Ernest A. Wiltsee (1862-1947). Courtesy of the California Historical Society.
Ernest A. Wiltsee (1862-1947).
Photo Credit: California Historical Society

Historic letters open window to the past

A Wells Fargo historian shares how a newly digitized collection is providing people around the world with a connection to the past.

July 21, 2017
Alyssa Bentz
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

Letters mailed long ago often contain clues that help researchers and history buffs understand the past and find personal connections. The Ernest A. Wiltsee Collection, part of the Wells Fargo Corporate Archives, features almost 1,400 envelopes — also called covers — almost 200 of which are filled with original letters sent between families and businesses during the 1800s.

This unique collection, originally owned by Wiltsee, a mining engineer and businessman, has recently been digitized to offer greater access to people around the world. “What pleasure you have given me,” exclaimed one visitor to the website after finding a letter written by an ancestor living in California in 1853. Similar discoveries are likely to be made now that this resource is available online.

“I have written you every mail and this time you will hardly call it a letter as I have not time to say much — But you will know that I am still among the living,” a Mr. Stanwood in California wrote to his mother, Nancy, in Massachusetts, in 1852.
“I have written you every mail and this time you will hardly call it a letter as I have not time to say much — But you will know that I am still among the living,” a Mr. Stanwood in California wrote to his mother, Nancy, in Massachusetts, in 1852.

Excerpts from these letters have been made public for the first time, allowing a glimpse into the lives of previous generations. Written at a time before email, text, or internet messaging, letters did more than share news and information; they provided people with a connection to distant loved ones.

The envelope for Mr. Stanwood's letter to his mother, Nancy, in 1852.
The envelope for Mr. Stanwood's letter to his mother, Nancy, in 1852.

Long lines and lost mail

Considering the emotional impact of receiving a letter, it is no surprise that people grew frustrated with inadequate mail services. When an estimated 100,000 people rushed to California in 1849, the U.S. Postal Service could not expand to meet demand.

Miners living in remote gold rush towns could only send and receive mail in the few cities that had post offices. In San Francisco, long lines and lost mail became a common experience. Some enterprising immigrants who had given up mining made a living selling their place at the front of the post office line for $10 to $25.

Taking the initiative, almost 400 express companies — including Wells Fargo — began offering to quickly and reliably carry letters to and from remote mining camps, providing a way to keep families and businesses connected. Names, addresses, and postal marks on the envelopes in the Wiltsee Collection help researchers understand the resourcefulness of people and companies during that time who offered solutions to keep mail and money moving.

The sender from Napa City, California, addressed this letter to “San Jose or Vallejo!! or God Knows where, Cala.” The capital of California moved three times in three years.
The sender from Napa City, California, addressed this letter to “San Jose or Vallejo!! or God Knows where, Cala.” The capital of California moved three times in three years, causing confusion and frustration for citizens trying to reach state officials. Express companies like Wells Fargo promised to deliver letters to their intended destination, even without a perfect address.

A unique collection

Wiltsee had a keen interest in California history and he collected letters and other documents reflecting early communication in California. In 1938, less than a decade before his death, he left his unique postal and express mail collection to Wells Fargo for public display in its San Francisco history museum.

The Wiltsee collection was considered so valuable that during World War II, when there was a fear that San Francisco was going to suffer an attack like Pearl Harbor, Wells Fargo shipped the entire collection to Chicago for safekeeping. After the war, Wiltsee arranged his collection onto 200 panels with handwritten descriptions and illustrative photographs.

A postal researcher takes notes from a Wiltsee Collection panel in the 1970s.
A postal researcher takes notes from a Wiltsee Collection panel in the 1970s.

Wiltsee’s panels were on display for almost 70 years at Wells Fargo’s museum in San Francisco, providing a priceless resource for those interested in communication history. Today, each panel has been carefully digitized to preserve Wiltsee’s original presentation, and the entire collection can now be accessed digitally by a worldwide audience.

View the Wiltsee Collection.


Learn more about the history of Wells Fargo and its 12 free history museums.
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