Born: December 12, 1805
Died: December 10, 1878
Cofounder, American Express
Henry Wells was a nineteenth century man of vision. A shipper by trade, he believed the eastern portion of the United States was a wide open market, just waiting for someone to come along and claim it. In 1850, he did just that. With the help of several partners, including William Fargo (1818-1881), he launched the American Express Company and forever changed how goods were shipped. Wells began American Express as a shipping company, but over time with the introduction of Travelers Cheques, charge cards, and traveler services, his business ultimately changed the way people travel throughout the world.
"This is a great country and a greater people!"
Henry Wells was born in Vermont, where he spent the first eight years of his life before his family moved to New York. As a youngster Wells worked on a farm until he was old enough to apprentice with a tanning and shoemaking firm called Jessup & Palmer. He eventually abandoned shoemaking to work in shipping on the Erie Canal, which ran from Pennsylvania to upstate New York.
Wells went to work in the offices of the Hamden Express Company, which was based in Albany, New York. The company was one of the earliest businesses dedicated to express shipping at the time. Harnden had realized businessmen and merchants needed a faster, reliable way to transport goods and money from city to city. At the time, goods were transported on ships or barges, by stagecoach and horseback. Delivery often took many days or weeks. With the arrival of railway travel, companies like Hamden Express guaranteed delivery of goods quickly, and business was soon flourishing.
Young Wells understood the potential of express shipping, and believed Hamden should expand his business to other cities and states on the East Coast. Harden was reluctant, so Wells left the company with plans for starting his own delivery firm that would run from Albany to Buffalo, New York. He eventually formed a partnership called Wells & Company, which "messengered," or delivered, trunks filled with small valuables, letters, and funds between the two cities. Messenger services offered a secure form of express shipping; packages and papers were delivered within a certain time for an agreed-upon price, and a person employed by the firm accompanied the shipments at all times. Such services were still relatively new in the United States.
While working at his messenger service, Wells met another like-minded young man named William G. Fargo. The two soon began an express partnership of their own that ran between New York and Michigan. Similar shipping businesses had popped up all over the East Coast and into the Midwest, and the competition soon became fierce. In order to survive and thrive, Wells and Fargo, along with several rival businesses, combined their operations and formed the American Express Company in March 1850. Wells was elected the new firm's president, a post he held for the next eighteen years.
Wells and Fargo had high hopes for American Express, and wanted to branch out from the East Coast and midwestern states to the West Coast. Gold had been discovered in California and thousands were flocking West to seek their fortunes. The other business partners in American Express did not want to expand westward, and certainly not all the way to California. California, which had just been purchased by the United States from Mexico (along with New Mexico and Texas in 1848), seemed foreign and very far away to most New Yorkers. Wells and Fargo, however, were not deterred; instead they raised money for a new venture that would offer a host of services for gold miners and businessmen out West.
In 1852, with $300,000 in financial backing, Wells and Fargo created Wells, Fargo & Company for the purpose of providing express services to western cities. The company was based in New York and Edwin B. Morgan served as the first president. Within a few months, tiny offices opened in San Francisco and Sacramento, California. The firm bought and sold gold dust and offered banking and express shipping services. Wells decided to travel to California himself in 1853, just over six months after the new company began its business services. He was delighted with what he found in California, and he had first-hand proof that Wells, Fargo & Company had turned out to be an excellent business venture. The trip was also the realization of a lifelong dream since Wells had always wanted to travel West.
By the 1860s, Wells had become a well-known and very successful businessman. Both of his companies, American Express and Wells, Fargo & Company, thrived. The two firms worked together on occasion, creating new businesses and always keeping a constant eye on the growing competition. Wells continually looked for ways to make shipping and communication faster and more reliable. Through his efforts, the first telegraph lines were built crisscrossing the United States. Wells was also generous with his wealth, donating large sums to various charities and educational causes.
Henry Wells gave part of his fortune to education. In 1868, he founded Wells Seminary (later Wells College) in Aurora, New York. He also established schools in several cities that were dedicated to helping people who stammered, a physical condition that he, himself, suffered from.
Wells retired as president of American Express in 1868 yet remained active in business and community affairs. He also traveled extensively. While visiting Scotland in 1878, Henry Wells died two days shy of his seventy-third birthday.
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Reed, Ralph Thomas. American Express: Its Origin and Growth. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1952.
Kramp, Allison. "Recovery in the Cards: American Express Comes Back After 2001." Barron's (April 29, 2002): p.T6.
Polyak, Ilana. "Sweetening a Stinker: American Express Makes a Bold Attempt to Turn Around a Dysfunctional Fund Family." Money (April 1, 2002): p. 41+.
American Express Company. [On-line] http://www.americanexpress.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Wells Fargo. [On-line] http://www.wellsfargo.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
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