In 1862, Valentine left Bowling Green, Ky., for far-distant California. Certainly no Civil War draft officer would find him high in the Sierra tending stagecoaches, telegrams, and Wells Fargo’s express business.
Once on a snowbound inspection trip in 1867, his horse threw him over a 50-foot embankment. Valentine was buried head-first in the snow and feet flailing, leading his companions to observe, "He seems to thrive on labor and complexities." The next year, Valentine supervised Wells Fargo’s express business.
How did a company expand and thrive when dependant on the rapid delivery of valuables by railroad? With difficulty. John J. Valentine became a great and opinionated diplomat, skillfully negotiating contracts that allowed Wells Fargo to traverse a multitude of fiefdoms, owned and guarded by a multitude of railroads, with competing express companies.
He was successful. In 1888, the doggedly determined general superintendent made Wells Fargo the first "ocean to ocean" express with a through line between San Francisco and New York City. The year 1892 brought him the presidency of Wells, Fargo & Company, Banking and Express.
Valentine’s heart was in the right place, and not just on Feb. 14. Above all, he was a humanist. For the world, Valentine led Wells Fargo to organize relief efforts for sufferers from fire, flood and pestilence. A great company, though, goes beyond making money. “The rights of man are of more importance than the paltry consideration of the dollar,” he believed, and he took care of Wells Fargoans. For instance, Valentine personally bought circulating libraries to encourage self-improvement.
Speaking for Wells Fargo, Valentine stated simply, "In the administration of our affairs, we appeal to all that is fairest and open and best." At his funeral in 1901, Wells Fargo as a company mourned "Our Guide and Friend."