Henry Wells and William G. Fargo

Both Henry Wells and William G. Fargo began their careers as expressmen in upstate New York before joining forces with other express operators in 1845 to extend their business to Chicago and St. Louis, the western edge of what was then the United States. This was a formative period for the express industry, with companies forming, dissolving, and consolidating.

One such merger of competing lines led to the creation of the American Express Company in 1850, with Wells as president and Fargo as secretary. Business was plentiful for the company, with the assurance of a reliable railway transportation system being built throughout the East.

“There was one very powerful business rule… It was concentrated in the word courtesy.”

Henry Wells

Henry Wells (1805-1878). In addition to organizing Wells, Fargo & Co. with William G. Fargo in 1852, Henry Wells co-founded the American Express Company in 1850 and served as its president for its first 18 years. He also founded Wells College for women in Aurora, New York, in 1868.
William G. Fargo (1818-1881). He was also a co-founder of American Express Company and Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis, and served as mayor of Buffalo, New York. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, is named in his honor.
Still, news that gold was discovered on the American River in Coloma, California, in 1848 did not go unnoticed by Wells and Fargo. After President James K. Polk confirmed in a December 1848 address to Congress that gold in the territory was abundant and “of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief,” thousands of Americans struck out across the continent to make their fortune.

With this migration came the demand for express services between California and eastern states to transport everything from gold, bank drafts, parcels, and letters to a range of machine-made goods.
Map of the U.S., 1852. As people moved to new places, Wells and Fargo envisioned a company that would connect families and businesses across thousands of miles.
On July 13, 1852, Wells Fargo opened for business in San Francisco. Its first customer bought this First of Exchange to send $100 to one Mrs. Sophie Parker of Buffalo, New York.

Henry Wells comes to California

In February 1853, Henry Wells made his first trip to the Pacific Coast. During his six-week steamship journey, 15 of his fellow passengers died and were buried at sea. Wells intended to stay in California for three months, but he remained only three weeks. He admiringly noted that his agents were running the business well, and left. Although Wells declared “This is a great country and a greater people,” he found it too unsettled for his taste. “I am called sanguine at home, but I am an old fogey here and considered entirely too slow for this market, but I am content to remain as I am a conservative in all such matters.”

Realizing that Americans were moving to new places to pursue opportunity, Wells and Fargo strongly recommended that American Express expand to follow where customers went. A faction on the board of directors vehemently opposed the idea. Wells and Fargo decided to organize a separate and independent joint-stock company to pursue their strategy. On March 18, 1852, Wells, Fargo & Co. was born.

Before the year ended, Wells Fargo had 12 offices in operation with faithful messengers guarding iron chests filled with gold that were transported between California and the Atlantic states.
Wells Fargo’s first office in San Francisco, 1853. Today the company’s headquarters are only a few steps from this original site.