William George Fargo

William George Fargo (1818-1881), American entre preneur, was a founder of Wells, Fargo and Company and the American Express Company.

William Fargo was born on May 20, 1818, in Pompey, N.Y., the eldest of 12 children. His formal education ended at 13, when he began carrying mail over a 30-mile circuit for a local contractor. He subsequently worked in the grocery business, as a baker, and in a village inn. In 1840 he married Anna H. Williams; they had three children.

In 1842 Fargo became a messenger for an express firm operating between Albany and Buffalo. Soon he was appointed agent of Pomeroy and Company in Buffalo. Through his association with Wells and Company (which operated the first express company west of Buffalo), Fargo became one of the founders of the American Express Company, which quickly became the largest express concern in the United States.

In 1852 Fargo and some associates formed Wells, Fargo and Company to bring the services of an express company to the gold fields of California. American Express and Wells, Fargo combined facilities to provide rapid transportation of goods and communications between California, the Atlantic coast, Europe, and points in between.

After an 1855 financial panic drove its most formidable rival into bankruptcy, Wells, Fargo was the dominant express company in the West, with hundreds of employees, thousands of head of stock, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital invested. For the vast population then moving into the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, it provided unrivaled banking, express, and mail services. In 1857 Fargo and some of his associates from American Express established the Overland Mail, the first transcontinental stage line. It served the West until the coming of the railroad in 1869.

After the Civil War, the exemplary success of Wells, Fargo brought other concerns into the field, and in 1869 Wells, Fargo merged with the Pacific Express Company, which had contracted for the express business on the new transcontinental railroad. American Express was involved in similar mergers in the East.

Fargo had served as mayor of the city of Buffalo for two terms during the Civil War. A lifelong Democrat, he had stood against secession and supported the Union during the war by paying a part of their salary to those of his employees who were drafted. He became a director of the New York Central and the Northern Pacific railroads. He was also involved in a number of manufacturing enterprises and was for a time the majority stockholder of the Buffalo Courier. He died on Aug. 3, 1881, having amassed a tremendous fortune.

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Further Reading on William George Fargo

Among the studies in which Fargo figures prominently are A. L. Stimson, History of the Express Business, Including the Origin of the Railway System in America (1881); LeRoy R. Hafen, The Overland Mail, 1849-1869: Promoter of Settlement, Precursor of Railroads (1926); Edward Hungerford, Wells Fargo: Advancing the American Frontier (1949); and Noel M. Loomis, Wells Fargo (1968).