Gold rush roots of Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo wasn’t the first or only express and banking business in the California gold rush, but it quickly became the one that miners and settlers came to rely on most.
San Francisco saw its population explode overnight. Thousands of prospectors arrived by ship, causing the city’s population to rise from fewer than one thousand in 1848 to more than 30,000 in 1851. Crews often jumped ship upon landing, and the abandoned vessels were converted into buildings, some with masts still attached.
Hundreds of thousands of people moved to California, hoping to make a quick fortune and return to loved ones back home. California was ill-prepared to handle the sudden influx of people. Food, clothing, and housing were scarce and inadequate. In 1852, the gold-mining region covered about 20,000 square miles along the Sierra foothills. The names of some of the tiny camps that dotted the Mother Lode reflected the miners’ hopes and disappointments — Last Chance, Rough-and-Ready, You Bet, Squabbletown, Whiskey Creek, Poverty Bar, Poker Flat. As nearly inaccessible as these sites were, collectively they yielded more gold than the largest amount of wealth then known in the world.
Members of the Miwok, Maidu, and other native tribes of California joined in the early search for gold in 1848. As 49ers arrived and competition for land and gold escalated, newcomers used violence and discriminatory practices to force native peoples out of the gold fields.
Gold seekers came from all parts of the world including Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Chinese miners used this type of portable scale, called a dotchin scale, to weigh their gold. – Photo: Rob Prideaux
Upon arriving in California in the summer of 1852, Wells, Fargo & Co. announced in the Alta California newspaper that “it would immediately establish offices at all the principal towns in California, and run messengers of their own account for the purpose of doing a general Express business.”
Before preprinted forms, a simple handwritten receipt provided proof of a banking transaction. Wells Fargo recorded this general deposit of $100 at its office in Dotan’s Bar, a mining camp near Folsom, California, in 1855.
The company sent two experienced managers to act as principal agents. Samuel P. Carter, who had been with American Express, was put in charge of the express business, and Reuben W. Washburn, who had been with a bank in Syracuse, took charge of the banking side.

“You write about sending money. It will come safely through Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express.”

Californian Jesse Mason, writing home to Vermont, 1865

Soon Wells Fargo agencies could be found throughout California and in every mining town. Each was fully equipped for transactions, so a miner could conduct his banking business without leaving his claim for long. The miner took his nuggets or dust to the nearest Wells Fargo office, where an agent weighed it on a delicate scale to the smallest fraction of an ounce and handed the miner a receipt. The company set stringent rules for its agents that it insisted had to be applied to all gold buyers. “Pay no more for dust than it is worth, nor pay less. This is the only true motto to do any kind of business on,” stated company policy in 1857.

Such honesty and reliability were greeted with relief. “[Wells Fargo’s] express office is the central object in every mining camp,” Frederick Law Olmstead wrote in 1864.

Open for business where the U.S. Postal Service didn’t go, Wells Fargo doubled as a private mail service. Wells Fargo was so dependable that one miner, Charles T. Blake, who later became a Wells Fargo agent, wrote home from his mining claim at Sarahsville, “If you write me through the P.O., address [it to] Auburn, but the surest way of reaching me is through Wells Fargo and Co’s Express.”
Gold was plentiful in California, but coins were scarce. In 1852, assayer Augustus Humbert produced this privately minted octagonal $50 coin. Weighing 2.5 ounces, the coin is like many early gold pieces that Wells, Fargo & Co. handled in its banking and express operations.
Another man from San Jose wrote to a friend in San Francisco, “Don’t send me any more mail through the Post Office, for it takes a week to get here. Give it to Wells Fargo and I’ll get it in 9 hours.”

Customers not only entrusted Wells Fargo with their gold, letters, parcels, and freight, some even used the express company to transport their wives and children as well. Wells Fargo employees were renowned for stopping at nothing to meet their responsibility. Stories abound of Wells Fargo messengers who swam across icy rivers and fought off armed bandits in the course of duty.
If Chinese speaking customers couldn’t write an address in English, it didn’t matter. Wells Fargo hired translators to ensure prompt delivery of letters.
In 1864, a merchant in Folsom, California, used a Wells Fargo check to buy goods from a firm named Levi Strauss & Co., which got into the business of making sturdy denim pants with reinforced copper rivets for miners in 1873.
People looked to Wells Fargo messengers not only to carry the mail, but to deliver news from “the States” as well. Messengers carried newspapers free to remote locations. The San Francisco Herald commented on how Wells Fargo had quickly become known for being the first with the news. “The recent important intelligence of the [1852] presidential election gave opportunity for the display of great enterprise and daring on the part of the various [express] companies here. [Wells Fargo is] a firm which has gained rapidly in public favor and is now fully and successfully established.”
The rugged environment made living conditions harsh for all, but miners feared leaving their claim unattended for long. Wells Fargo set up branch offices in nearby camps to convert gold into money and handle mail deliveries.
Credit for Wells Fargo’s stellar reputation had much to do with the ingenuity, courtesy, and trustworthiness of its employees. Agents comported themselves as gentlemen and were pillars of their communities. This was at a time when rowdy, drunken brawls broke out regularly among an immigrant miner population that was largely young, single, and male. To them, Wells Fargo represented a lifeline and a reminder of the civility of the States, a source of letters and parcels from loved ones, and a means to place their hard-won gold in a secure banking institution.

The comforts and connections to the eastern seaboard that Wells Fargo allowed made California seem less rugged and remote. Towns sprouted up across the state, more people arrived, and many miners stopped prospecting for gold and took up professions such as farming and shopkeeping that led to the building of real communities. Wells Fargo spurred on this growth through quality banking and express services that reassured Californians they could conduct business and enjoy the same living standards as those available to their fellow Americans on the Atlantic seaboard 3,000 miles away.