Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Wells, Fargo and Company, which developed express, stagecoaching, overland freighting, and banking divisions, was formed in New York in 1852. Its principal founders, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, both experienced expressmen, had earlier started the American Express Company in association with John Butterfield. Butterfield’s unwillingness to extend expressing to California caused Wells and Fargo with other associates to create a separate company.

Based in San Francisco, Wells Fargo soon became California's leading express and banking firm. Aggressively branching out, in 1848 the firm acquired a financial interest in the Butterfield Overland Mail. After purchasing Ben Holladay's Overland Mail and Express Company in 1866, Wells Fargo became dominant in Great Plains and western stagecoaching. Simultaneously, the company opened a freighting division, which, among other things, transported government and private freight by wagon westward from the railhead of the advancing Union Pacific Railroad.

The completion of the Union Pacific in 1869 caused Wells Fargo to deemphasize stagecoaching and freighting in favor of its transcontinental express service. Nonetheless, the firm extended stagecoach and wagon express into new frontiers such as the gold-producing Black Hills. By the 1890s, when railroad networks had finally replaced stagecoaching, Wells Fargo was almost completely devoted to railroad expressing and banking.

In the twentieth century, Wells Fargo's banking interests expanded rapidly. First it became one of the major financial institutions in California and other western states, and then in 1998 it merged with Norwest Corporation of Minneapolis under the Wells Fargo name. The merger made it the principal banking firm on the Northern Great Plains.

William E. Lass Mankato State University

Beebe, Lucius, and Charles Clegg. U.S. West: The Saga of Wells Fargo. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1949.

Hungerford, Edward. Wells Fargo: Advancing the American Frontier. New York: Random House, 1949.

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