Teaser 18 - History of the Rocky Mountain Republic

By the mid 1800s, most of the American Colonies and even parts of Texas had become relatively cultured and civilized. But for those who craved the wilderness, there was still one more frontier to pursue. California was not a destination for the faint of heart, and the promise of instant wealth was far from universal. A few individuals, however, were able to make their riches from the people in much the same way those people made their riches from the land. This passage examines two such men and the impact they had on the territory that would later become the Rocky Mountain Republic.

Governor Fillmore quickly instituted a number of public relations campaigns to foster migration and settlement into the new province of California. To a certain extent, California sold itself. Gold rush fever swept through the streets of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, enticing especially Irish and German immigrants to try their luck in the Pacific wilderness. However, Fillmore was worried about the quality of the population making its way west. It was much harder to convince more established middle-class English citizens to pick up their lives and move to what many saw as an isolated frontier, which in fact it was. Travel to California required either a train excursion through Texas, where there was always some risk of bandit attack, or a long and dangerous sea voyage around Cape Horn. Injury, illness, and even death were constant concerns, and that was just for the journey. Legal and financial uncertainty then awaited even those prospectors and settlers who had otherwise arrived unscathed. With all of these factors, very few men of means and even fewer men with families ended up following Governor Fillmore's entreaty.

The most significant exception to this was a pair of entrepreneurs from New England named Henry Wells and William G. Fargo. Although there were earlier arrivals in California for both banking and express transit services – Wells, Fargo, and Co. was established in 1852 – the two men brought innovation and technology to the Pacific in ways that would change the frontier substantially. The company started out using horse-drawn wagons just like any other express courier company, but it was William Fargo who had the idea to employ steam-powered transport. He worked with F&FSC to develop a rugged steam wagon that could handle the rigors of steep mountain grades. The primary advantage of such a contraption over horses was very simply the sharper turning radius. This would allow wagons to ascend tight switchbacks themselves instead of transferring the cargo to mules. The easy availability of fresh wood and water for the boilers made the Rockies an ideal testing ground for such a vehicle.

The Wells Fargo steam wagons transformed the gold mining industry. Ore could be transported very securely directly from the mining site to the port. WF&Co. also offered secure storage in the port of San Francisco as well as steamship transport on both sides of the Panama route, which made for a very convenient system. All of the most lucrative mining consortia soon worked exclusively with WF&Co., and this served to make the Wells Fargo bank of San Francisco the fastest growing economic institution in the West. However, it faced ever growing competition from the well-funded Southern Pacific Railroad, which was even now building spurs into the largest mining regions. By the late 1850s, the two companies were continually looking for every possible advantage.