In late February or early March of 1848, a newspaperman and merchant by the name of Samuel Brannan strolled through the sleepy port town of San Francisco with a vial of gold in his hand shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Legend has it that, within a day, half of the town’s population of roughly 900 had left San Francisco for the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.
It’s doubtful Brannan’s famous strolls through San Francisco were responsible for alerting people to the gold in northern California’s hills, even though he was a newspaperman and even though his Mormon faith gave him connections to the broader American West. On Feb. 3, 1848, for example, the United States and Mexico signed a peace treaty concluding the 2-year-old Mexican-American War, which gave the United States de jure control over the American River’s gold deposits, which had only been discovered in late January 1848.
Given that word of James Marshall’s discovery of gold only reached the front pages of New York’s finest publications in August 1848, and given that James K. Polk didn’t address Congress about the discovery until December 1848, it can safely be concluded that news still travelled more slowly back then than it does today, and there is no way Brannan’s message could have been heeded so fast by so many.
With that being said, individual initiative matters, and Samuel Brannan was one heck of a entrepreneur. Born in Maine in 1819, Brannan and his sister and brother-in-law converted to Mormonism in 1842 while living in Ohio. A printer’s apprentice by trade, Brannan spent much of his early life attempting to establish a newspaper outlet. These attempts, which were all failures, brought him to Cleveland, New Orleans, Maine, rural Ohio, Connecticut, and New York City. Brannan’s faith in Mormonism waxed and waned as he saw fit, but after his brother’s death in New Orleans (and yet another failed printing enterprise), Brannan delved deeply into the Mormon community, so much so that when he was living in NYC - in 1844, at the time of Joseph Smith’s murder in a jail cell at the hands of a lynch mob - he was the highest-ranking Mormon official in New York City.
To give you a better snapshot of Brannan’s influence within Mormon circles, in Connecticut Brannan worked closely with William Smith on a Mormon-owned printing enterprise, so closely in fact, that when news of Joseph and his brother Hyrum’s murder reached the eastern seaboard, Brannan vociferously argued that William - one of Joseph’s brothers - should be the new head of the Mormon church. Brannan’s argument was prominent enough that Brigham Young and his council kicked Brannan out of the Mormon church for time. Brannan eventually made his way to Nauvoo, Ill., the then-headquarters of the Mormon church, to plead his case and was readmitted to the church in 1845. A Straussian reading of Brannan’s actions can highlight clearly Brannan’s entrepreneurial streak.
In 1846, Brannan was in charge of the entire northeast’s Mormon community, and he chartered a ship (the Brooklyn) that was to head to northern California, beyond the reach of the American governments that had so often actively persecuted Mormons. If you’ll remember, 1846 was the first year of the Mexican-American War, and in Honolulu (where California-bound ships often stopped for supplies and inspections), Brannan got word that the U.S. government was planning to attack Monterey, the capital of Alta California. To Brannan’s entrepreneurial mind, this was taken to mean that a competition for land between the U.S. government and the Mormon church was underway, and Brannan changed the Brooklyn’s course from Monterey to Yerba Buena (which is now known as San Francisco and is located just to the north of Monterey). The plan of action was for the Mormons to storm Yerba Buena and seize it from the Mexicans in order to establish a Mormon presence in the region.
When the Brooklyn arrived at the mouth of Yerba Buena’s bay in the middle of 1846 (the Mormons had left NYC in January), Brannan was disappointed to find that the Americans had taken the city a few days prior to the Brooklyn’s arrival. Instead of fighting what was sure to be a losing battle against American troops, Brannan and his fellow Mormons began settling the region, contributing immensely to the transformation of Yerba Buena from a pueblo into a town.
While Brannan was busy establishing a large Mormon colony in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Brigham Young was leading a large contingent of Mormons across the Great Plains to the Salt Lake valley, where he and his council were also attempting to establish a Mormon colony. Initially the Mormon leadership in Nauvoo sought to establish a new homeland in northern California - which was far enough away from the American, Mexican, and British governments to be considered safe - and Brannan was tasked with the initial wave of settlement. Once Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake valley, however, he changed his mind and decided that the state of Deseret should be run from Salt Lake City instead of northern California. Much of this decision had to do with the fact that the trek from Nauvoo, Ill. to Utah was so arduous, and there was little inclination to keep pressing onward to northern California through the Great Basin’s high altitude desert. But Samuel Brannan’s success in San Francisco, coupled with his earlier wayward fancies, also played a part in Brigham Young’s decision to establish the Mormon church’s capital in Utah instead of northern California. Samuel Brannan was competing with Brigham Young to be the leader of the Mormon church.
Brannan called for a meeting with Young in 1847 to try and convince the latter that the Mormons should continue to push further west into northern California. The two competitors met in Wyoming and Brannan left the meeting with no success. Brigham Young had solidified his leadership over the entire Mormon community, and his affairs were to be run from Salt Lake City, not San Francisco. Brannan continued to be the alpha male of the Mormon community in northern California, and as such members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints paid their tithes to him. To this day, there are no records - public or private - that any of those tithes made it to Salt Lake City.
Later in 1847, Brannan bought the only general store in what is now Sacramento. In fact, it was the only general store between the Mother Lode and San Francisco, though of course Brannan had no idea that the Mother Lode was the Mother Lode when he bought the store. During this time, Brannan also found a way to build a number of large, skyward building in both San Francisco and Sacramento, and had purchased a great of land in both areas. As Brannan grew richer, and the region grew more diverse, many Mormons packed up their belongings, sold their holdings, and headed east towards Deseret. Brannan remained, and in 1848, when a couple of carpenters from Sutter’s Mill in Coloma paid for their goods in gold found by the mill, the once-penniless printer’s apprentice finally found his true calling in life.
Aside from promoting the Gold Rush - as the only store owner from the Mother Lode to San Francisco, Brannan profited greatly from the Gold Rush - the alpha male of California’s Mormon colony also set about establishing firm trading links between San Francisco and the traditional commercial hubs of the Pacific trade: China, Hawaii, Australia, Peru, and Chile (Japan was still governed by an isolationist regime). As Brannan continued to benefit from the Gold Rush, he continued to gain power as well as profits. He set up a Vigilance Committee to establish a de facto police force in the suddenly booming city of San Francisco, and was blamed for the brutal squelching of squatter settlements throughout the region, including an infamous one where nine people were killed. The Mormon church sent representatives from Salt Lake City to visit Brannan in 1850 and 1851 in order to collect the tithes that he had never paid, and in August of 1851 he was again kicked out of the Mormon church for “unchristianlike conduct.”
Samuel Brannan was California’s first millionaire, was elected to serve on San Francisco’s first town council, and in 1853 was elected to serve on California’s state senate (California was admitted as an American state in 1850). In 1859, Brannan had fixed his restless eyes upon the Napa Valley, and he began buying land in the hopes of turning the region into a tourist destination. Unfortunately, the residents of Napa Valley did not like Brannan’s approach to business, and he was shot sometime in the late 1860s by an unknown assailant. He had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
In 1870, Brannan’s second wife divorced him. (Brannan had only one wife at a time, despite his connections to the early Mormon church.) She took half. Because Brannan’s wealth was tied up in real estate, he had to liquidate his holdings in order to pay her off. Following the divorce, Brannan began drinking heavily and ended up, in 1880, with a small ranch in the Mexican state of Sonora, which was given to him by the Mexican government for his help with Mexico City’s French problem (France tried to take over Mexico once; another story for another day). The Mexican government also paid Brannan a large sum of money in 1888 for back payments on interest, and he used that money to pay off his debts in California, where he died in 1889, alone and unrecognized, but also debt-free. If that isn’t the American Dream, I don’t know what is!