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Samuel Brannan

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Samuel Brannan

Posted: 22 Jun 2009 6:12AM GMT
Classification: Obituary
Surnames: Brannan


Samuel Brannan (March 2, 1819 – May 14, 1889), was an American settler and journalist, offering the first newspaper in San Francisco, the "California Star". He is considered the first publicist of the California Gold Rush and was its first millionaire.

Brannan was a colorful, energetic figure in the early history of California and especially of San Francisco. "He probably did more for [San Francisco] and for other places than was effected by the combined efforts of scores of better men; and indeed, in many respects he was not a bad man, being as a rule straightforward as well as shrewd in his dealings, as famous for his acts of charity and open-handed liberality as for in enterprise, giving also frequent proofs of personal bravery."

Brannan was born in Saco, Maine. As a teenager, his family moved to Ohio, where Brannan learned the printer's trade. He joined the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church. Brannan moved to New York in 1844, and began printing The New York Messenger, a Latter-day Saint newspaper.

After the murder of church leader Joseph Smith, Jr., in June 1844 it soon became clear that the Latter-day Saints would have to leave their seat at Nauvoo, Illinois. Several possible destinations were discussed, including the Mexican territory of California. On February 4, 1846, with the approval of church leaders, Brannan and about 240 other Latter-day Saints from New York set sail aboard the ship Brooklyn for California via Cape Horn. Brannan had an antiquated printing press and a complete flour mill on board. After a stop in Honolulu, they landed at Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) on July 31, 1846, tripling the size of the village. The LDS Church appointed Brannan as the first president of the California Mission of the church.

Brannan used his press to establish the California Star as the second newspaper in San Francisco, following Monterey’s Alta California, first published on August 15, 1846.. He also established the first school in San Francisco. In 1847, he opened a store at Sutter's Fort, in what is now Sacramento. In June 1847, Brannan traveled overland to Green River, Wyoming, to meet with Brigham Young, the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was leading the first contingent of Mormon pioneers across the plains to the Great Basin. Brannan urged Young to bring the Saints to California but Young rejected the proposal in favor of settling in what is today Utah and Brannan returned to California, flinging himself into the excitement that would shortly ensue.

California career

Early in 1848, employees of John Sutter paid for goods in his store with gold they had found at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma, California. Brannan went to the mill and, as a representative of the LDS Church, he received the tithes of the LDS workers there from the gold they had found in their spare time. Brannan then purchased every shovel in San Franciscoand ran through the streets yelling, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"

Samuel Brannan's store at Sutter's Fort

Brannan opened more stores to sell goods to the miners (his Sutter Fort store sold US$150,000 a month in 1849), and began buying land in San Francisco. At about this time, Brannan was accused of diverting church money, including collected tithes, to fund his private ventures. An LDS envoy was sent to Brannan and reportedly told them, "You go back and tell Brigham Young that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord.", although historians, such as Will Bagley have found this is likely just legend. Brannan was elected to the first town council of San Francisco and, after a series of sensational crimes in the area, helped organize the Committee of Vigilance, which functioned as a de facto police force. A squatter was murdered by the vigilante group and, although Brannan may not have pulled the trigger, he was considered the instigator and was subsequently disfellowshipped from the LDS Church for those vigilante efforts.

In 1851, Brannan visited Hawaii, and purchased large amounts of land in Honolulu. In 1853 he was elected to the California State Senate. He was involved in developing trade with China, financial agreements with Mexico, founding the Society of California Pioneers, and developing banks, railroads and telegraph companies. Brannan built the first incarnation of the famous Cliff House in San Francisco in 1858. In 1868 he purchased 160,000 acres (647 km²) of land in Los Angeles County, California.

After visiting the hot springs in Napa County, Brannan bought a huge tract of land in 1859 and founded the village of Calistoga, (said to be a combination of the words California and Saratoga) planning a resort. Brannan founded the Napa Valley Railroad Company in 1864 in order to provide tourists with an easier way to reach Calistoga from the ferry boats from San Francisco that docked in Vallejo.

Brannan lost much of his personal fortune after his divorce. It was ruled that Brannan's wife was entitled to half of their holdings, payable in cash. Because the vast majority of Brannan's holdings were in real estate, he was forced to liquidate to pay the divorce settlement. The railroad was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1869.

Following the divorce, he became a brewer, then developed a problem with alcohol. Forsaking the city he helped found, he drifted to San Diego, remarried and set up a small ranch near the Mexican border, where he engaged in land speculation with the Mexican government near Sonora. At the age of sixty-nine, he was paid the sum of forty-nine thousand dollars in interest from the government of Mexico. He quit drinking, paid all his debts and died without enough money to pay his own funeral.

Samuel Brannan died at the age of 70 in Escondido, California, on May 14, 1889, after suffering from bowel inflammation. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery, San Diego.

* Many locations in California are named after Sam Brannan, including Brannan Street in San Francisco, Brannan Island, Brannan Bluff, Brannan Creek, Brannan Mountain, Brannin Springs, and Brannon River; there is also a Sam Brannan Middle School in Sacramento.
* California cities that claim Sam Brannan as their founder include Yuba City and Calistoga.
* In partnership with John Sutter Jr. and with William Tecumseh Sherman and Edward Ord as surveyors, Brannan laid out the unofficial subdivisions that became the city of Sacramento.

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