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WELLS FARGO TREASURE BOXES

By By Virginia M. Hall Editor Emeritas CSNA LM 26-02

Wells Fargo & Company was organized on March 18, 1852, as a joint-stock company in New York. They opened a San Francisco office for general banking and express business in July. By October they were issuing their own mailing franks and were firmly established in California by the end of the year.

To prevent hold-ups, Wells Fargo very early in its history, evolved the stage-coach guard, the "Wells Fargo shotgun messenger". He rode the box beside the driver. The unobtrusive green wooden treasure box resting in the "boot" beneath his feet, maintaining unceasing vigil. The crack of a twig or the movement of a tree branch might spell instant danger. The messenger had to be always on the alert. His vigilance had to be unceasing, and he needed courage to match. He had it! The Wells Fargo shotgun messenger took an honorable place early in the history of California transportation. More than once the messenger's reward was to be death. He was to be the Legion of Honor of the express, the picked battalion of the men who carried the freight and he defended it faithfully.

The iron treasure box for stage coaches, used circa 1861 through the late 1880's, provided more security than the wood treasure boxes. Some iron treasure boxes were bolted to the floors of their stage coaches.

This practice was soon prohibited by some stage companies, especially when it was learned that would-be highwaymen would resort to using dynamite to open the box, thereby destroying the stage coach in the process.

Wells Fargo & Co. carried much of the gold, silver and money of the west. Unfortunately, this treasure attracted outlaws. Between 1870 and 1884, for instance, bandits attempted to rob Wells Fargo gold shipments 347 times on stage coaches and 8 times on trains. Even if robbers were successful, Company policy was "never to abandon or relax the pursuit of anyone who committed a criminal offense against it", and in those fourteen years, Wells Fargo secured 226 convictions.

Among these couriers of the early Wells Fargo appears the name of James B. Hume, whose whole long life was to be identified with the protection of the express, along with his assistants: T. B. Thatcher, Eugene Blair and George Hackett. Also. Shotgun Jimmy Brown, Mike Tovey and John Brent.

This is the stout. Iron bound, green box in which Wells Fargo carried untold millions of gold over the wild and lonely roads of frontier America. It was the treasure box that was the objective of every stage robber in the Sierras.

Then there was Francis Bret Harte, in all probability the best known of all of them to the world at large. He was a young man who had come west from Albany, New York, in 1857 to seek his fortune in California. He found work with Wells Fargo and served as messenger for the company stage lines. After a few months he became dissatisfied with the job and turned to teaching school. Ten years later he was on a San Francisco newspaper laying the foundation for his career as a writer.

These were the shotgun messengers, the men who defended the treasure boxes of Wells Fargo. If a messenger put up a brave fight during a hold-up and was not killed, Wells Fargo usually gave him a gold watch with his name and the occasion engraved inside the case. That was long before the days of employees' pensions, and watches

J. Y. Ayer of San Francisco built them of Ponderosa pine and reinforced them with oak rims and iron straps and corners. They weighed 24 pounds each, measured 20" x 12" x 10" and cost approximately $10.00. Were cheaper anyway, even gold watches. There must be a lot of those Wells Fargo testimonial watches scattered around the west.

With the express robbery problem growing more acute, Lloyd Tevis and John J. Valentine, the active heads of Wells Fargo, sent for James B. Hume to come join their company in 1873. As the business of the treasure express increased, so would its responsibilities. Law enforcement in certain parts of California still was a good deal of a joke. Highwaymen and the crimes they committed against lives and property were all the while on the increase.

James B. Hume turned the tide in the other direction. With firmness and decision, he took hold of the problem and for thirty-two years he remained at the head of Wells Fargo police service. He was known as the man who, once he had started upon the chase, NEVER gave up. Defeat was a word unknown to him. The frontier sheriff gradually became a shrewd detective.

The extent of stage and express car hold-ups, and the record of James B. Hume in tracking down the bandits, can be seen in the interesting table quoted by Neill C. Wilson in his book, TREASURE EXPRESS. It was drawn up by the company in 1884 to see how the unending battle between bandits and Wells Fargo was coming: 313 Number of stage robberies
34 Attempted stage robberies
23 Burglaries
4 Train Robberies
4 Attempted Train Robberies
2 Wells Fargo guards killed
6 Wells Fargo guards wounded
4 Stage drivers killed
4 Stage drivers wounded
16 Stage robbers killed
7 Stage robbers hanged by citizens
7 horses killed
14 horses stolen from teams
240 Convictions
$415,312.55 Treasure stolen
73,451.00 Rewards paid
90,079.00 Prosecutions and incidental expenses
326,417.00 Salaries of guards and special officers
$905,259.55 Total cost to Wells Fargo due to highwaymen operating against 8 trains and 347 stages, during fourteen years.

It had been an exciting (and expensive) fourteen years; and the company had set an enviable record. It was a record of unending vigilance that few companies in the United States could equal.

There was a tradition in Wells Fargo which had its beginnings the first time one of its treasure boxes was rifled. The company paid the shipper the money lost, no matter how large the amount. Then it found the box, and the bandit! Not the least loss went unnoticed by Wells Fargo. There is a record in the company's annals of a lost treasure box stolen by highwaymen from a stage and a search for it which lasted four months. When it was finally found in an obscure corner of the great Oregon forest, torn open with only a thin Canadian dime remaining in the chest. That search cost Wells Fargo upwards of ten thousand dollars, but the company carried it through to the finish. It always did. Wells Fargo never FORGOT!

From its beginnings, 100 plus years ago down to the present, not one person ever lost a dollar, in property or in money entrusted to the care of Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo was told to "throw down the box" from a Concord stage for the last time in 1908 on the Rawhide-Manhatten run. A posse immediately pursued the bandits in open touring cars and roadsters!



 
 
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