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Looking at corporate history

It was 167 years ago today that two men joined forces in New York City to start a new business designed to serve the needs of a growing nation in the wake of the California Gold Rush.

Their names:

Henry Wells.

William G. Fargo.

Yes, that Wells and that Fargo.

Wells Fargo history

You can read all about the formation of this particular company:

Discovery of gold in 1848 in the remote California foothills caused the greatest human migration in American history, and inspired a demand for a secure means to transport money.


At first this service was provided by lone expressmen who carried mail, parcels, gold, and bills of exchange as couriers. They traveled by sea or across the American continent on horseback or by mule or even on foot, breaking trails, crossing flooded streams, and braving attacks by wild animals and highway robbers.


The need for express services was so high that trailblazers were willing to risk constant danger to reap the rewards. In turn, scams were frequent, and newspapers warned readers to exercise caution in making their remittances to friends back in the eastern states. At the time, California regulated neither the express nor the banking business, so both fields cried out for experience and order.


Two successful express operators, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, had closely followed what was transpiring in California as they continued to run their express service primarily in the state of New York.


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. …


On March 18, 1852, Henry Wells and William Fargo met with a group of investors and (formed) a joint-stock company to extend banking and express services to customers in the West.1

All that — and so much more — readily available for us to use in our family histories.

Online and off.


In the archives of Wells Fargo.

Like many historic companies, Wells Fargo is more than happy to share bits and pieces of its history with researchers, historians and genealogists, both online and off.

Let’s talk online first. Wells Fargo has an entire website highlighting its history that’s chock full of details at This is where the company explains its beginnings, who its founders were, its roots in the Gold Rush, and more. It has photos and explanations of the stagecoaches used, images of the Pony Express and coaches, and continues its history into the era of modern banking.2

There’s some wonderful stuff in the company’s online offerings, so look around!

Offline, Wells Fargo has its corporate archives — and you can see a selection online at the Archives page.3 The page doesn’t explain how researchers can get access to specific aspects of its archival holdings, located at its San Francisco headquarters, but a description on the website of the Society of American Archivists notes that: “Archive materials are regularly used to fulfill a variety of requests including: genealogical research; litigation support; historical imagery; evolution of company products and services; long-standing customer and community relationships; career paths of corporate leaders; and reinforcing Wells Fargo’s long-standing history of serving diverse communities.”4 Personally, I’d email or write to begin the process.

Beyond that, Wells Fargo also has — count ’em — 12 museums we can visit:

• In Anchorage, Alaska, the Alaska Heritage Museum is “the largest private collection of its kind in Alaska. In addition to a large collection of Alaskan Native artifacts, and fine art by Alaskan artists, the Museum highlights Wells Fargo history in the Alaskan Gold Rush era, with a two-thirds-scale stagecoach.”5

• In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Wells Fargo History Museum “highlights gold mining in North Carolina, and the beginnings of Wachovia Bank. Exhibits include a model of an 1889 Wachovia Bank branch from Winston-Salem. Wells Fargo history exhibits feature a rare Concord stagecoach, built in the mid-19th century.”6

• In Des Moines, Iowa, the “newest Wells Fargo History Museum located in downtown Des Moines highlights the role Iowa played connecting the nation, from trails west to stagecoach lines and railroads. … Exhibits include an authentic Concord stagecoach, Wells Fargo treasure box, gold and money, historic banking machines, and a Wells Fargo wagon like that made famous in native-Iowan Meredith Willson’s play The Music Man.”7

• In Los Angeles, California, exhibits include “an original Concord Stagecoach, gold—including the 27-ounce Challenge Nugget, historic Los Angeles maps, a walk-in, historically recreated Express office, a replica coach you can board, and a working telegraph.”8

• In Minneapolis, Minnesota, you can “examine an authentic stagecoach from 1863, see the glimmer of real gold nuggets and coins, send coded messages by telegraph, ride in a rocking stagecoach, sing along to the Weatherball jingle—and much more!”9

• In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, you can see “an authentic Concord city-style stagecoach, an interactive Wells Fargo Agent, many examples of traditional clothing, and an authentic $368 million cashier’s check from 1950, deposited into the Philadelphia National Bank.”10

• In Phoenix, Arizona, exhibits include an authentic 19th Century stagecoach, a replica stagecoach you can climb aboard, an interactive telegraph, and an art gallery—the largest public display of N.C. Wyeth’s western-themed work.11

• In Portland, Oregon, the museum exhibits include an 1854 Concord Coach, a stagecoach driver’s seat, and a working telegraph.12

• In Sacramento, California, you can see “an authentic 1866 Abbot-Downing stagecoach, a working telegraph line, a priceless collection of postal covers, real gold specimens from the area, artifacts, documents, furnishings and images.”13

• In San Diego, California, exhibits include “an original Concord Coach from 1867, an original panoramic painting of San Diego in 1855, a 19th-century pocket watch—a reward for the recovery of $10,000, (and) two authentic telegraphs.”14

• And in San Francisco, California, visitors can “learn how to drive a stagecoach, send an express package, use vintage bank machines, send a message via working telegraphs to another Wells Fargo museum (and) ride in a replica stagecoach listening to stories from stagecoach drivers and passengers.”15

So the bottom line from this day in history?

Don’t forget the businesses — the companies — that impacted our ancestors’ lives, and figure deeply into our genealogy.

Many of them have wonderful histories of their own — and they’re more than willing to share.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The business of genealogy,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 18 Mar 2019).


Image: Extracted from The Buffalo (NY) Courier, 3 June 1852, p. 4, col. 3, via

  1. Introduction: Since 1852: History,” Wells Fargo History ( : accessed 18 Mar 2019).
  2. Ibid., “Since 1852: History.”
  3. Ibid., “Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.”
  4. Repository Profile – Wells Fargo & Company,” Business Archives Section, Society of American Archivists ( : accessed 18 Mar 2019).
  5. Museums: Alaska,” Wells Fargo History ( : accessed 18 Mar 2019).
  6. Ibid., “Museums: Charlotte.”
  7. Ibid., “Museums: Des Moines.”
  8. Ibid., “Museums: Los Angeles.”
  9. Ibid., “Museums: Minneapolis.”
  10. Ibid., “Museums: Philadelphia.”
  11. Ibid., “Museums: Phoenix.”
  12. Ibid., “Museums: Portland.”
  13. Ibid., “Museums: Sacramento.”
  14. Ibid., “Museums: San Diego.”
  15. Ibid., “Museums: San Francisco.”
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