Wells Fargo History - Since 1852

next next prev

 

On March 18, 1852, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo created Wells, Fargo & Company. The new company offered banking and express services to Gold Rush pioneers. Wells and Fargo saw opportunity, followed their dream, and left a strong heritage.

Since 1852 tells the story of Wells Fargo and its rich heritage. It showcases the people, communities and legacies that now are part of Wells Fargo's story. The business they founded nearly 160 years ago has grown into one of america's most respected and honored ocmpanies.

Enjoy the ride as you travel through the events and meet the people that contributed to our company's history, since 1852.

Together we'll go far

 

Transferring WF locked box

When Henry Wells and William G. Fargo founded Wells Fargo & Company in New York in March of 1852, they couldn’t have imagined they were creating a business enterprise that would become an American legend and one of America’s—and the world’s—best known brands. Wells Fargo is one of a few American companies doing business for over 150 years under its founding name and in its original line of business, banking.

Part of what distinguishes Wells Fargo as a modern financial services company is our history of satisfying all of our customers’ financial needs and helping them succeed financially.

As our corporate signature and beloved stagecoach symbolize,
“Together we’ll go far.”

Sincerely,

[need signature image]

John G. Stumpf
Chairman, President, and CEO

enlarge

Born in New Yorkmore

Astor House hotel
enlarge

On March 18, 1852, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo met with a group of investors in the elegant Astor House Hotel in New York City, and formed a joint-stock company to extend banking and express services to the West.

Wells Fargo is so closely linked with the development of the Old West that what is often forgotten is that the company was born in the State of New York. Discovery of gold in 1848 in the remote California foothills caused the greatest human migration in American history, and instigated a demand for basic goods such as pickaxes and shovels and a secure means to transport gold to financial institutions in the East.

At first this service was provided by lone expressmen who carried mail, parcels, gold and bills of exchange across the American continent on horseback, or mule and sometimes on foot, breaking trails, crossing flooded streams, braving attacks by grizzlies and wolves, and highway robbers. The need for express services was so high that intrepid frontiersmen and opportunists were willing to risk constant danger to reap the reward. In turn, scams were frequent, and newspapers warned readers to exercise caution in making their remittances to friends back in the United States. At the time, California regulated neither the express nor banking business, so both fields cried out for experience and order.

In New York, two successful express operators, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, had closely followed what was transpiring in the West as they continued to run their express service between Albany and Buffalo. In 1852, they had methodically conceived a plan to provide express and banking services to California and, with an initial capitalization of $300,000, announced the formation of Wells, Fargo and Company. From the start, the company cultivated a reputation based on reliability, security, convenience, and trustworthiness. Through the confidence that people placed in its services, Wells Fargo built a transcontinental business that played a pivotal role in settling the West.

In 1852, they had methodically conceived a plan to provide express and banking services to California and, with an initial capitalization of $300,000, announced the formation of Wells, Fargo & Co. From the start, the company cultivated a reputation based on reliability, security, convenience, and trustworthiness. Through the confidence that people placed in its services, Wells Fargo built a transcontinental business that played a pivotal role in settling the West.

Born in New Yorkmore

“Wells Fargo is now ready to undertake a general express forward agency and commission business… between the city of New York and the city of San Francisco and the principal cities and towns in California.”
–Announcement in Alta California, 1852

Wells Fargo letter

In the early years, Wells Fargo was considered more reliable than the U.S. Postal Service for transcontinental mail and important business correspondence.

Wells Fargo check

Banking was always an important aspect of Wells Fargo’s business, even in 1866, as this check written in New York shows. The Internal Revenue stamp, upper left, was required by the government to help pay for war debt.

 
Banjo clock

A banjo clock by Howard & David was a fixture in many Wells Fargo offices. In rugged mining camps, Wells Fargo offices came to symbolize the kind of modern services that miners knew back home in “the States”.
Photo: Rob Prideaux

Erie office
enlarge

In the mid-1890s, Wells Fargo shared its express office on Madison Square with the Erie Railroad ticket office. This office was one of ten Wells Fargo locations in New York. On the East Coast, rail transportation was the primary mode of transportation for the company’s express business.

Henry Wells and William Fargomore

“There was one very powerful business rule. It was concentrated in the word: courtesy”
–Henry Wells, 1864

Gold nuggets

Gold nuggets and dust panned by California miners were neither money nor legal tender, until they had been assayed and weighed. To do that, miners flocked to Wells Fargo, which was renowned for fairness and honesty.

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.

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. Congress quickly granted California statehood in 1850, even though most of the land from the Mississippi River westward was unsettled territory. In a few short years, the non-native population of California increased from 14,000 in 1848 to nearly a quarter million. With this growth came the demand for express services between California and “the States” to transport everything from gold, bank drafts, parcels and letters to a range of machine-made goods.

Convinced that the United States was on the verge of realizing its long-held dream of spanning the continent, Wells and Fargo strongly recommended that American Express establish a presence in the west, but a faction on the board of directors vehemently opposed the idea. Wells and Fargo decided to leave that company in tact, and instead organized a separate and independent joint-stock company to pursue its western strategy. On March 18, 1852, at the historic Astor House in New York City, Wells, Fargo & Co. was born. Before the year ended, Wells Fargo had 12 branch offices in operation and faithful messengers guarding iron chests filled with gold and treasures as they transported them between California and the Atlantic states.

 

Henry Wells and William Fargo more

First office
enlarge

Wells Fargo’s first banking and express office in the West was located on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Today the company’s headquarters are only a few steps from this original site.

Henry Wells Goes West
In February 1853, Henry Wells made his first trip out West. During his six-week steamship journey, 15 of his fellow passengers died and were buried at sea. Wells intended to stay in California three months, but remained three weeks. He admiringly noted 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 to slow for this market, but I am content to remain as I am a conservative in all such matter.”