Going To California

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Going to California

Going to California

In 1852, two years after the formation of the American Express Company, Henry Wells and William Fargo proposed to its Board of Directors that the operations of the company be extended to California. That year more than £60,000,000 in gold came out of the California mines, most of which was shipped East by express over the sea route to Panama, then by land across the Isthmus, and on by ship again. Alvin Adams was getting the lion's share of this business, and Wells wanted the American Express Company to challenge his monopoly.

John Butterfield opposed the idea, and the other two directors present voted with him, vetoing the proposal. Messrs. Wells and Fargo were annoyed but not defeated. They secured financing and formed Wells Fargo and Company, which eventually broke the Adams monopoly and became the leading express company of the West. It developed a close working agreement with the American Express Company whereby the express business was divided by the line of the Missouri River, Wells Fargo operating to the west of that line and American Express to the east.

A few years later John Butterfield proved that he, too, was a pioneer. He engaged in one of the most glorious gambles in the history of the West when he inaugurated the famous Overland Mail, whose stagecoaches ran from St. Louis to San Francisco in twenty-four days through desert and mountain and half a million extremely unpredictable Indians.

Tribulations always beset any new business. Millions of dollars in portable wealth were being shipped by American Express all over the vast, wild spaces of America and via its great lakes and rivers. From the moment it accepted responsibility for a shipment, the full faith and credit of the company stood, as it still stands, behind its obligations. Losses were inevitable.

On August 19, 1852, the American Express Company received a hard blow. The steamer Atlantic, en route from Buffalo to Detroit, sank with more than £50,000 in the express safe she carried. The wreck was located and an iron buoy set out to mark the spot. The company, determined to get that safe back, spent more than £3,000 for divers, who for weeks explored the sunken ship in vain. Eventually the company simply made good the amount and absorbed the loss. A final item was the payment of £200 to buy new clothes for John J. Murphy, the unhappy express messenger, who had barely saved his skin.

Luckily the company did not suffer a loss of comparable magnitude for more than three years. Then a most mysterious misfortune struck it. The American Express agent in Dubuque, Iowa, accepted two boxes represented to contain a total of £50,000 in gold from Patrick Quigley for shipment to the Assistant Treasurer of the United States in New York. They were duly and carefully transported, but when the Assistant Treasurer, John J. Gives, opened them, they contained a very fine collection of lead bullets.

The directors of the American Express were morally certain that those boxes never had contained anything but bullets. However, since their agent in Dubuque had accepted them as being full of gold and there was no way of proving the contrary, the company paid up as usual. Instead of the precious metal, Mr. Gives received an equally valuable check for £50,000.

The stagecoaches of the Overland Mail, with six horses galloping on a desert trail while the armed guards exchanged volleys with masked bandits and the passengers counted the holes in their beaver hats, are one of the great legends of America. Though American Express messengers travelled through a more peaceable part of the country, there were plenty of shady characters scheming to relieve them of the burden of their treasure trunks.

And the Eastern messengers defended them as bravely as did the Winchester-wielding guards of the Western Mail.

A hero of the early days was John Kenny, who stood guarding his treasure trunk in the depot at Troy one night when a desperado sprang at him and drove a dagger into his face. With six inches of steel sticking through his cheeks, Kenny grabbed the assassin and held him until help arrived.

The directors of the company voted Kenny a gold watch "suitably inscribed." Thereafter all messengers who defended their charges got gold watches.

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THEY TALKED about infant industries in 1850. Americans still thought of their country as a small boy among the nations. But he was a very husky youth. It is true that none of the gigantic combinations of industry had yet taken place, and the great spider web of railroads that was to tie the country together was just being spun - indeed, there was no through line as yet to Chicago. Nevertheless, things were booming. Our clipper ships ranged all the seas, carrying a larger percentage of the world's trade than has ever been transported in American bottoms since. The fast packets of Vanderbilt's European Steamship Line, the United States Steamship Line, and the famous Black Ball Line were more important on the transatlantic run than the new British Cunarders. More than thirteen hundred ships, from iron screw steamers to schooners, were built in American yards that year, and our foreign trade amounted to more than £400,000,000 - no mean amount in pre-Civil War dollars.GROWING PAINS

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