In 2019, 170 years after the commencement of the Gold Rush, Wells Fargo remains an icon of growth and development of the American West. Established in 1849, the company has survived the test of time and finance and kicks off its anniversary year with a superb new book. The storied international corporation’s roots in Western frontier settlement and law-enforcement is told in award-winning author John Boessenecker’s latest release, Shotguns and Stagecoaches: The Brave Men Who Rode for Wells Fargo in the Wild West (Thomas Dunne Books, $29.99).
Facing such an expansive topic, with so much primary material available and secondary sources previously published, Boessenecker expertly chose to recast the story—which could be a new multi-volume Old West frontier history—into a single volume.
Its biographical chapters electrify the reader’s interest in the men—many forgotten to the ages and archives—who protected the Wells Fargo Company’s cargo and those who attempted to steal it before it could be delivered to customers across the West. “This book focuses on a time in American history when the safety and security in the eastern states was not enjoyed by those living in the wild lands of the West,” writes Boessenecker in his introduction. “And Wells Fargo’s mission would not have been possible without the valiant shotgun messengers and detectives who protected its treasure, its stagecoaches, and its railroad express cars.”
The heart of the California author’s ninth book is Boessenecker’s detailed biographical profiles of “twenty of the company’s most valiant shotgun messengers and detectives of the Old West.” Readers will recognize some of the outlaws and lawmen profiled, such as Black Bart and Harry Morse (the subject of Boessenecker’s 1998 biography Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912) Jeff Milton, George Scarborough, David Trousdale and Ben Kilpatrick, but they will also be enlightened by detailed stories of lesser-known Wells Fargo messengers and road agents, especially from the pre-railroad era. These profiles include Wells Fargo’s first detective, Henry Johnson, and first stage driver to become a shotgun messenger Henry C. Ward, who worked in the delivery business from 1849 to 1895.
Boessenecker, who published his first history book Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California in 1988, has established himself over three decades as one of the country’s preeminent Western frontier law and order historians. He has a keen eye for detail and the lives of Old West characters whose stories remain relevant and should be known by today’s generation of Western history fans. He has added another great volume—with excellent illustrations and endnotes—to his one-man history of law enforcement in the West, past to present. The San Francisco trial lawyer and former policeman notes in his introduction to Shotguns and Stagecoaches, “Their stories have been mostly lost in the dustbin of history. That is an injustice that must be corrected.” And for all of us who love Old West history, we are grateful that it has been.