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Wells Fargo History Museum
in the Colorado House

Wells Fargo History Museum

The information on this page is from displays that you will see when you visit the museum.

Colorado House

In the spring of 1851 Cave Johnson Couts opened the Colorado House as San Diego's first two-story hotel. Offering an elegant billiard table and the best food and drink this side of San Francisco, many local notables stayed here.

Couts, an opinionated former army officer, explored the Colorado River in 1849 - which influenced his choice of the hotel name - and surveyed and subdivided San Diego's pueblo lands. Also in 1851, he married Ysidora Bandini, became absorbed in running Rancho Guajome at San Luis Rey, and closed the Colorado House after only nine months.

In mid-1853, his brother William Blunt Couts and William Cole reopened the Colorado House, renting the second floor to professional men. Tenante included doctor David B. Hoffman, dentist M. Winter, and journalist J. Judson Ames, publisher of the San Diego Herald. A series of restaurant and hotel keepers followed. Cave Couts complained to the Wells Fargo agent Frank Ames on January 15, 1859;

"The proposition made for the 'Colorado House,' I cannot accept. Had better get a bar-keeper & open it myself. The Billiard table itself, if worth anything, is worth $35 a month. The least I can have it for is $45 & the occupant to paint & fix up as he wishes, at his own expense, for 12 months. I would like to sell the property -- whole out fit, for $2500."

In 1866, merchants Joseph Mannasse and Marcus Schiller, who owned the neighboring Franklin House, bought the Colorado House for $500. They leased out space until both hotels burned down on April 20, 1872.

Wells, Fargo & Co.

portraits of founders Wells and Fargo
The Founders

Henry Wells and William G. Fargo founded and gave their names to Wells, Fargo & Co. on March 18, 1852. They were express and banking pioneers, organizing the American Express Company in 1850.

Henry Wells built the earliest commercial telegraph lines in the United States, and worked for cheap mail delivery. A keen advocate of education for women, he also founded Wells College for women in Aurora, New York, in 1868. Wells came to enjoy San Diego with his family in 1875 and 1876. Though retired, he could not avoid the call of the express business and, during his stay, incorporated the Arizona & New Mexico Express Company for his son.

William G. Fargo was a skilled manager, serving as president of Wells, Fargo & Co. from 1870 to 1872, and of the American Express Company from 1868 to 1881. A long-time resident of Buffalo, New York, he was a mayor during the Civil War. He actively directed the Overland Mail Company that sent cross-country stagecoaches through Southern California in the 1850's and similarly was a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which traversed the Great Plains in the 1870's. Fargo, North Dakota is named after him.

Staging in San Diego County

In the 1850s and 1860s, stage-coaches delivered Wells, Fargo and Co.'s Express, Letter Express and the United States mail throughout the Western United States. In 1857, when the SAN DIEGO & SAN ANTONIO line successfully established overland connections to the East, San Diegans cheered. The San Diego Herald reported the event in bold headlines, while the people gave the stage an "anvil salute" by placing gun powder between two anvils and firing it. The mules and stages of the "Jackass Mail" ran over the deserts and mountains of the Southwest through Vallecito, Fort Yuma, Tucson and El Paso to the terminus at San Antonio. From there, other stage, steamer and rail lines distributed the express packages and mails to the eastern cities.

In 1858, Butterfield's Overland Mail Company, supported by Wells Fargo, superseded this southwest route on its run between San Francisco and St. Louis. The Jackass Mail connected with it at Fort Yuma on the Colorado River. After the interruption of the Civil War, the southwestern mail was carried by several independent stage lines. As listed in Bancroft's Travel Guide of 1869, John Capron's SAN DIEGO & TUCSON line covered the western end.

Stage lines supplemented steamship connections with Los Angeles and other coast cities. In the late 1860s, Alfred Seeley of Old Town San Diego provided stages to Los Angeles two or three times a week. The trip to Los Angeles took two days, with an overnight stay at San Juan Capistrano, and cost $12.

interior of Wells Fargo History Museum

Gold and Currency

gold and currency display
strong boxes

Miners from the placer diggings on the Colorado River and the hard-rock mines at Julian brought their gold dust and bars to the Wells, Fargo & Co. agency in Old Town San Diego. The agent carefully weighed the gold and packed it for shipment to assayers and the U.S. Mint in San Francisco to be made into gold coins.

If the miner could not wait for the return steamer to bring the coins, Wells Fargo would estimate the gold's value and make an immediate exchange. To ensure accuracy and keep their good reputations, Company agents had to be familiar with the varying purities of local gold. With this honest and accurate service, Wells Fargo established a tradition that has served it well since 1852.

Californians preferred to use coins rather than paper for money, even into the early 20th century. Private mints supplied coins until 1856, when the U.S. Mint in San Francisco began full production. The gold $20 double eagle was the standard coin. $10, $5, and even tiny $1 coins circulated. Westerners also used Mexican silver coins.

Wells Fargo and gold are invariably linked together. Wells, Fargo & Co. moved so much of the West's treasure that it compiled the universally accepted statistics on gold and silver production. Treasure shipments were carried in dark green wooden boxes placed in the front boots of stagecoaches. J.Y. Ayer, a San Francisco carpenter, fashioned these sturdy containers from ponderosa pine, strengthening them with an oak rim and iron strapping.

Iron safes built under the back seats of stagecoaches, and iron chests on steamboats and railroads provided extra protection for Wells Fargo's larger bullion shipments. Wells Fargo's Instructions to Agents gave complete details for the secure handling of gold and silver.

Robbery and Reward

robbery and reward display "Throw down the box!" demanded armed men who halted stagecoaches on the lonely roads of California. Wells Fargo's gold often tempted those who wished to make unauthorized withdrawals.

On February 23, 1875, the stage coming from the Julian mines was robbed, and the San Diego Wells Fargo agent took immediate action. He notified the sheriff, posted a reward, and reported the robbery and his actions to the central office.

From 1870 to 1884, Wells Fargo experienced a wave of 347 attacks on its stage shipments. After a robbery, agents quickly organized pursuit, printed descriptive reward posters and saw the case to trial. As a result, 206 robbers gained prison terms instead of riches.

Wells Fargo's Special Agents James B. Hume and John N. Thacker guided these efforts and took on difficult cases. Their meticulous records and inspired analysis of clues dampened the robbers' daring.

Wells Fargo armed messengers guarded large shipments of treasure. Their cut-off shotguns were "W.F. & Co.'s peculiar pattern of defensive weapon which highwaymen have learned to regard with respect." Messenger Madison Larkin, guarding silver bars at Arizona's Tip Top Mine in 1877, was typical. "They are the kind of men you can depend on if you get in a fix," declared Hume. "They will pull you through or stay by you to the last."

Wells Fargo Express

Wells Fargo Express display
Wells Fargo Express display


"Send it by Wells Fargo's Express" was a common Gold Rush era request. Speed and convenience was Wells, Fargo & Co.'s business. Steamboats and railroads, with their gleaming brass and burnished steel engines, advanced technology of the nineteenth century, sped Wells, Fargo & Co.'s Express to its destination.


In the 19th Century, coastal steamers carried most of the passengers, mail, express and freight between Northern and Southern California. In the 1850s and 1860s, the California Steam Navigation Company's Senator and Pacific anchored regularly in San Diego's fine harbor.

Famed Wells Fargo messengers "Buck" Buchanan and "Chips" Hodgkinsm, as well as San Diegan R. William Laine, traveled on the steamers to guard the express shipments and transact business. "Chips" recorded his travels in a diary, noting a visit to Old Town on October 18, 1870, and a fishing trip in San Diego Bay the following June.


Money Via Electricity

In 1853 California's first telegraph linked the main cities and then in October 1861, joined the Golden State to New York. Wells Fargo quickly used the new electric network to track valuable shipments, catch robbers and transfer money. This simple instrument used dots (click-click) and dashes (click ---- click) for letters and numbers. Cyphers - short strings of letters and nonsense words - replaced common messages and kept them confidential.

telegraph display
picture of early telegraph operator

Wells Fargo History Museum

The Wells Fargo History Museum is located at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, San Diego Avenue at Twiggs Street, San Diego. See map.

The historical information and photographs of historical artifacts are taken from displays inside the museum. There is much more to be seen in person that is not presented on this webpage. Go See It and enjoy!

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