James Marshall discovered gold in 1848. That much is true. But It was Sam Brannan’s genius for publicity that really began the great Gold Rush.
Samuel Brannan was a true entrepreneur, a man who was willing to leave no stone unturned in his avid quest for wealth and success. He began his career as a Mormon elder, but by the time he reached his 40s he was California’s first millionaire. Yet the very qualities that made him a success—his energy, drive, and willingness to take risks—contributed to his eventual downfall. Bad investments, and a marriage gone sour, left him all but destitute. But California was forever changed by this ambitious man, a man who helped spark the Gold Rush
Sam Brannan’s Early Years
The future California millionaire was born on a small farm in Saco, Maine on March 2, 1819. The family moved to Ohio when he was a teenager, and he soon took up the printer’s trade. Young Sam became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as Mormons. He moved to New York in 1844, where he began printing The New York Messenger, a Mormon newspaper.
The Mormons established a base at Nauvoo, Illinois, but many non- Mormons hated and feared them. The murder of Mormon prophet and leader Joseph Smith was the last straw.
Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, decided they must get out of the United States in order to be left in peace. Sam Brannan was selected to head an advance party of around 240 individuals that would go to California by ship. At the time, California was owned by Mexico.
Brannan Starts the California Gold Rush
The voyage to California proved long and tedious, lasting around six months. After a brief stop at Hawaii, Brannan’s ship finally arrived at San Francisco bay, anchoring just off the tiny village of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco). But by the time the Mormon’s hand landed, California had changed hands. It was now U.S. territory. There is a story that claims Brannan was disgusted when he saw the American flag at Yerba Buena. “There’s that damned rag,” he was supposed to have said, or words to that effect.
Brannan tried to persuade Brigham Young to bring the rest of the Mormon community to California, but Young would have none of it. He preferred a more isolated area, like Utah.
Smelling opportunities for advancement, Brannan stayed in California, even though he was eventually expelled from the Mormon Church. He published the California Star, the second newspaper in San Francisco, and opened a store in Sutter’s Fort.
In early 1848 there were rumors of a gold discovery, so Brannan went to see for himself. He found the rumors were true, but not yet widely circulated. As a businessman Brannan knew the ones more likely to make money in a gold rush were the suppliers of food, clothing and equipment, not the miners themselves. Brannan quietly bought everything that might be of use to a gold seeker, cornering the market and producing a near—monopoly. Then, all he needed was to create a demand. He obtained a few gold nuggets, and placed them in a small bottle. Waving his top hat with one hand, and displaying the bottle with the other, Brannan went through the streets crying “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” His shouting sparked the gold rush. Within a few days San Francisco was virtually empty, and the word spread around the world.
His gamble paid off when hundreds of gold-hungry prospectors swarmed into his store seeking tools and supplies to start searching for the yellow metal. His business started taking in as much as $5,000 a day—perhaps $120,000 in today’s money. A pan that Brannan bought for 20 cents he now sold for $15—and got away with it.
Brannan and the Vigilante Committee of 1851
The ex-Mormon soon became the richest man in California, a millionaire with investments in railroads and property as far-flung as Hawaii. He developed a hot springs resort in Calistoga, patterned after a similar resort in Saratoga, New York. Supposedly Brannan, drunk, got the words mixed up during the dedication. “It’s the Calistoga of Sarifornia!” he cried, meaning “It’s the Saratoga of California.” The garbled name stuck.
But early California was lawless. Criminal gangs like the Hounds and Sydney Ducks robbed, murdered, and raped with near impunity. Brannan helped organize the Vigilante Committee of 1851, which arrested criminals, conducted extralegal trials, and hung or banished offenders.
Brannan’s Last Years
For all his savvy as a businessman, Brannan’s flaws as a person caught up with him. Tired of his drunkenness and infidelity, his wife divorced him. The settlement took away much of fortune, and bad investments did the rest. An altercation with an employee left him badly wounded with seven gunshot wounds, though he survived. Brannan died a near pauper in 1889.
- Will Bagley. ed. Scoundrel’s tale: The Samuel Brannan Papers Arthur H Clark, 1999
- T.H. Watkins and R> R. Olmstead, Mirror of the Dream: An Illustrated History of San Francisco Scrimshaw Press,1976