The early history of Wells Fargo mirrors the growth of the American West. Mail distribution by Pony Express and the Butterfield stage line were assimilated by Wells Fargo. The company continued to expand with the advent of mining and railroad expansion, which brought droves of Easterners seeking their fortunes.
The initial foothold was orchestrated by two men. Henry Wells was first to capitalize on his vision of burgeoning Western expansion. His base company was New York Express. He took over the failing Butterfield stage line and that morphed into Western Express, which was created to fill needs that were an offshoot of the California gold strike of 1849. These enterprises amalgamated into the iconic American Express Co.
William Fargo became president of American Express in 1868. He oversaw the West Coast operations of transport and banking. Not long after, a successful investor named Lloyd Tevis merged his Pacific Express Co. with Wells, with the agreement he and some associates control the fast growing Wells Fargo.
He succeeded Fargo as president in 1872. During his 20 year leadership role, Wells grew rapidly, becoming by far the largest express and financial operation. In those 20 years, Wells Fargo offices, starting with 396, skyrocketed to 2,829.
As always, the principal goal was profit. The road to success, however, was not without some ruts. Cowboys also had a profit motive, albeit not from honest labor.
The Cowboys replaced brow sweat with gun muzzles. Wells Fargo and Tevis decided that no more patience was required. They had absorbed enough losses to roving highwaymen.
A plan was laid out which did not always include local law enforcement. Too often, as in the case of Pima and newly formed Cochise counties in Arizona, law enforcement could be weak or, worse yet, complicit when it came to Cowboy activities.
The answer was simple. Develop their own enforcement group. It proved to be very proficient and merciless. The motto “Wells Fargo Never Forgets” would become an ominous message to the Cowboys.
Another man was a major contributor to the Wells Fargo success story. James B. Hume carved out a niche. For lack of a better description, Hume was the enforcer.
He arrived in California in 1850, along with many who were lured by the gold strike. After making do with menial local government jobs, he became sheriff. Before he lost his next election, he played a major role in the capture of robbers who had taken cash from a Wells Fargo conveyance.
His timing was perfect. Wells hired him as a “special officer” in 1873. Hume was 46. Over the course of 30 years, Hume’s reputation grew to mythical proportions. The bulk of that time period he functioned as Wells Fargo’s chief detective.
Blessed with a keen mind, he employed a tenacity that rivaled J. Edgar Hoover’s career. Unlike Hoover, Hume was always active in the field of pursuit of robbers. His blueprint called for the elimination of Cowboy (or any other outlaw) disruption of business.
When the Cowboys started hitting the Tombstone stages, he headed to Southern Arizona. His coach was held up and Hume was relieved of his prize pistols. This was the beginning of the end for the Cowboys.
Hume ramped up efforts to stamp out robberies. He employed all manner of sources to keep track of the Cowboys. Wells used paid informants, undercover agents, and sometimes even law enforcement to achieve the goal of ridding Arizona of stage robbery.
An interesting sidebar that was not particularly complimentary to Wells’ prevention plan was the habit of having shot gun “messengers” atop the coach when bullion was shipped. That provided an easy clue for those who relayed on the info to the robbers.
Over a 14 year span, according to official records compiled by Hume, Wells Fargo endured 370 robberies or attempted robberies. There were 240 convictions. Thirty- three people died. Ten were Wells employees or passengers. The other 23 were robbers; five killed outright, 11 killed resisting arrest, and seven were hung by “civilians.”
Those last numbers were quite misleading. Many more suspects’ fates went unrecorded. Unpublished papers by Hume were later discovered (“Wells Fargo and the American West” by Philip Fradkin). They had revised figures. The number of robbers killed jumped to 65, wounded category listed 21, and just plain hung totaled 16. These papers revealed 18 Wells Fargo employees and operatives died in action.
It was noted that Wells paid out $900,000 for losses and expenses. Much of the expenses went to various hard-bitten operatives and, of course, lawyers.
In the memorable movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Butch, played by Paul Newman, finds out the hard way that crime can be dangerous. He and his Hole in the Wall Gang had been routinely robbing a railroad. The said railroad grew tired of it, and hired a special posse to eliminate Butch and his bunch. Butch had difficulty understanding the logic and lamented that if the railroad paid him the money it took to back a posse, he would stop robbing them. Likewise, the Cowboys had outlived their trade. It was way too late.
While researching Wells Fargo’s archives, this author contacted senior Wells Fargo historian Robert Chandler and the manager of the archive, Christy Johnson. Much had been destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake. Perhaps. Then again, would it be prudent for them to preserve records that called attention that Wells took the law into their own hands?
I did receive some logs from their “cash book.” Many entries showed the Earp brothers as recipients for routine guarding duties. One entry, however, jumped out.
In April 1882, there was an entry: J N Thacker paid Earp & posse a/c Stillwell and Curly Bill.” a/c was explained as meaning for service rendered. Given that Frank Stillwell and Curly Bill were exterminated weeks before, it is pretty obvious why the payment was made.
Wyatt had personal reasons: His two brothers had been shot by Cowboys; Virgil severely wounded and Morgan dead. Wells also suffered from the losses, as both brothers had worked for them.
Wells Fargo was certainly a willing partner in Wyatt’s vengeance ride. Years later, Bat Masterson, well-known Wild West figure, said in an interview that the real story of the West can be told by his friend Wyatt Earp, but Earp won’t talk.
Bat was obviously referring to Earp’s long association with Wells Fargo.
It should be noted that many distributions by the company were not recorded. The final tally of dispatched Cowboys will never be known. What resulted was a mass departure of Cowboys from Southern Arizona.
The late Glenn Boyer, while conducting exhaustive research, happened upon an elderly man in Wyoming. Boyer was quizzing him about knowledge the old man had about Cochise County while the Earps were living there.
The man answered him, “I was a young buck, but I weren’t no outlaw. I knew plenty of them (Cowboys) in Galeyville (an eastern Arizona mining camp that existed in the 1880s.) When they started disappearin’, I got the hell out of there!”
Wells Fargo proved to be a powerful force, curtailing lawlessness in the West. Their actions would not be acceptable by today’s standards. However, they “got the job done.”
Presently they are one of the world’s largest financial institutions. The stage coach is associated with their brand. Warren Buffet, the grandfatherly investment guru, has a large stake in Wells. It seems Buffet’s well-trumpeted sensibilities are not offended by past behaviors.
As the Cowboys learned, it all depends upon whose ox is being gored.
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, writer, western lecturer and researcher, and is responsible for the content of this column. He can be contacted at email@example.com.