Friday, November 15, 2013

The Shotgun Messenger

Whenever we are going somewhere my boys always yell shotgun to see who get’s to ride in the front seat. This often results in a race to the passenger side door and on occasion some pushing and shoving, which in turn leads to no one riding shotgun and frowning faces in the backseat. 

I didn’t know where the term had come from and being a historical writer, I delved into some research and this is what I found.
Riding Shotgun comes from the term Shotgun Messenger and was not actually used until 1919 in the movies.
Wells, Fargo strongbox

However, in the old west the stagecoach was the prime contender and often the only form of transportation for people, cash and gold. After many robberies, the stagecoach line hired shotgun riders. Their job was to sit beside the driver and protect the strongbox and it’s possessions, firing at anyone who tried to take it or attack them. 
Wells, Fargo stage with Shotgun Messengers 
When I think about this job, I generally assume you’d be a moving target—one easily pegged off by a band of outlaws, but that wasn’t the case. Most attacks were from highwaymen on foot. They’d hide in the bush where the stage had to slow down, usually a corner or steep hill. The highwayman would confront the stagecoach driver and his pal with guns drawn, stealing the loot within a few minutes and then going merrily on his way.

There were actually only two known cases in Arizona where the stage was robbed by a group of bandits and a shootout ensued.

Most bandits knew what to look for when casing a run. If there was no Shotgun Messenger seated beside the driver, there was likely no strongbox on that stage.
Wells, Fargo station
When Wells Fargo started up in 1852 word got around that they were an express, delivering gold, cash and bank drafts. In turn Wells, Fargo had their own agents riding shotgun in the front and back of the stage. The six horse drawn coach with the lettering Wells, Fargo & Co. painted on the side was sure to light up any bandits eyes. However, these Shotgun Messengers were well armed and very dangerous.

The Wells, Fargo was the most trusted name in delivery for many years because of this, and in 1866 combined all major western stage lines. Wells, Fargo & Co stagecoaches rolled over 3,000 miles from California to Nebraska and Colorado into the mining regions of Montana and Idaho.

You may ask yourself how common stagecoach robberies were back then and through some research I was able to find a few numbers.

In Arizona between 1875 and 1903, 130 stagecoach robberies took place.

1876 to 1878, stagecoach robberies on the Cheyenne to Deadwood trail were a steady source of income for Big Nose George and other outlaws.

The worst areas for stagecoach robberies were Tombstone and the Black Canyon Stage Line from Phoenix to Prescott.



Jacquie Rogers said...

Nice bit of history here, Kat. Thanks!

I've run onto the syntax problem, too. Truth is, readers know what riding shotgun is, but do they know what a messenger is? So I generally try to either avoid the issue or I just use "shotgun."

Kat said...

Thanks, Jacquie! :) :)