History of the Stagecoach

This webpage contains the history of the early-day stagecoach, the history of Wells Fargo, and the history of American Express.


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History of the Stagecoach in the West

photo of the wells fargo stage coach

Origin of the Stagecoach

Goods and merchandise were carried in carts as far back as 2500 B.C., and chariots for carrying men were in use in Egypt in 1700 B.C. By 400 B.C., chariot racing was a popular sport in Roman games; and by 300 B.C. they were building thousands of miles of roads across Italy. Whether you want to call them carts, chariots, or wagons, wheeled conveyances have been around for thousands of years.

Stagecoaches were developed in London as early as 1640 and reached Paris by 1680. Stage coach lines were established in the east around the settlements of Jametown, Concord, Boston and other towns and cities to transport passengers through treacherous terrain and all weather conditions. Soon they were carrying mail and freight as well. Since at that time, the frontier extended on a few hundred miles inland, there was little need for public transportation. Horseback remained the major means of transporttation. Stagecoaches were used to some extent between inland cities and towns, but at the time there were no mail contracts.

By 1820, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the fur trade increased and St. Louis became the fur capital of the U.S. The same year, the first stageline reached St. Louis from the East. The travel was not strictly by stagecoach however, as the most direct route was used with a combination of coaches and riverboats.

The Concord Stage

The Abbot Downing, 9-passenger, Concord Stagecoach was the stagecoach used throughout the country throughout the mid and late 1800s and well into the 1900s.

The original company of J. S. Abbot and Lewis Downing formed in 1826 and lasted until 1847 and was named the Abbot Downing Company. Abbot Downing Company was known the world over for its Concord Stagecoach but actually the company manufactured over 40 different types of carriages and wagons at the wagon factory in Concord, New Hampshire.

The Abbot Downing Company developed the first Concord stagecoach in 1827. Mark Twain once stated the Concord Stagecoach was like a cradle on wheels. The Concord stage had thoroughbraces which gave the stagecoaches the ride of a swinging motion instead of the jolting up and down like that of wagons with spring suspensions.

The Concord Stagecoaches were built solid and gained the reputation of never breaking down, just gracefully wearing out! Over 700 Concord stagecoaches were built by the original Abbot Downing Company before it disbanded in 1847. Abbot formed a partnership with his son and thrived with J. S. and E. A. Abbot and Company until 1865 as well as Lewis Downing and his two sons forming Lewis Downing and Sons about the same time. With the retirement of Lewis Downing in 1865, his two sons merged again with the Abbot company becoming known as Abbot Downing & Company. Once again the brilliance of the two families was under one company. From 1847 through 1899 the various company names saw a production of three thousand Concord coaches.

Concord Stage Construction

The Concord stagecoach has a suspension system that consisted of the coach body riding on leather strapping called thoroughbraces.

Classical Concord Stagecoach Used by Wells Fargo Stage, Symbol of the Old West

Very few other horse drawn vehicles have this characteristic. The stagecoach has two doors, one on either side of the body, with each door having a "pocket window" which could be slid up or down depending on the weather. The corner windows typically had leather curtains which could be rolled down if necessary. The interior seating was dependent on the model. The 9-passenger model had a center jump seat with a �lazy back� rest, capable of seating 3 persons. Often times, passengers rode on top of the stagecoach as well. Operation of the stagecoach was managed by one driver in control of a team of 4 or 6 horses or mules. Depending on the route and/or the possibility for hostility during travels, a "shotgun-messenger" could often be seen sitting to the left of the driver.

The Western Stagecoach

By 1840, the stagecoach days were ending in the East with the increase of rail travel.However, many of the stageline owners whose businesses had dwindled in the East, saw an opportunity to begin again in the West, as there was very little public transportation west of St. Louis. They formed stageline companies, gathering any stock and vehicles they could find and then advertised for passengers to California.

Many companies advertised fast coaches, 2500 miles in 70 days. After several unsuccessful attempts, the lines realized that successful transportation west of the Missouri River had to include frequent stops and a reasonable semblance of roads. Government subsidies in the form of mail contracts were prized as a means to providing this transportation. In California, outrageous fares were charged in for those in a rush to stake claims so that the mail contracts were not needed. With the California gold rush, stagecoaching took a giant leap forward.

Stagecoach Lines in the 1840's

By the 1840's, trails such as the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail opened up and new trails branched from these, while others were created. Every ten to fifteen miles swing stations or home stations were developed, and near water sources. The swing stations were provided with only a change of stock. Here passengers had a few minutes to get out and stretch but there was very little to comfort the passengers.

Home stations were equipped with kitchens for meals, some even had beds. Most stages didn't even stop for the night so passengers slept sitting up, trying not to lean over and use a fellow passengers shoulder. If you were lucky and there was room, you could stretch out on the seat, only to be bounced off if the stagecoach hit a rut. Many stations were little more than dugouts along banks of streams or into the sides of hills.

Although the stagelines carried passengers, the majority of their profit came from transporting mail and freight. Because mail contracts had to be bid for, competition along some of the routes was fierce. Although stage routes had been established to haul mail and passengers, freighters, immigrants and gold seekers, were also using the routes. On the plains, the routes were hazardous primarily because of the Indians resentment of the whites' intrusion of their lands. They harassed the travelers to discourage settlement. Other hazards included the lack of water and game was limited, and very few trees that would provide some shelter from the summer sun or logs for fires. With the heat of the summer, lack of water, and harsh winters, many travellers died from thirst, starvation, or freezing to death.

Wells Fargo & the Butterfield Overland Stage

In the 1850's, two dominent stagecoach lines came into existance: Wells Fargo and the Butterfield Overland Stage. At this time, there were seven other prominent stage coach lines and hundreds of smaller lines that provided specialized service between small towns not serviced by the major stagecoach lines.
Ben Holladay, owner of the Butterfield Overland stage is given credit for introducing the Concord Stagecoach out west (he was the largest single purchaser of Abbott and Downing's Concord Stagecoach). Ben Holladay assembled a vast stagecoach empire to earn the title Stagecoach King.

With Ben Holladay 's acquisition of the Butterfield Overland Dispatch in 1866, it became known as the Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company. On November 1, 1866, Ben Holladay sold his stagecoach company to Wells, Fargo.

The concept of a Wells Fargo stageline was conceived by two directors, Henry Wells and William Fargo of the American Express Company in 1851. The Wells Fargo stage line started up operations in California on March 18, 1852 as a subsidiary of The American Express Company. Initially, Wells Fargo began provided banking and mail services to the mining camps in California. Two months later, Wells Fargo had a bank and express office in San Francisco.

photo of William Fargo, co-founder of Wells Fargo stageline

Founders of Wells Fargo, Henry Wells (Left) and William Fargo (Right).

Wells Fargo was known for red brick buildings with green shutters. Wells Fargo offices were established in Oregon, Hawaii, Australia, and throughout the Mother Lode country by 1855. At this time Wells, Fargo rented space from other Overland Stage Lines they did not operate their own Overland Stage Lines yet.

By the mid 1850's, there were some nine Overland Stage owners delivering passengers and goods to points west.

U.S. Mail Contract and the Stagecoach

In 1857, the Postmaster General put out for bid the concept of a new stageline that would carry the mail all the way to San Francisco. Many Overland stage owners had routes with relay stations and frontier forts north of Albuquerque in the New Mexico territory.

Ox Bow Route

The new mail contract called for the ox bow route which required going through Fort Smith, through Texas to El Paso, and then onward to Fort Yuma, California and then up to San Francisco. The ox bow route added 600 miles and scores of relay stations and several frontier forts.

Butterfield Overland Stage Company

Nine Overland Stage owners entered bids for the U.S. Mail contract. However, the coveted prize was awarded to Butterfield Overland Stage Company on September 15, 1857.

The Butterfield Overland Stage began rolling on September 15, 1858, twice weekly mail service began. A Butterfield Overland Concord Stagecoach was started in San Francisco and another Overland Stage in Tipton, Missouri they ran over the better roads. As the going got rougher, the passengers and mail were transferred to " celerity wagons " designed for the roughest conditions.

Each run encompassed the 2,812 miles and had to be completed in 25 days or less in order to qualify for the $600,000 government grant for mail service. The western fare one way was $200 with most stages arriving 22 days later at its final destination

At its peak, the Butterfield Overland Stage Company employed over 800 men, had 139 relay stations or frontier forts, 1800 head of stock and 250 Concord Overland Stage Coaches in service. However, the Butterfield Overland Stage Company underestimated the expense of running such a stage line and incurred growing debts using Wells Fargo resources.

Merger of Wells Fargo and Butterfield Stagecoach Lines, 1860

As a result of growing indebiness on the part of the Butterfield line, Wells Fargo initiated a takeover in March of 1860. By 1861, Wells Fargo began shipping perishable foodstuffs such as oysters and butter to mining camps. They once delivered, a fire engine pumper from Baltimore to Sacramento. Wells Fargo had even taken over the Pony Express in its last days in 1861. Before the Comstock boom, Wells Fargo had been strictly in the express banking business, and most of the material they transported was sent on stages owned by someone else. Just in time, they bought a stage line running straight from the Washoe to Sacramento via Placerville, California. Dave Ward set up a Wells Fargo office in Virginia City, Nevada in 1860 and soon had a bank for deposits too. They also expanded into fast freight shipments, which took supplies to the mines. Wells Fargo also involved in transporting many of the women of ill fame and other dance hall girls to Virginia City, much to the delight of the miners. They were even responsible for "city" being attached to Virginia's name.

They set up offices in Bodie, California, and Aurora, Nevada, about the same time. In peak times, there were 30 mines going at Bodie and Wells Fargo was there to ship the gold. The Bad Man from Bodie was their nemesis. He was constantly robbing the stages. Sometimes Wells Fargo didn't even care about whether the bandits were caught; they just wanted their money back. One such case occurred in Eurkea County, Nevada, in which a Wells Fargo agent was killed in the hold up. Once the money was returned the crooks' debts paid, the bandits got off scot free. Wells Fargo also set up shop at Austin, Nevada, to take advantage of another gold boom east of Virginia City. They opened offices all over Nevada to serve the late booming boom towns such as Eureka, Hamilton, and Candelaria, Nevada as well. Wells Fargo also had several branches in Mexico, as well as offices in Australia, Honolulu, London, Southhampton, Paris, and Le Havre.

By 1863 Wells Fargo had 180 depots throughout the west. By 1864, Wells Fargo, and Company were selling over two million envelopes a year for the Wells Fargo mail service and the public was using Wells Fargo green mailboxes throughout California over the government red mailboxes.

In November 1866 Ben Holladay sold out to Wells Fargo, and Company for $1,800,000. Wells Fargo, and Company used every means of transportation available in that day and age. Wells Fargo used steamers, river boats, railroad cars, freight wagons, mule trains, celerity wagons, pony express and men on skis to deliver mail.

Stagecoach Drivers and Shotgun Guards

The stagecoach driver in the old west was one tough hombre with the job of getting the stagecoach to the station on time and avoiding the myriad of hazzards along the way. Stagecoach driver Henry Monk better known as Hank was famous after rushing to get Horace Greeley to his lecture on time. Riding by his side or on top of the coach was the shotgun guard always ready to protect the precious Wells Fargo box from outlaws

All drivers were required to swear to the Oath of Mail Contractors and Carriers as required by law because they were in charge of carrying the U. S. mail. Shotgun messengers rode along with the stage carrying valuable cargo or bullion. Popular firearm of the guard was a sawed off double barrel shotgun with buckshot.

Drivers had to be especially skillful at controlling the horses with a gentle but firm control on the reins (called ribbons by the drivers through which they could talk to any of the horses). The left hand held three pairs of reins while the right hand handled the friction brake or the whip as necessity dictated.

Another skilled stagecoach driver was Charley Parkhurst who could drink, swear and chew with the best of them but it wasn't until his death tand the body was undressed that friends realized Charley was a woman!

Other known stagecoach drivers were Shotgun Taylor, Wyatt Earp, William Cody, and James Butler Hickok. In Tombstone, Morgan Earp rode shotgun for Wells Fargo from 1880 until October 1881 when he was wounded at the O. K. corral

Shotgun Taylor, One of the Many Stage Drivers


Stagecoach passengers had been relieved of their valuables almost as long as stagecoach lines were in business. Down in Texas, one woman, a Mrs. Bryson of Liberty Hill, Texas, simply refused to part with her valuables. All the bandit received for his trouble was $45 from the unfortunate stage riders. After securing the money and valuables the bandit tossed the mail sacks back to the driver and allowed the stage to proceed on to Burnet. A short time later, the bandit was shot and killed by Texas Ranger, Sam Mather and his stagecoach robbing days were over.

As best we can find, Wells Fargo experienced their first stagecoach holdups in 1855 and the number of robberies increased significantly during the 1860's. The familiar "Throw out that Express box." could be heard on some 313 Stagecoach different holdups on an average year totaling a haul of more than $400,000.

This led to the employment of private detectives to track the outlaws down and led to convictions of some 240 outlaws and the prevention of 34 more stagecoach holdup attempts.

Black Bart, Famous Stagecoach Holdup Outlaw

Black Bart was one of the most illustrious Stagecoach Holdups men in the west who sometimes teamed up with Rattlesnake Dick . The pair of outlaws once succeeded in getting the biggest payoff for a single stagecoach holdup, $80,000.

The Express boxes were known to carry Gold dust, gold bars, gold coins, legal papers, checks and drafts traveled in the famous green treasure boxes, and were generally stored under the stagecoach driver's seat. Loaded with bullion, they could weigh from 100 to 150 lbs. "About as much as one likes to shoulder to and from the stages," wrote John Q. Jackson, Wells Fargo agent, in an 1854 letter to his father. Because they carried the most valuable assets of the West, these sturdy boxes of Ponderosa pine, oak, and iron were more prized by highway bandits than anything else.

But the real security of the treasure boxes came from who was guarding them--the Wells Fargo shotgun messengers. They were "the kind of men you can depend on if you get into a fix," according to Wells Fargo detective Jim Hume. If thieves were foolhardy enough to try and steal a treasure box in transit, they would find themselves staring down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, loaded with 00 buckshot, and possibly held by Wyatt Earp himself.

Despite these efforts, Black Bart would suddenly appear on a lonely stage road, wearing a light-colored duster and a flour sack over his head with a derby hat perched on top of it. Armed with a shotgun, he'd order in his distinctive deep voice, "Throw down the box!" He was extremely efficient at collecting all the loot in the treasure boxes and never once bothered with small stuff like the passengers valuables. In fact, when a panicked woman tossed him her purse, he gentlemanly returned it back to her and said "Thank you, madam, but I don't need your money. I only want Wells Fargo's."

After so many successful robberies, Black Bart thought his luck would continue forever. But it was not to be. On November 3,1883, he returned to Calaveras County and the site of his first hold-up. Stagecoach driver McConnell, however, was better prepared than most. He had fastened the Wells Fargo box to the bottom of the passenger compartment instead of the expected place beneath the driver's seat.

He also had brought his friend Jimmy Rolleri who had brought his friend--a new Henry rifle just in case he wanted to go "a-huntin." Right after Jimmy left the stage to find some game, Black Bart sprang from the bushes. But the box was bolted in a different place and it took far more time to complete the robbery. This gave Jimmy time to return and he took deadly aim at the flour sack. Black Bart had run out of time and luck. Jimmy fired three times, startling the highway man. As Black Bart fled, he dropped his derby and a handkerchief with the laundry mark FXO7.

Wells Fargo detective James Hume and his agents traced the mark through 91 San Francisco laundries to find that the handkerchief belonged to Charles E. Bolton a.k.a. C. E. Boles a.k.a. Black Bart, a respectable mining engineer who was staying at Room 40, 37 2nd Street, in San Francisco. Hume had him arrested and in his report recorded that Black Bart was, "A person of great endurance. Exhibited genuine wit under most trying circumstances. Extremely proper and polite in behaviour, eschews profanity."

Black Bart was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for six years but it was shortened to four years for good behavior. Reporters swarmed around him when he was released. They asked if he were going to rob anymore stagecoaches. "No gentlemen," he smilingly replied, "I'm all through with crime." Another reporter asked if he would write more poetry. He laughed, "Now didn't you hear me say that I am through with crime?" Soon after that, he disappeared forever.

In 1870, the first Wells Fargo shipment was held up on a train. Amazingly the same train was held up at Verdi, Nevada, and again, 400 miles away at Independence, Nevada. All of the men were eventually caught. In 1873, four armed men robbed a westbound stage to Grass Valley, California. They blew up the safe to get at the treasure. They only got about $7,000. In less than a fortnight, the men were caught by Wells Fargo detectives and local officers.

In November 1876, three men robbed a stage near Redding, California. Aboard was none other than Ben Holladay and his wife. The gunmen got only $1,100 from the strong box and $700 from the mails. One one was hurt.

Wyatt Earp worked for Wells Fargo when he was leaving Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1877. When hitching a stage to Cheyenne, the Wells Fargo agent gave Earp a free ride, plus $50 to ride shotgun for Wells Fargo. He accepted. It was great publicity for Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo was also involved in trying to catch the stage robbers in Tombstone and Bisbee. Earp helped Wells Fargo round up the Clanton gang, which ended in the shootout at the OK Corral in 1881.

Wells Fargo and the Railroads

Wells Fargo like most of the country envisioned the union of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific railroads in the 1870's in time for the centennial of the United States. Wells Fargo would be changed beyond their expectations by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad

Lloyd Trevis, a lawyer and entrepreneur invested heavily with the Central Pacific Railroad and became a familiar name to Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. There was a fortune to be made in the hauling of gold on the Central Pacific Railroad upon completion, Lloyd Trevis convinced Charles Crocker to create the express firm, Pacific Union Express and give it sole ownership of the contract to carry mail and gold on the Central Pacific Railroad

The express business grew fierce between Wells Fargo and the Pacific Union Express. Thus when the Transcontinental Railroad finally met in 1869, Wells Fargo found themselves out in the cold. In order for Wells Fargo to obtain the right to haul express on the railroad they had to pay Lloyd Trevis five million dollars for the Pacific Union Express which was a company only on paper.

Wells Fargo stocks quietly fell from $100 to $13 drawing little attention from all but Lloyd Trevis. Slowly he bought up Wells Fargo stocks and by October 1869, he was in control of Wells Fargo, and Company. By 1870, Lloyd Trevis had moved the headquarters of Wells Fargo, and Company from New York to San Francisco.

Wells Fargo Reorganization (1872)

In 1872, Wells Fargo had to reorganize and Lloyd Tevis of San Francisco was its new president. The glory was gone from Wells Fargo, though they still ran feeder lines and went into remote areas. The last run went to Rawhide, Nevada, about 1909. The banking part of the business continued on totally independent of the express business and is still alive today as the Wells Fargo Union Trust Company.

In the 1890s, though, Wells Fargo built some special refrigerated cars. Soon they were transporting fresh fish from the Great Lakes to the east. Salmon from Alaska was sent to Boston and New York. They set themselves up at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco as their main entertainment mecca. It was an appropriate meeting place the hotel had been built on Comstock lode money. Wells Fargo held state dinners and business conferences there. They also held weddings of executives and entertained visitors at the hotel. They even had a secret hideaway in one of the upper floors of the hotel.

The final hurrah was the boom at Tonopah, Goldfield, and a few lesser mines of Nevada in 1900-1910. Wells Fargo stayed in Goldfield until 1911. By that time, the mining was finished and other railroads and cars had come in. Just a year later, in 1912, was the last attemtped armed robbery of a Wells Fargo train. It was the Sunset Express, held up in Dryden, Texas. Armed men held up the Wells Fargo messenger. The man had to ask the messenger where the gold was kept. This was a clue to the messenger, David A. Troutsdale, that the robber was an amateur. He grabbed a nearby mallet, and smacked the robber with it, killing him. He then grabbed the man's rifle, leaned out the window and shot the man's helper.

In 1918, as a National emergency measure, it merged with the American Railroad Express Company. Only the banking interests retained the Wells Fargo name. In 1923, Wells Fargo banking interests merged with the Union Trust Company, which still exists today.

The associations of Wells Fargo, Stagecoach Holdups, Overland Stage Lines and Union Pacific Railroad will go on in history.

Stagecoach Passenger Rules

The best seat inside a stagecoach is the one next to the driver... you will get less than half the bumps and jars than on any other seat. When any old "sly Eph," who traveled thousands of miles on coaches, offers through sympathy to exchange his back or middle seat with you, don't do it.

Never ride in cold weather with tight boots or shoes, nor close-fitting gloves. Bathe your feet before starting in cold water, and wear loose overshoes and gloves two or three sizes too large.

When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary. If a team runs away, sit still and take your chances; if you jump, nine times out of ten you will be hurt.

In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor while on the road; a man will freeze twice as quick while under its influence.

Don't growl at food stations; stage companies generally provide the best they can get. Don't keep the stage waiting; many a virtuous man has lost his character by so doing.

Don't smoke a strong pipe inside especially early in the morning. Spit on the leeward side of the coach. If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling. Provide stimulants before starting; ranch whisky is not always nectar.

Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping. Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.

Driving a stagecoach, full of passengers, loaded with baggage, mail and probably gold dust over the Sierra Nevadas was a hair-raising operation. It required skilled drivers who took danger and hardship in stride.

Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous. Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.

Don't linger too long at the pewter wash basin at the station. Don't grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable 'tater' patch. Tie a silk handkerchief around your neck to keep out dust and prevent sunburns. A little glycerin is good in case of chapped hands.

Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a pic-nic; expect annoyance, discomfort and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven.

The Stagecoach Experience

In 1861, Mark Twain and his brother traveled west by overland stagecoach. In Roughing It, Twain described the coach as "a cradle on wheels," as it rocked on its thoroughbraces instead of bouncing on steel springs. They rode "a-top of the flying coach, dangled our legs over the side and leveled an outlook over the world-wide carpet about us for things new and strange to gaze at. It thrills me to think of the life and the wild sense of freedom on those fine overland mornings!"

Other travelers had a less adventurous opinion of the trip: "A through-ticket and fifteen inches of seat, with a fat man on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby in your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or more persons immediately in front, leaning against your knees, making the picture, as well as your sleeping place for the trip," was the statement of Demas Barnes, who made the overland trip in 1866.

Passengers could carry 25 pounds of baggage free. Coals in metal footwarmers helped in cold weather while leather shades blocked desert sun and dust in summer. Travelers grabbed hasty meals of boiled beans, salted meat and coffee at "home" stations reached, with luck, about every six to eight hours.


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