California’s First Millionaire

Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire  |  post by Larry Clinton

On the morning of Friday, July 31, 1846, Samuel Brannan sailed boldly into the mist-shrouded headlands of San Francisco Bay. His ship, the Brooklyn, carried 238 fellow Mormons, known as Saints. Their goal was to build a Mormon kingdom in the Mexican territory of California without the conflicts they had experienced in the United States. In addition to the Saints, the Brooklyn carried a large quantity of seed, mill and farm equipment and—most fortuitously—a printing press.

The Brooklyn arrived here just three weeks after the American flag had been raised in Portsmouth Plaza during the Mexican American War. Brannan and his passengers were dismayed to learn the Americans were in control. Nevertheless, officials gave the immigrants permission to disembark and to unload all their possessions free of duty.

Brannan promptly ran up a debt of $1,000 to Captain William Richardson for supplies purchased at Rancho Sausalito. To settle the account, a group of the men went to Sausalito and prepared a load of redwood for Captain Richardson to resell.

At the same time, Brigham Young led a party of 15,000 Mormons in prairie schooners on the overland trail to a desolate spot near the Great Salt Lake. Despite Young’s attempts to move Brannan’s Saints to the Utah territory, Brannan stayed in California, rejecting the Mormon church (which then excommunicated him).

According to an historic report from the Public Broadcasting System, Brannan constructed flour mills, bought land, built the first California railroad from Sacramento to Folsom and printed the California Star, San Francisco’s first newspaper.

In the fall of 1847, Brannan opened a store at John Sutter’s Fort. Sam soon learned that settlers were paying for their purchases with gold. Checking further, he discovered the truth about Marshall’s January 1848 gold strike.

Brannan packed some of the precious metal into a quinine bottle and traveled back to San Francisco. As he stepped off the ferry, Sam 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.

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 in goods per day to miners. He 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, playing a key role in San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee, which dealt harshly with problems like theft, arson, murder, and criminal gangs.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Brannan was known as the richest man in California; he plunged into some wild schemes. 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 (an amalgam of California and Saratoga, the fashionable the New York watering place) and catered to San Francisco’s wealthy.

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 divorce. Bitter about her husband’s notorious infidelity, Ann Eliza Brannan insisted on a cash settlement. Sam 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.

A profile in the 1964 Feather River Bulletin neatly summed up Brannan’s life:

“California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan, made money as if it were his own invention. Brannan’s only problem was that he spent money like it was going to be declared illegal before the dawn of another day. He was a vital part of the golden age in the golden state and would have felt right at home in today’s California which continually opens new promise of fortunes to be made . . and lost.”