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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

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.

InsuranceAfter 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 last.


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 money?

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 stagecoach!

That shouldn't surprise you once you learn the identity of Henry Wells' partner.

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

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