“ Our lives are not measured by the number of years and days we exist, but by what we accomplish while we live, and the good we may render to our fellow men.”
~ Henry Wells, 1875
Born December 12, 1805 in Thetford, Vermont, third of four children born to itinerant Presbyterian preacher Shipley Wells and Dolly Randall Wells. At age 16 Wells became an apprentice to a tanner and shoemaker in Palmyra, New York. Wells married Sarah Daggett in 1826. In 1841, Wells entered the express business as agent for Harnden’s Express in Albany.
Over the next decade, Wells worked as an express messenger between Albany and Buffalo, and formed business partnerships with other pioneer expressmen such as George Pomeroy, Crawford Livingston and William George Fargo. In 1845 his Wells & Company express concern expanded westward to Chicago and St. Louis.
Wells fought the government’s postal rates and monopoly, advocating competition by express and forcing the government to reduce its long-distance postal rates. Wells also invested in and helped build a telegraph line from Lockport to Buffalo on November 7, 1845; purportedly the first commercial telegraph line operating in the United States.
In 1850, Wells and several associates including William G. Fargo, created the American Express Company in New York. When the directors of American Express declined to extend the business westward to California during the gold rush, in 1852 Wells and Fargo founded a new banking and express company to serve the western frontier: Wells, Fargo & Company.
In 1865, Wells began planning a college for women in Aurora, New York. Wells College opened its doors for the education of women in 1868, and still educates students today. Wells also served as president of First National Bank of Aurora and the Cayuga Lake Railroad. One southwestern venture, the Arizona & New Mexico Express Company, failed under the direction of Wells’ son Charles.
Henry Wells died December 10, 1878, leaving an estate of only $40,000 following a lifetime of business and philanthropic achievement.