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Introduction to the Ernest A. Wiltsee Collection

Wells Fargo is proud to present the Wiltsee Collection online.
Mining expert and historian Ernest A. Wiltsee (1862-1947)
Featured photo caption: A yellow background with a man with balding white hair and thick mustache wearing a suit and tie. To the right in the upper corner is a circle letter stamp that reads: 31 Dec 6 Paid.

Today, Wells Fargo is proud to present the Wiltsee Collection online. The collection of almost 1,400 covers represents over 250 California towns and 200 express companies, including Wells Fargo. The collection has been digitized while preserving the cover arrangements and descriptions created by Wiltsee.

A yellow background with a man with balding white hair and thick mustache wearing a suit and tie. Image link enlarges image.
Ernest Wiltsee

Mining expert and historian Ernest A. Wiltsee (1862-1947) assembled a large collection of almost 1,400 envelopes (“covers”) and folded letters, sent during the 1800s. These rare documents show how families and businesses depended on express companies like Wells Fargo to stay connected.

A postcard of a street scene with wooden buildings on either side and wood sidewalks. In the distance large pine trees rise over a hill. Signage on the largest building on the left reads: Holbrooke. Top of card reads: Main Street. Looking East. Grass Valley, CAL. Image link enlarges image.
Main Street, looking East. Grass Valley, CA.

Born in New York, Ernest A. Wiltsee attended the School of Mines at Columbia College (now called the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University). He graduated in 1885 with the skills necessary for a career in mining, mineralogy, and engineering. Wiltsee came to California in 1888 when a mine in Grass Valley, California, offered him a position as an assistant superintendent. Through the years, he worked in a variety of different companies, bought interest in lucrative oil operations, and relocated to numerous cities, but he ultimately made California his home.

An exhibit panel with six red Pony Express stamps showcased. Below the panel it reads: Scott No. 6604, block 25¢. Image link enlarges image.
Scott No. 6804, block of six 25 cent red stamps.

Wiltsee grew increasingly fascinated with California’s early history, leading him to join the California Historical Society in 1930. The Society soon appointed him as vice-president, a position he held for over 10 years. His interest in history led him to start collecting covers and envelopes that illustrated early western mail service, particularly between 1848 and 1870. He paid special attention to covers with markings from Wells Fargo, the Pony Express, small early expresses, and gold rush towns.

A large room with display cases along the back wall and one in the foreground to the right. To the left a stagecoach is displayed. A man and a woman stand talking before it. Image link enlarges image.
Wells Fargo museum

In 1938, Wiltsee left his collection in trust to Wells Fargo Bank, and it first went on display on March 14, 1941 as part of the Wells Fargo Historical Collection. Wiltsee revised the arrangement later that year, when he bought several additions at auction. A year later, with the West Coast in turmoil during World War II, the bank shipped the collection to Chicago for safekeeping. After the war, Wiltsee arranged the entire collection over 200 panels with hand written descriptions and illustrative photographs. The panels were assembled back-to-back and available to researchers as a pull-out display.

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