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Sam Brannan, California's First Millionaire

Updated on November 12, 2015

California's First Millionaire

Samuel Brannan was a Mormon who became California’s first millionaire during its gold rush heyday. He was born in Saco, Maine March 2, 1819.

History has viewed him in several different lights. Some saw him as a brilliant entrepreneurial financier… others, as a bigamist, alcoholic, public relations genius, swindler and a greedy scoundrel. It’s likely he was all. In many respects he wasn’t known as a bad man despite being a straight forward, shrewd businessman. He was also well known for his many acts of charity.

Brannan wore many hats during his life but he’s probably best known for his actions which helped ignite the famous California gold rush. However, his career actually began publishing “The Prophet”, a Latter-day Saint newspaper in 1844 while in Ohio.

The events which propelled Brannan to fame began when the Mormon Church decided it would have to leave their current location in Illinois after the murder of their leader Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1844. They decided on the Mexican territory of California and Brannan, with about 240 other Mormons, left New York for California. Brannan brought along his printing press and equipment to set up a complete flour mill. They landed in Yerba Buena in what is now San Francisco, on July 31, 1846.

Brannan's Store
Brannan's Store

John Sutter

After getting settled Brannan was assigned as the first president of the California Mission of the Mormon Church. He also instituted the California Star newspaper and was credited with establishing the first school.

One of the wealthiest people in the region at the time was John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who came to California in 1839. Sutter built a fort, named after himself, accumulated 12,000 head of cattle and hired hundreds of workers. Sutter’s dream was building a vast agricultural empire. By the mid 1840s, more people began arriving in California. Sutter had no idea the soon to come flood of people would destroy his dream.

Gold Discovered

In late 1847, Sutter sent James Marshall and about 20 men were sent to the American River, about 50 miles northeast of the fort, to build a saw mill. They found gold. Marshall took samples back to Sutter's Fort where it was ascertained it actually was gold. Instead of being excited about the find, Marshal and Sutter were not very happy about it. Sutter was building an agricultural empire not a gold mining operation. So, a pact was made to keep the discovery a secret.

However, news of such magnitude was impossible to keep hidden. It wasn't long before the news got out. It went largely unnoticed. It was just another rumor as far as anyone else was concerned. The gold rush story needed a good public relations person… enter Sam Brannan. It was to make him the richest person in California.

In the meantime, Brannan had opened a store at Sutter Fort. Rumor had it he financed store merchandise from tithes LDS worker had made gold mining in their spare time. Brannan, ever on the lookout to make a quick buck, went to San Francisco and bought up every pick, axe, pan and shovel he could find. The story says he also put gold in a bottle and ran through the streets yelling “Gold Gold!” Shortly afterwards, his store at Sutter fort was bringing in more than $150,000 dollars a month…or in today’s currency, about 4 million dollars. Thus, Brannan became the first millionaire in California. By the mid-1850’s, Brannan was rich, dabbling in banks, railroads and telegraphs as well as land.

He used his fortune to open even more stores. However, he was accused of using church money to fund his enterprises. The account, probably more legend than fact, has the church sending an envoy to talk with Brannan where he supposedly sends a message to Brigham Young saying, “I will give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the lord.”

Brannan was later elected to the first town council of San Francisco. Perhaps, his most memorable action was his part in organizing the “Committee of Vigilance”, actually nothing more than a vigilante group. The vigilantes hung a squatter and  the church held Brannan responsible. He was subsequently disfellowshipped.

 In 1853 Samuel Brannan was elected as California’s Senator. He was instrumental in developing trade with China and financial agreements with Mexico.

In 1857, he and a partner purchased 2000 acres in the Napa valley at the Hot Springs. Their plan was to make a resort similar to one at Saratoga, New York. It was decided to name it Calistoga of Sarafornia. The venture turned out to be a failure.

A major down turn in real estate lost him a large part of his fortune and a divorce from his wife cost him the rest. Almost overnight he went from riches to rags. Some say he was found selling pencils on a street in Nogales, Mexico. By the time of his death, in San Diego County in 1889, Brannan was regulated to sleeping in back rooms of saloons.

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