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Sam Brannan

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Sam Brannan

Samuel Brannan
Samuel Brannan
Born (1819-03-02)March 2, 1819
Saco, Maine, United States
Died May 14, 1889(1889-05-14) (aged 70)
Escondido, California, United States
Resting place Mount Hope Cemetery, San Diego, California, United States
Spouse(s) Anna Eliza Corwin

Samuel Brannan (March 2, 1819 – May 14, 1889) was an American settler, businessman, and journalist, who founded the California Star newspaper in San Francisco, California. He is considered the first publicist of the California Gold Rush and was its first millionaire.

Brannan was a colorful, energetic figure in the mid-19th-century history of California and especially of San Francisco.

"He probably did more for [San Francisco] and for other places than was effected by the combined efforts of scores of better men; and indeed, in many respects he was not a bad man, being as a rule straightforward as well as shrewd in his dealings, as famous for his acts of charity and open-handed liberality as for in enterprise, giving also frequent proofs of personal bravery." [1]

Early career

Brannan was born in Saco, Maine, about a year before its independence from Massachusetts. When he was 14 years old, he moved with his sister to Kirtland, Ohio, where Brannan learned the printer's trade. There, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brannan moved to New York City, New York, in 1844, and began printing The Prophet (later The New-York Messenger), a Latter Day Saint newspaper.

After the murder of church leader Joseph Smith, Jr., in June 1844, the Latter Day Saints decided to relocate their center from Nauvoo, Illinois. Several possible destinations were discussed, including the Mexican territory of Alta California. In February 1846, with the approval of church leaders, Brannan and 245 other Latter Day Saints from New York set sail aboard the ship Brooklyn for upper California via Cape Horn. Brannan had an antiquated printing press and a complete flour mill on board. After a stop in Honolulu, Hawaii, they landed, on July 31, 1846, at the Mexican port town of Yerba Buena, present-day San Francisco, tripling the population of the pueblo. Brannan was appointed as the first mission president of the California LDS Mission.

California career

Brannan used his press to establish the California Star as the first newspaper in San Francisco. It was the second paper in Alta California, following The Californian founded in Monterey and first published on August 15, 1846.[2] The two joined to become The Daily Alta California in 1848. He also established the first school in San Francisco. In 1847, he opened a store at Sutter's Fort, near present-day Sacramento, California.

In June 1847, Brannan traveled overland to Green River, Wyoming, to meet with Brigham Young, the head of the LDS Church, who was leading the first contingent of Mormon pioneers across the plains to the Great Basin region. Brannan urged Young to bring the Mormon pioneers to California but Young rejected the proposal in favor of settling in what is today Utah, and Brannan returned to northern California.

California Gold Rush

Early in 1848, employees of John Sutter paid for goods in his store with gold they had found at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma, California. Brannan went to the mill and, as a representative of the LDS Church, he received the tithes of the LDS workers there from the gold they had found in their spare time. His California Star paper could not publish the news as the staff had already left for the gold fields. "Brannan moved to New Helvetia, where he opened a store at John Sutter's Fort. When gold was discovered, Brannan owned the only store between San Francisco and the gold fields -- a fact he capitalized on by buying up all the picks, shovels and pans he could find, and then running up and down the streets of San Francisco, shouting "Gold! Gold on the American River!" He paid 20 cents each for the pans, then sold them for $15 apiece. In nine weeks, he made $36,000."[3]

San Francisco

Brannan had opened more stores to sell goods to the miners (his Sutter Fort store sold US$150,000 a month in 1849), and began buying land in San Francisco. At about this time, Brannan was accused of diverting church money, including collected tithes, to fund his private ventures. During the balmy, gold-rush days of California, Brannan became "California's first millionaire. With two other capabilities, he purchased Sutter's vast holdings. He erected numerous fine buildings in San Francisco and Sacramento. He established a lucrative ship trade with China, Hawaii, and the east coast. His land holdings extended to southern California and Honolulu. And as his wealth increased, his testimony diminished, until he turned from the Church a bitter apostate." In the course of years millions of dollars slipped through Brannan's fingers. At last he found himself a penniless drunkard. His wife divorced him; his friends left him; and eventually--at the end of the "last roundup" at seventy years of age--broken in health and spirits--he withdrew to his lonely attic room in Escondido, where he died May 6, 1889, neglected and forgotten. This fulfilled, a warning to him in a letter from President Young in 1849, admonishing him to return to Zion and to heed the council of the Church, or else "your hope and pleasing prospect will be blasted in a hour you think not of, and no arm can save..." Brannan's body lay for a year unclaimed in the San Diego receiving vault, where by a chance discovery, it was recognized, and he was given a Christian burial. For many years only a stake marked his lonely grave at the Mount Hope Cemetery. An LDS envoy was sent to Brannan who reportedly told them, "You go back and tell Brigham Young that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord", although historians, such as Will Bagley have found this is likely just legend. Brannan was elected to the first town council of San Francisco in the new U.S. territory. After a series of sensational crimes in the area, he helped organize the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, which functioned as a de facto police force. A squatter was murdered by the vigilante group and, although Brannan may not have pulled the trigger, he was considered the instigator and was subsequently disfellowshipped from the LDS Church for the vigilante violence.

In 1851, Brannan visited Hawaii, and purchased large amounts of land in Honolulu. In 1853, he was elected as a Senator to the California State Senate in the new state's capital of Sacramento. He was involved in developing trade with China and financial agreements with Mexico, founding the Society of California Pioneers, and developing banks, railroads and telegraph companies in California. In 1858, Brannan built the first incarnation of the famous Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean in undeveloped western San Francisco.


After Brannan visited the hot springs in the upper Napa Valley in 1859, Brannan planned a new resort for there. He bought land containing the springs in the northern portion of the Rancho Carne Humana, and founded the town of Calistoga, said to be a combination of the words "California" and then-fashionable Saratoga Springs in New York. Brannan also founded the Napa Valley Railroad there in 1864 in order to provide tourists with an easier way to reach Calistoga from the San Francisco Bay ferry boats that docked in the lower Napa Valley of San Francisco Bay at Vallejo. The railroad was later sold at a foreclosure sale, in Napa County in 1869.

In 1868, Brannan became one of the principal investors in the Robinson Trust, that purchased and initiated development of the major coastal Los Angeles County land holdings of Californio Abel Stearns, near the San Pedro Bay in Southern California.

In 1872, Anna Eliza Corwin divorced Brannan. He lost much of his personal fortune after his divorce, as it was ruled that his wife was entitled to half of their holdings, payable in cash. Because the vast majority of Brannan's holdings were in real estate, he had to liquidate the properties to pay the full divorce settlement.

Southern California

Following the divorce, he became a brewer, then developed a problem with alcohol. Forsaking the city he helped develop into San Francisco, he drifted to San Diego, California, remarried and set up a small ranch near the Mexican border, where he engaged in land speculation with the Mexican government in the state of Sonora, Mexico. In 1888, at the age of sixty-nine, he was paid the sum of forty-nine thousand dollars in interest from the Mexican government. He quit drinking, paid all his debts, and died without leaving enough money to pay his own funeral.

Death and legacy

Brannan died, age 70, in Escondido, California, on May 14, 1889. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego.[4]


  • Many locations in California are named after Brannan, including Brannan Street in San Francisco, Brannan Island, Brannan Bluff—Table Bluff, Brannan Creek, Brannan Mountain, Brannan Springs, and Brannan River; there is also a Sam Brannan Middle School in Sacramento.[5]
  • California cities that claim Brannan as their founder include Calistoga, and Yuba City.
  • In partnership with John Augustus Sutter, Jr. and with William Tecumseh Sherman and Edward Ord as surveyors, Brannan laid out the unofficial subdivisions that became the city of Sacramento.

See also

Biography portal
California portal
San Francisco portal



External links

  • PBS - The West - Samuel Brannan
  • based on a San Diego Union article, republished in Sacramento Bee
  • California Gold Rush Profile - 1st millionaire dies broke
  • California Newspaper Hall of Fame - Sam Brannan
  • Latter Day Scoundrel
  • Register of the Samuel Brannan Papers at Brigham Young University

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