with the Norwest Corporation. And while Norwest was the larger company, they kept the much better known name of Wells Fargo, keeping the link to the American West, the stagecoach and the heritage of the name. As recently as 2008, Wells Fargo is still growing, acquiring Wachovia.

The Wells Fargo stagecoach carrying the green box is still one of the enduring image of the West. Just for fun, a Wells Fargo commercial featuring the iconic stagecoach.

For more information on James Hume, see Wells Fargo Detective, a biography of James Hume by Richard Dillon.

Labels: Durango Colorado, Wells Fargo, bank robbery, stagecoach, smelters, San Francisco, Black Bart, Overland Mail, Pony Express, American Express
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Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold
by Terry Irene Blain
Available from Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, iBooks, Kobo, ARe

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  1. Great post! I enjoyed learning more about Wells Fargo and Company. I knew about Wells Fargo Bank, but don't remember hearing much about the Stagecoach part of Wells Fargo. I enjoyed watching the Wells Fargo commercial. I didn't realize that Wachovia was part of Wells Fargo. Thanks for sharing this little bit of history of Wells Fargo with us.

  2. Becky, thanks for the comment. I worried that people might find the information overdone. But it was a great help in creating the hero's character in the novel.


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