On February 4, 1846, 27-year-old Samuel Brannan sailed from New York City aboard the Brooklyn. On board were 238 fellow Mormons. They were bound for the Mexican territory of California, where they hoped to build a Mormon kingdom without the conflicts they had experienced in the United States. During the six months the Brooklyn was at sea, the United States went to war with Mexico. When the Mormons sailed into San Francisco Bay, they were dismayed to learn the Americans were in control. Elder Brannan settled his people in California anyway. He would soon make a vast fortune.
Waiting for Brigham Young
Back east, the energetic Brannan had been a promoter of his church. In California he became an ambitious leader. He constructed flour mills, bought land, and printed the California Star, San Francisco's first newspaper. All the while, Brannan awaited Brigham Young, who was leading 15,000 Mormons west on the overland trail. Brannan hoped Young would come to California, but Young preferred a desolate spot to the east, near the Great Salt Lake. He reasoned that California's abundance might attract other settlers.
Brannan stayed in California, but rejected the Mormon church and the church excommunicated him. In the fall of 1847 he opened a store at John Sutter's Fort. A few months later, rumors circulated that gold had been found nearby at Coloma. In early May, Brannan headed to the mines to see for himself. He learned "there was more gold than all the people in California could take out in fifty years." Brannan made plans for a second store. Then, he packed some of the precious metal into a quinine bottle and traveled the hundred miles back to San Francisco. As he stepped off the ferry, Brannan swung his hat, waved the bottle and shouted, "Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" By the middle of June, three-quarters of the male population had left town for the mines.
Entrepreneur for the Gold Rush
Brannan didn't actually dig for gold, but gold swelled his investments to a fortune. His store made enormous profits by selling as much as $5,000 (about $120,000 in 2005 dollars) in goods per day to miners. Brannan also convinced some Mormon miners to pay him a percentage of their income in exchange for his attempts to secure title to the goldfields, which he never did. He opened a third store. He had several buildings in San Francisco and was on his way to being the largest landowner in the new town of Sacramento.
Brannan made money with a reckless passion and energy. His more destructive impulses, such as drinking, womanizing and fighting, also burst forth. With property to defend, Brannan took up a vigilante brand of law and order. When a group of drunken Americans assaulted some Chileans in San Francisco, Brannan climbed atop a barrel and hurled invectives at the Americans. The men were rounded up, tried and sentenced to hard labor. There were no prisons, so some were hanged instead. In the years to come, Brannan would play a key role in San Francisco's Vigilance Committee, which through rudimentary trials dealt harshly with problems like theft, arson, murder, and criminal gangs.
The Richest Man
During the 1850s and 1860s Brannan was known as the richest man in California. The chaos of the gold rush had played to his personality and business instincts, but he plunged into some schemes with the care of a gambler. He once sailed to Hawaii to overthrow the king, a coup that failed. He bought 3,000 acres in Napa Valley, hired Japanese gardeners to tend the land and bought 800 horses. He called his new resort Calistoga and catered to San Francisco's wealthy. In typical fashion, Brannan got in a drunken fight one night with some employees. He was shot eight times. He bled profusely, but survived.
Divorce Leads to Collapse
Brannan invested in railroads, which should have made him richer, but he built a track to Calistoga and the resort was too small to make it pay. Brannan faltered financially. Then came the divorce. Bitter about her husband's notorious infidelity, Ann Eliza Brannan insisted on a cash settlement. Sam Brannan was forced to transform his immense paper fortune into cash in 1870, a low moment for the California economy. His empire collapsed.
He spent the next two decades negotiating land deals in Mexico, but his schemes failed. Impoverished, he moved to Nogales, Arizona. In 1887 Brannan sold pencils door-to-door to raise the money for a trip to San Francisco. The newspapers covered the former tycoon's visit. One reporter described him as "old, gray, broken in strength, able only to get about with the aid of a cane. The old keenness of the eye alone shows that his spirit has survived the decay of his body." Brannan died on small fruit farm outside San Diego on May 5, 1889, leaving his children but a few dollars apiece.
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