Samuel Brannan

Historical Essay

by Monika Trobits

San Francisco Museum and Historical Society May 2009

Samuel Brannan (1819-1889) arrived in in California in the late 1840s and turned into a real San Francisco character. He not only impacted San Francisco and the Bay Area, but California as a whole in the last half of the 19th century. Today when driving down Brannan Street or stopping at one of its intersections, perhaps residents and visitors alike wonder what or who the name Brannan refers to. They may be surprised to discover that he was a mover and shaker of his day and the pioneer California capitalist, the first in a long line of many.

An elder in the Mormon Church, he arrived in 1846 from New York on the ship Brooklyn leading a group of 238 Mormons to the West. The intention was to meet up with a group of Mormons coming overland. Brigham Young, however, decided to stop with his group on the shores of the Great Salt Lake rather than continuing on to the coast. Later when Brannan was accused of flagrantly diverting tithe money for his own investments in California, Young sent out a group of church deputies from Salt Lake to retrieve 'the Lord's money' from Brannan. Brannan told this group that he would do so when he received a receipt signed by the Lord. No receipt was forthcoming but expulsion from the Mormon Church was.

Taking seriously the continuous rumors of a significant gold discovery along the American River, Brannan bought up every available item that he thought would be a mining necessity and filled his store and warehouses with them. He then earned $36,000 in the first nine weeks of the Gold Rush selling equipment and provisions to the miners. Brannan single-handedly set off the rush by running up and down Montgomery Street and around Portsmouth Square with a glass jar filled with gold. Waving it over his head, he declared to all he encountered that gold had been discovered on the American River.

Word spread like wildfire and San Francisco was on its way to becoming the City of Gold and the Queen City of the West. The rush became a stampede and in the process, the City was transformed. Part of the transformation was caused by the multitudes of eager would-be miners pouring into the City which ultimately led to a significant increase in crime. That led to the formation of a vigilante group of which Brannan was one of the founders. Later he would be expelled from its leadership.

With presses brought from New York, Brannan set up the City's first newspaper, the California Star, which became a forum for his outspokenness. In the late 1850s, he bought land in Napa Valley intending to create a resort capitalizing on the area's natural hot springs. He wanted to establish the "Saratoga of California", the names combined into Calistoga. It was charming and pleasant and we all still enjoy it today, but it did not become the moneymaker he envisioned.

Brannan strutted around the City dressed elegantly in beaver hats and fancy clothes. He was the man-about-town who entertained lavishly and contributed generously to charities while at the same time hedging on paying his taxes. In addition to the California Star, he owned a flour mill, the best land in the area and speculated on the constant stream of goods that regularly poured into the City. For a while, everything he touched seemed to turn into gold.

Brannan became the first millionaire in California due to the Gold Rush and yet never mined a day in his life. Changing times changed his fortunes and as land values in the Bay Area fell, Brannan found himself overextended. It was the turning point for him exacerbated by excessive drinking and gambling, plus an expensive divorce settlement. He drifted down to San Diego County and the man who had talked big and bought big died impoverished in an Escondido boarding house in 1889. Brannan was 70 and for a year, his body was stored until burial costs could be raised.