The man who told the world about California’s gold

Brannan Street, running from Embarcadero below Bryant Street and parallel to the Bay Bridge approach, is in a working class San Francisco south of Market area, not at all fitting for a location named for an elder in the Mormon Church, San Francisco’s first millionaire, and the publisher of it’s first newspaper, the California Star. But Sam Brannan was not always the honorable man he presented himself to be. As one miner noted, ‘It seems that he had no sooner won his wealth than he discarded his religion without replacing it by another, although gossip had it that in order to hush his conscience he frequently said prayers to Saint Polygamy.’

Samuel Brannan

In February 1846, with the westward migration of the Church of Later Day Saints eminent, 238 members of the flock joined Brannan as they sailed for California by way of Cape Horn. After a stop in Honolulu, they landed at Yerba Buena Cove in the newly renamed village of San Francisco on July 31 and immediately tripled the population. An early edition of Brannan’s newspaper came out on October 26, 1846 and the Star was in full swing by January 7.

Brannan also opened a store near Sutter’s Fort and it was there that Mormon workers from Sutter’s sawmill began paying for goods in gold. Men had prospected downstream from the mill until they found large deposits of gold on an enormous sand bar along the American River that came to be known as Mormon Island. Brannan collected all the mining equipment he could lay his hands on and then, in May of 1848, he ran down San Francisco’s Market Street with a vial of nuggets in his hand yelling, ‘Gold! Gold on the American River,’ and at last the word was out. Brannan became rich selling mining supplies from his store. It’s said that he sold $150,000 worth of goods a month in 1849. He went on to many other lucrative ventures.

The Brooklyn

Brannan used that wealth to acquire property in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Hawaii. He started a ferry service to Vallejo, and founded the village of Calistoga and a railroad that went there. He was instrumental in organizing the Committee of Vigilance to clamp down on the undesirable elements in San Francisco. In 1853 he was elected to the state senate, but in 1872 his wife, Anne, divorced him and took half his assets. It was the beginning of the end for Sam Brannan. And in spite of the vast fortune he had once acquired he died in poverty on May 14, 1889 in Escondido, California.

 

 

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