little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped
Founder of New York's Wells College
helped settle the Old West
By Paul Niemann
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[August 21, 2008]
Henry Wells was born in Thetford, Vt., in 1805.
He soon moved with his family to central New York, and attended
school in the town of Fayette. He struggled with a speech impediment
all the way from childhood into his adult years.
After serving as an
apprentice for a tanning and shoemaking business, Henry teamed up
with a business partner to form a delivery service in New York in
1850, during the height of the California gold rush. The company's
purpose was to deliver goods between New York City and Buffalo,
competing with the United States post office by carrying mail at a
rate much lower than the postal service's rate.
When Henry and his partner wanted to expand out West in order to
capitalize on the gold rush, they were overruled by the company's
board of directors, which believed that the gold rush would not
So Henry and his partner left in 1852 to start another company.
This new company's purpose was to provide delivery services, as
their previous company did, except that this one would make
deliveries between the Northeast and California, as well as to other
parts of the West. Henry and his partner soon found that the
prospectors needed, in addition to a reliable postal service, a safe
place to store and later redeem their gold.
Ever wonder how some of those small, private colleges get
started? Ever wonder what the super wealthy people do with their
So do I. In 1868 Henry Wells provided the funding for a women's
college that bears his name in Aurora, N.Y. The school he founded
was Wells Seminary, and it is now known as Wells College. After 137
years as an all-women's school, it finally went co-ed in 2005. One
of its more notable alumni was first lady Frances Cleveland, wife of
President Grover Cleveland, but she has nothing to do with this
story other than providing a little bit of trivia.
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U.S. News & World Report, which lists its rankings of top
colleges and universities each year, ranked Wells College in the top
25 of its list of the nation's best-value schools in 2006. One of
the school's annual traditions involves having the graduating
seniors ride with their families to the commencement ceremony in a
stagecoach. In fact, it is the original Wells Fargo
That shouldn't surprise you once you learn the identity of Henry
His name was William Fargo. As in Wells Fargo, the delivery
company that Henry Wells and William Fargo formed in 1852. The Wells
Fargo company also ran the Pony Express route from California to
Salt Lake City during its last few months, until the Pony Express
folded in 1861.
As for the other company that Henry Wells and William Wells
founded in 1850 -- their first delivery service company -- that
company was American Express.
They should teach this stuff in history class. It would be much
more interesting if they did.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008