When I was a lad, I frequently visited my cousin Marlane Turner, who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Twenty years to the day older than me, Marlane recognized and enabled my interest in history. We visited any number of historic sites in the Bay Area — from the Golden Gate Bridge to Jack London’s cabin housed in Oakland.
Several times we visited the San Francisco Mint, and once the Wells Fargo Museum, which featured a beautifully restored stagecoach in the lobby.
The Wells Fargo stagecoach was a key element in stitching up the budding civilization of the American West. Looking back, it’s astonishing the country those stagecoaches crossed, carrying passengers — and strongboxes full of cash. The payload, of course, made the stagecoaches a prime target for highwaymen. Stop a stage on a grade out in the middle of the Arizona Territory desert or somewhere in the wilds of Northern California, and you might ride off with a very nice score — the Brink’s Armored Car robbery of its day.
The need for security gave us the term “riding shotgun.” A guard, usually armed with a shotgun, often 10 gauge (!) rode next to the driver, as a deterrent to robbers. It was a dangerous gig — perched up there on the top of a swaying coach, the first target if a gang of robbers was inclined to violence. Those shotgun guards were often also detectives, authorized by Wells Fargo to investigate robbery and theft. They worked closely with local law enforcement — filling a much more significant role than merely pulling security.
One of the finest historians of law & disorder in the Old West is paying tribute to these shotgun riders in Shotguns and Stagecoaches: The Brave Men Who Rode For Wells Fargo in the Wild West.
John Boessenecker is one of my favorite historians. He’s written one badass book after another — on the Gold Rush in California, on the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, on the great undersung California and Arizona lawman Bob Paul, and most recently the definitive biography of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.
Boessenecker, a San Francisco trial lawyer and former police officer, is considered one of the leading authorities on crime and law enforcement in the Old West. Since 1968 he has published dozens of magazine articles about violence on the frontier. He is the award-winning author of eight books, including Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez and When Law Was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul. In 2011 and 2013, True West magazine named Boessenecker Best Nonfiction Writer. He received a prestigious Spur award from Western Writers of America and Best Book award from Westerners International. He has appeared frequently as a historical commentator on PBS, The History Channel, A&E, and others.
The Wells Fargo Express Riders were the men who made the West safe for capitalism, and Boessenecker is the perfect man to bring their stories to life.