William M. Robison, Legend

For forty years, William Robison was the Express Messenger who carried Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express between Stockton, Calif. and the Sierra Nevada gold mines. He was active in community affairs and worked forcefully to protect the civil rights of African Americans in California. What distinguishes Robison’s accomplishments is the fact that he was active in an era when African Americans faced the hardest attitudes against them: the era of slavery and Jim Crow, 1850-1899.

William M. RobisonBorn into slavery in Virginia, Robison gained his freedom in 1836 after serving with the U.S. Army in the “Seminole War.” Robison came to California during the Mexican War and settled in Stockton in 1850. Following a stint at mining (like just about everyone in those years!), he worked for Page, Bacon & Co., California’s largest bank. Robison then hired on with Adams & Co.’s express business. His route was from Stockton to the mines, carrying mail and newspapers to be first with the news. Adams & Co. crashed in the financial panic of 1855 and Wells Fargo happily hired Robison. He worked for Wells Fargo for another forty years.

Robison actively fought for civil rights. He was a delegate to the State Convention of Colored Citizens in 1856, which circulated petitions to allow non-Whites to testify in court cases. In the early 1870s, Robison worked to integrate Stockton’s schools.

In pre-Civil War years, California was a Free State and Robison was not quiet about reminding people of that fact. Robison took action as well: According to Stockton historian Virginia L. Struhsaker, Robison was one of an armed band that liberated slaves held illegally in San Joaquin County. An African American man took a huge risk by participating in such an act because negative attitudes were everywhere, even in Free States.

In 1861, for instance, a business agent along Robison’s Messenger route protested the employment of a black wagon driver. George Tighlman, Wells Fargo’s cashier in the Stockton office, sarcastically replied, “we are obliged to you for your advice…We get along very well with ours; have never had any trouble.”

Robison was a respected man in his community. Even the pro-slavery San Joaquin Republican praised him as “a worthy and noticeable man,” noted for “his remarkable kindnesses.” Robison was a member of the Stockton Pioneer Society, one of many such organizations formed in that era by “Forty-niners” and other early-comers to the Golden State. At his death in 1899, other Pioneers wrote of Robison’s trustworthiness and the positions of responsibility he held.

In sum: Robison had a military career and claimed his freedom, stayed in one job for decades, was active in civic affairs, joined community organizations, risked his life for justice — and leaves a primary legend as being a great guy. Robison is THE model of citizenship. It’s an honor to work with him.

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5 Responses to William M. Robison, Legend

  1. Nazim says:

    This an African American Gold miner to ad to the list. I’m researching gold miners in history.Does anyone have any more stories to tell?

  2. MITCH MITCHELL says:

    Alvin Coffey, born a slave, and was one of many who came with their masters to the goldfields of Northern California to help with mining operations in 1849. He worked his way to freedom and settled in the Red Bluffs area of California. His photo is on display at the Northern California Center for Afro-American History Museum located in Oakland, California. Daniel Rogers is another black forty-niner mentioned in William Loren Katz’ book titled “The Black West” A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States. In his book, you will also find excerpts from Alvin Coffey’s “Diary of a Black Forty-niner” which was provided courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers. Good luck with your research regarding gold miners!

  3. Steve Sheridan says:

    What a gem of an American. I would love to see a book or movie about Mr. Robison. Slave, soldier, miner, brave, civil rights and much more. I can’t help, but think of the adventure and risk taking he did and the incredible character he possessed (courage, determination, caring). I can’t help, but think of the places and times of Mr. Robison. Still rugged, lonely and dangerous being in the South East, down into Texas, maybe Mexico, crossing the South to California at a time when hardly anyone did such things. Later in life he demonstrates the same courage by being solid citizen. He didn’t let the routine of life stop him. He gets up nearly everyday to work and goes out at night to fight for his and his neighbor’s rights. I’m real glad Wells Fargo preserved Mr. Robison life for us to see.

  4. Ron Wilson says:

    did this brave soldier/slave/miner ever transport gold or protect gold being transported please reply thanks

  5. william says:

    Being an African American I am proud of Mr. Robison and of Wells Fargo. I first learned of him from a Wells Fargo calender I will always be a fan of both GOOD JOB.

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