When a youngster runs toward his mom’s car and calls out “I’m riding shotgun” to his little brother, everybody knows he is calling dibs on the passenger seat. But, in fact, that child is referencing the longstanding history of one of America’s best-known brands and companies associated with the taming of the wild West.
Wells Fargo & Co. was founded as a bank on March 18, 1852, and named for its founders, Henry Wells and William Fargo.
The company grew its reputation during the years after the Gold Rush. The firm was renowned for its way of dealing with people’s savings by offering banking and express delivery services. The image of the horse-drawn stagecoach filled with gold bars quickly became a symbol of the firm and its services. While stagecoaches were a minor aspect of Wells Fargo’s business, the vehicles remain associated with the bank and its role in expanding westward. Both stagecoach drivers and wagon drivers worked for Wells Fargo. These drivers delivered for Wells Fargo in both towns and cities from the late 1860s until the end of World War I.
Souvenirs associated or marked with the Wells Fargo brand name were popular collectibles in the 1960s and included belt buckles, badges, Bowie knives, brass tags and stagecoach plates. Interestingly enough, none of these objects were commissioned or produced by Wells Fargo.
In the 1970s, Wells Fargo issued a commemorative belt buckle and a commemorative star-shaped badge similar to a sheriff’s badge. They are clearly marked on the back of these collectible items as “copyrighted by Wells Fargo and Co.” These collectibles are valued today at $40 to $50 retail.
At an event in Tulsa, Okla., I appraised a Wells Fargo shotgun and authenticated it for the owner, whose great-grandfather drove stagecoaches. Shotguns marked “Wells Fargo” are collectible firearms today. These firearms were purchased by a Wells Fargo agent locally and used by drivers for protection along their delivery route. Wells Fargo shotguns were not distributed from a central headquarters, and these antique guns were not inventoried by the home office. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list or inventory record of Wells Fargo firearms.
As a result, there are a lot of fakes. Period firearms are commonplace, and some show where someone has added the Wells Fargo name or logo to the gun in an effort to hoodwink a buyer. There are Wells Fargo shotguns that were purchased by a Wells Fargo agent for use by the drivers and were property of the firm. These were marked “Wells Fargo,” just as you might mark an item that belonged to you with your name. The markings on such guns were merely a sign of company ownership.
Other items have been associated with Wells Fargo in the collectibles arena. Common Wells Fargo collectibles that come to market include Messenger employee magazine issues worth $10, toy stagecoach wagons worth $15, exchange certificates dating to the 1860s and ’70s worth $8, and cast-metal wax seals with the Wells Fargo imprint from various Western towns worth $250.
Some people have brought silver bars marked “Wells Fargo” and a dollar amount on them to my appraisal events. These are typically contemporary souvenirs. Like the shotguns, these bars were not made by Wells Fargo either. The firm was in the business of shipping 100-pound bars of silver nationwide from Western mining towns to various locales. The authentic silver bars shipped by Wells Fargo were not marked Wells Fargo but instead were marked with the mine’s name on them.