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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Wells Fargo's Shotgun Messenger, "Hold the Fort" Aaron Ross

Note: This week's article comes to us from Seth Isaacson, a Describer here at Rock Island Auction Company.

The history of the American West is perhaps the most mythologized aspect of our nation’s past. The very mention of “the West” conjures up images of idealized outlaws like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid running wild robbing the trains, stage coaches, and banks; stealing horses and cattle; and hiding out in canyons and secluded reaches of the untamed West. The lawmen and posses who chased these men down have equally been romanticized. Men like Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickock are remembered as larger than life for their tremendous collective efforts to tame the West, increase spread of “civilization,” and bring about the end of an “lawless” era. It is a period of American history often associated with prospecting for gold, towns bustling with saloons full of cheap whiskey and loose women, gambling, and violence from both sides of the law. In many of the best Western movies these legendary gunslingers somehow reform themselves, often via a local woman who is not intimidated by their rough past, and find their way back to society. In reality, most of these true outlaws and some of the lawmen met an untimely end at the muzzle of a Colt Single Action Army, 1873 Winchester, or a Parker double barrel shotgun, and other times from the end of a rope.

From time to time, we get the pleasure of offering firearms tied directly to the mythic American West. We have sold firearms and historic items related to many of the West’s most famous heroes and villains. Over time, their stories grew to exaggerated tales. A well-known example is Billy the Kid, who is said to have killed twenty-one men in some versions of his life story, “one for every year of his life.” The reality is likely much closer to four. Despite the mythologizing and romanticizing of the West, there were men whose lives were full of adventure, intrigue, and who lived by the gun. One such man was Aaron Y. Ross. In our upcoming 2015 April Premiere Firearms Auction we have the pleasure of offering a Wells Fargo marked Parker Brothers double barrel shotgun inscribed to Aaron Ross for defending an express car while outnumbered and surrounded by seven robbers.

Ross was born in Maine in 1829, and like many men in his day went west searching for opportunity. He headed to California to mine for gold, found no success, and headed north where he again failed to strike big. Recognizing that prospecting and laboring in the mines of other men was far from the guaranteed path to riches promised by advertisements and stories he had read back east, Ross found work as a stagecoach messenger for Wells Fargo in 1867.

In August that same year, Ross was involved in defending a Wells Fargo stagecoach in a battle that could have been torn straight from John Ford’s landmark western Stagecoach. As the horses sped the coach along the road during the night, a group of approximately twenty-five Native American raiders on horseback surrounded them. The driver did his best to keep the horses galloping at full speed while Ross poured lead from the passenger seat using his shotgun and revolver in the fight for their lives. The high speed battle of several miles must have felt like days until finally the attackers retreated to gather their wounded. Ross had given better than he had received. Unwounded, he had taken fire from 25 bandits, but had killed as many as five of the attackers.

Here, famed Western stuntman Yakima Canutt makes a jump for John Wayne in 1939's "Stagecoach."

In another instance Ross was confronted at Silver Star by the Stinking Water River, this time by an outlaw named Baker who already had multiple robberies under his belt. Attacking after nightfall, Baker’s gang found Ross’ stage to be less than an easy target when instead of throwing up his hands, Ross brought up the barrel of his scattergun and sent the villains fleeing for their lives. Ross then was transferred to Nevada where he was confronted by another outlaw: Andrew Jackon “Big Jack” Davis. When Davis attacked the stage Ross guarded, he was not as lucky as Baker, and paid for his crime with his life.

Lot 306: Historic Wells Fargo Marked Parker Bros. Under Lifter Double Barrel Shotgun with Presentation Plaque Inscribed to Express Messenger Aaron "Hold the Fort" Ross For Heroism with Research

Perhaps the most exciting story from Ross’ time in the West occurred on January 23, 1883. At 53 years of age, Ross was the lone guard in an express car headed east from San Francisco. Aside from the Wells Fargo assets, the train carried $80,000 in gold bullion (worth $2 million or more adjusted for inflation). Another source lists the cargo as $600 in Wells Fargo assets in the express car with Ross and $500,000 in other currency in the postal car. At Montello, Nevada, a group of seven outlaws forced the conductor to stop the train. They tried to convince Ross to leave the car and surrender, but he instead tried to buy some time while fortifying himself in the car using the freight. The robbers threatened to burn him out of the car and murder him if he did not surrender, to which he fired a few rounds through the side of the car at his assailants. They surrounded the car and returned fire from all sides. Three of the bullets found their mark, but Ross was not going to give up despite injuries to his finger, hip, and chest. He fired multiple shots towards the end of the car and then heard one of them on the roof. He calculated the villain’s location by sound as best he could, and with a well-placed shot, dropped the ambitious and unfortunate outlaw.

Wounded, he silently bided his time while the gang planned its next move. They tried to gain entry using coal picks and fired in upon him to cover their actions. Ross managed to stay safe and kept quiet. The robbers found the picks were no use and came up with a plan to open the doors using the other train cars. They ordered the engineer to ram the express car and the doors flung open a few times, but Ross was able to secure them again. When the robbers discovered another train would arrive within a half hour, they decided to gather their losses and flee. For their efforts they lost one of their men and only rode away with $10 stolen from the wallet of the conductor.

In return for his effort “Hold the Fort Aaron’s” medical bills were paid for, he received multiple handsome cash rewards, and the Wells Fargo Superintendent, John J. Valentine, sent him a letter, a check for $1,000, an inscribed gold watch worth $650, and its own gold chain. Matched for inflation, these rewards would be worth over $40,000 today.  After being shot three times, and not prone to exuberance, Ross asked for, “a day off.”

The letter read: “Dear Sir - Supplementing my letter of February 5 relating to your intrepid conduct at Montello, Nev. January 23, in successfully resisting the attack of seven highway robbers on your car, and, in fact, having practically protected the lives and property of the passengers of the train, I herewith inclose (sic) you a check for $1,000, as a substantial tribute this company, and, also as a mark of especial recognition and possibly more enduring testimony, a gold watch, chain, and seal, engraved as follows: ‘From Wells, Fargo & Company TO MESSENGER Aaron Y. Ross. In token of his courageous and successful defense of the EXPRESS CAR against Highway Robbers at Montello, Nev. JANUARY 23, 1883.’ I never doubted, from previous knowledge of your bravery, that in such an emergency as that which occurred at Montello, your heroism would be manifested; but its sturdy exhibition could not and cannot be otherwise than inspiring to all fellow employees and persons holding places of trust, stimulating them to emulate such an example of fidelity and valor. With all good wishes for you and yours I am very truly, JOHN J VALENTINE General Superintendent”

Though not mentioned in the April 1883 letter, Ross was also rewarded with the Parker Bros. shotgun he used during the defense. The inscription plaque and the watch are engraved in nearly identical hands.  It may have been given to him prior to the watch as only the plaque needed to be made and affixed whereas the watch had to be custom made and sent to him.  Another possibility to be considered after viewing the photographs of Ross holding a double barrel later in life, is that the shotgun was given to him upon retirement. He would have likely had used it for many years and become fond of it. Wells Fargo continued to show him favor even after his retirement by inviting him to various company events. Photographs of Ross and other famous messengers were even put in a display as part of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. Ross himself took part in the “California Fair” as late as 1917.

The shotgun was manufactured in 1878 and has “WELLS FARGO & Co. EXPRESS” marked on the barrel rib. The shotgun has an inscription shield marked in matching script to the watch: “TO/MESSENGER A.Y. Ross PARKER SHOTGUN used in your heroic and successful defence of the EXPRESS CAR against Train Robbers at Montello, Nev. W.F.&Co. January 23, 1883.” The shotgun was likely not mentioned in the news articles as it was a trifle in value at the time compared to the watch and monetary reward. Many images of express guards, including multiple of Ross, show them carrying double barreled shotguns of various makes. These men were regularly referred to as “shotgun messengers” in period literature and their position on the stages is the origin of the concept of “riding shotgun.” Period sources note that agents were armed with locally purchased weapons and were generally given one or more revolvers, a shotgun, and a rifle. Most would have turned the firearms back to the office.

Unlike most gunslingers, Ross later retired with a Wells Fargo pension and died surrounded by his family at the ripe old age of 93 at his daughter’s home in Ogden, Utah, the very same destination as the train in his story. He would be remembered by history as a prospector, Indian fighter, stage coach guard, and a bandit-killer and was detailed as such in his New York Times obituary.

Lot 306: Historic Wells Fargo Marked Parker Bros. Under Lifter Double Barrel Shotgun with Presentation Plaque Inscribed to Express Messenger Aaron "Hold the Fort" Ross For Heroism with Research


Express Transportation. The Express Gazette 46-47 (January 1921): 160-161.

"Four Wells Fargo Generations." Wells Fargo Messenger, Vols. 5-6 Nov. 1917: 55. Web.

Hume, James B., John N. Thacker. Edited by R. Michael Wilson. Wells, Fargo & Co. Stagecoach and Train Robberies, 1870-1884: The Corporate Report of 1885 with Additional Facts about the Crimes and Their Perpetrators. Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 2010.

“Passing of ‘Dad’ Ross, Stage Coach Guard and Indian Fighter Dies at 93.” New York Times Tribute. July 9, 1922.

Wells Fargo. “Presentation Watches for Bravery.” Guided by History Blog. (January 4, 2008).


  1. Great story of a man dedicated to his purpose. Glad to know someone did some research on a hitherto unknown hero of the West. Can the pocket watch be seen because I am sure the engraver was a true artist?

    1. If I recall correctly the watch is housed in a Wells Fargo Museum.

    2. Last time I heard it was in a safety deposit box.

  2. Do you happen to know if any of these items are back on the market?

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