An early apostle of the power of publicity, Samuel Brannan enjoyed spectacular success in capitalizing on the California gold rush in what was to prove a dramatic and tumultuous life.
Born in Maine in 1819, at age fourteen he moved to Ohio with his family. He completed his printer's apprenticeship in 1836, and spent the next five years moving from state to state as a journeyman printer. Brannan converted to Mormonism in 1842 and subsequently moved to New York City to help publish several Mormon newspapers.
In November of 1845 a large group of New York City Mormons decided to seek refuge in California, then formally a Mexican territory. Brannan led the expedition of over two hundred people, which travelled by boat around South America and to the Hawaiian Islands. Their 1846 arrival in San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) immediately tripled the city's tiny population.
After a brief period as publisher of a San Francisco newspaper, Brannan moved to John Sutter's settlement on the Sacramento and American Rivers and soon established a general store. The Mormon church claimed that he had diverted tithe money to this commercial enterprise, and expelled Brannan when he refused to return it. ("I'll give the Lord his money when I get a receipt signed by the Lord," Brannan is alleged to have said.) When James Marshall discovered gold on Sutter's land in 1848, Brannan seized the opportunity by widely publicizing the discovery and then selling his goods to the flood of men who came in search of gold.
Within several years, Brannan's meteoric commercial success had made him California's first millionaire. In 1849 he returned to San Francisco, where he continued his business activity, was elected to the City Council, and played a leading role in organizing the controversial Committee of Vigilance, which served as a citizen's police force. Throughout the 1850's his wealth and influence continued to grow; he became a major California landowner and helped to establish several banks and railroad and telegraph companies. Serious alcoholism and a volatile temperament, however, were his eventual undoing. He lost his fortune and health, as did many of those who first benefitted from the gold rush, and died an unnoticed death in rural San Diego county.
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