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Remembering the history of Wells Fargo in Placer County

By: J’aime Rubio for the Placer Herald
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Wells Fargo Bank has been in existence since 1852, and its history in Placer County was forged largely by a 20-year-old bank agent who helped turn gold nuggets and bags of glitter dust into the foundation for a community.

Henry Wells and William G. Fargo founded their internationally famous bank in New York. It only took four months of operating on the East Coast before they opened their first branch on the western frontier. They started in San Francisco. By 1853 they were opening bank offices throughout California, many at mining camps throughout the Mother Lode. Placer County was among one of the first areas in the northern part of the state to open a Wells Fargo branch. According Wells Fargo’s own written history, the man behind the branch was agent John Quincy Jackson.

Jackson was born Feb. 26, 1832 in Petersburg, Virginia.  At the start of the Gold Rush he sought adventure by traveling to California by way a steamer known as the Glenmore. He arrived in San Francisco in the memorable year of 1849. In 1852 Wells, Fargo & Company named the then-20-year-old Jackson the operating agent for their express and banking office at 1584 Lincoln Way in Auburn. The branch was located where the Testa Building sits today. 

A number of books on Auburn’s early history have reported that Jackson was in charge of sending Wells Fargo monthly shipments of gold dust that could weigh as much as 750 pounds, which was some $200,000 worth of treasure. The shipments were sent so often Jackson had to manage them in increments of 100 to 150 pounds at a time. The job was tiring, with Jackson’s crew having to work all day and into the night. Besides handling local banking tasks, Jackson was also receiving, forwarding and shipping packages to just about any place. 

Jackson’s job often left him working alone with large sums of cash and gold. Numerous accounts say his main line of security was a 120-pound Bullmastiff named Jack. In 1855 Jackson reportedly played an important role in keeping the great bank panic if that year from toppling Auburn. The trusted personality held down the fort by assuring his depositors that their money was in safe hands. Jackson worked for Wells Fargo until around 1860, when he left to spend the rest of his life in his hometown of Petersburg.

If handling the banking offices was tough, Wells Fargo’s express men had it even tougher, especially in Placer County. Robberies were a major threat and the bank eventually established its own detective agency. Myron Angel’s book “The History of Placer County” mentions dozens of stage robberies during this era, with two of the most notorious routes for crime being the Foresthill to Auburn route, and Placerville to Auburn route. 

On Nov. 28, 1871, a Wells Fargo stagecoach traveling from Auburn to Placerville was robbed of $10,047.50 in coin and gold dust. The highwaymen took the loot from Wells Fargo’s lockbox. According to the documented account, the robber “had a fence across the road, a six-shooter slung in view, and pointed a Mississippi Yager at the driver, William H. Hill,  and said, “Hand out Wells, Fargo & Co.’s box or I will blow your head off.”

The felonious caper ended with the robber getting the box.

California newspapers documented Wells Fargo robberies continuing in Placer County all the way up until the late 1890s. In some cases the bank’s stagecoach suffered two hold-ups in one day.

Wells Fargo’s detective agency did not take these crimes lying down. According to the Daily Alta California newspaper, in November of 1887 the bank’s detective James B. Hume — famous for his role in the capturing the infamous “gentleman bandit” Black Bart — was on the hunt for a new suspect in a robbery that took place en route to Auburn. Records from the California Department of Prisons and Corrections show that Hume’s suspect, 19- year-old George Sterling, had already served two terms at San Quentin under the alias James Riley. Sterling evidently went right back to drawing his gun after each release. When Sterling was arrested in connection to the bank robbery Hume was investigating, the judge sentenced him to 20 years at Folsom Prison. 

Another gang notorious in Placer County for holding up Wells Fargo coaches was an outfit led by Rattlesnake Dick: Criminals of this ilk eventually caused Wells Fargo to begin sending every stage out with “shotgun messengers,” who were armed protectors who sat alongside the driver with a loaded double-barrel. By 1919, the term “riding shotgun” was appearing as a fixture in the American lexicon by virtue of its use in books, magazines and newspapers.   

Today, Wells Fargo is a banking empire that literally stretches across the globe; but its agents, riders and shotgun messengers in the early days of Placer County played an important role in making the company a success on the western frontier.