Adventures of Wells Fargo
Though the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s profoundly hastened the movement of Americans westward across the North American continent, it also inspired a lesser known, but equally dramatic, passage of Chinese eastward across the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of Chinese came by clipper ship to California, or as they knew it, to Gum Shan, the Golden Mountain. The lure of California's gold worked its magical influence in the Celestial Empire as it has in the eastern United States, Mexico, Chile, Europe and Australia. In the blink of an eye, the world rushed in.
The number of Chinese in California climbed from fewer than 100 in 1848 to over 25,000 by 1852. Subsequent increases, fluctuating with the mercurial political and economic environment of the next three decades, carried the Chinese population to about 110,000 (around 10% of California's population) by 1882.
An article in San Francisco's principal Gold Rush newspaper, the Daily Alta California noted:
Many letters pass to and from China and California and at each departure of ships for the Celestial Empire, its children here send off to their friends beyond the Pacific great numbers of California papers. It may be seen from this how intercourse is increasing and knowledge extending. The day of fencing the world and information out of China has forever passed away. The glitter of our gold has passed the gates of the cousin of the sun and moon, and the disciples of Confucius are coming and have come to qualify his philosophy with the wisdom of Washington and the utility of Franklin.
By the 1860s, the original motivating force that brought the Chinese to California, the "golden opportunity" for economic advancement, still remained, but the means of attainment had broadened considerably. Chinese merchants prospered in urban centers, like San Francisco, and Chinese laborers found possibilities in a wide range of occupations in textile manufacturing, farming, railroad construction, reclamation of tule lands, fishing and other maritime pursuits.
As in most frontier economies, survival and success depended on the interplay of disparate, sometimes even whimsical, factors and relationships. The transportation of people and goods, the safekeeping, lending and investment of money, the communication of business and familial information, the securing of mail routes, and the handling of collections and remittances were some of the important factors that governed the economic life and death of 19th century western American communities. It was precisely in these areas of activity that Wells Fargo and the Chinese met on common ground, one as the supplier of services, the other as user. Wells Fargo & Co. supplied Chinese merchants, farmers and laborers with the vital access they needed to a transportation, communications and financial network.
An analysis of "certificate of deposit" books in Wells Fargo's San Francisco office, for instance, reveals regular financial transactions between Wells Fargo and the Chinese community. When these volumes are compared with express receipt books for the shipment of valuables, including gold dust and coin, throughout California, the pattern is clear. Wells Fargo's role as an express company provided the means for the movement of money; its role as a bank provided for its safekeeping as specie or gold dust, or its exchange into non-metallic financial instruments.
In the 1870s, the nature and depth of business between Wells Fargo and Chinese communities throughout the western United States and Canada is revealed in the Company's bilingual publication of comprehensive directories of Chinese business houses.
Wells Fargo advertisements of the era also referred to the breadth of the connection. The San Francisco Directory for 1867, for instance, indicated that one of the services offered by Wells Fargo was "Express Lines" to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Another ad from the same period, this one in the Daily Alta California, refers to:
A General Express Business promptly attended to throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and the China coast. Bullion, coin and articles of special value shipped on the most favorable terms; issued if desired, under our Open Policies, with the best home and foreign companies. Charles McLane, General Agent for California Philip K. Dumaresq, General Agent for China
In sum, Wells Fargo, because of its multiple roles as a bank, exchange company, express, mail and transportation company, provided a matrix of services that far-flung Chinese communities could rely on to shrink the vast geography of the American West.
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