American Express (1850-present) started as an express mail business in Albany, New York, in 1850. The company was formed from John Butterfield’s, Butterfield, Wasson & Company, merging with his two rivals, Wells & Company, and Livingston, Fargo & Company. These companies included the individuals of Henry Wells, William G. Fargo, and John Butterfield. Two years later, the same founders would also start Wells, Fargo & Co. in 1852 when Butterfield and other directors objected to American Express’s proposal to extend its operations to distant California. The company first established its headquarters at the intersection of Jay and Hudson Streets in the TriBeCa section of Manhattan, New York.
For several years, the company enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the movement of express shipments, including goods, securities, and currency in New York State. In 1857, the company started its expansion in financial services by launching a money order business to compete with the United States Post Office’s money orders.
In 1858, they expanded their shipment services when the company won the government contract for the first transcontinental stage line, carrying the mail from Missouri to California and receiving $600,000 per year. When finalized, the new mail contract was the largest that had ever been awarded.
A subsidiary called the Butterfield Overland Stage Company was formed to handle the mail. However, the success of the mail route was short-lived, as it was forced to discontinue service when the Civil War broke out. American Express survived the discontinuance of stage lines when the railroad pushed through by expanding railroad and steamship express services. Further expansion into financial services guaranteed the long-term success of the business, which continues to this day.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
John Butterfield & the Overland Mail Company