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A Self-made Man


The namesake of Fargo, North Dakota was born on this date in 1818 in Pompey, New York. William Fargo quit school at the age of thirteen, working as a store clerk, a mail carrier, and a baker. In 1844, he helped establish the nation’s first express mail service. In 1850, three such firms consolidated to form American Express. In 1852, he co-founded Wells, Fargo and Company to provide express service to the gold fields of California. Wells Fargo soon controlled virtually all the shipping west of the Missouri River.

During the Civil War, Fargo served for two terms as the mayor of Buffalo, New York. A staunch Unionist, he paid a stipend to the families of employees who were drafted to help them get by.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, both Wells Fargo and American Express shifted from shipping to banking, and Fargo went on to became a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the New York Central Railroad.

By 1870, there were only 28 land claims in what is now North Dakota, and all of them were near Pembina. But that was about to change. In 1871, settlement at what is now Fargo was spurred by several developments. The Northern Pacific Railroad reached the Red River, and steamboat traffic was on the rise. Also that year, the federal government opened a land office at Pembina. The section lines near Fargo were surveyed, and by the fall of 1871, a tent city had sprouted where the railroad was to cross the river. It was informally called “Fargo on the Prairie” while the town on the Minnesota side was called “Fargo in the Timber.”

But in the beginning, the town was not officially known as Fargo. On October 6, 1871 a post office was established on the western bank of the Red River and named “Centralia.” Northern Pacific Railroad officials were not pleased with the name. They insisted that the settlement named after William G. Fargo, and the name was officially changed on February 14, 1872.

William Fargo passed away on August 27, 1881. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

The California Gold Rush. "http://thecaliforniagoldrushp5.weebly.com/william-fargo.html" http://thecaliforniagoldrushp5.weebly.com/william-fargo.html Accessed 29 March, 2015.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser. “William G. Fargo.” 27 August, 1881.

The Wayback Machine. "http://web.archive.org/web/20090329141605/http://www.fargo-history.com/early/beginings1b.htm" http://web.archive.org/web/20090329141605/http://www.fargo-history.com/early/beginings1b.htm Accessed 29 March, 2015.