California’s Brannans specialized in riches to rags strategies

 March 2, 1819

On this day, Samuel Brannan, California’s first millionaire was born in Saco, Maine, only to die 70 years later broke and alone a continent away. 

Equal parts scoundrel and visionary, Brannan (right) became one of San Francisco’s earliest  pioneers.  Founder of the California Star, the city’s first newspaper, he got rich during the Gold Rush, not panning for gold – selling gold pans.

As a young man he settled in Painesville, Ohio with his sister and brother-in-law and joined the Church of Latter Day Saints.   Apprenticed as a printer’s devil, he bought his own printing press with a small inheritance and tried his hand at newspaper publishing.  

But efforts in both Florida and Indiana failed and he returned to Ohio. He didn’t stay long, going east to publish The Profit, a Mormon newspaper for LDS founder, Joseph Smith. (Above)  Married by this time, he  left his pregnant wife with his sister. 

But when Smith was brutally murdered in Ohio, the church’s his disputed successor, Brigham Young, (right) decided to take the flock West.  He put Brannan in charge of the Mormon migration from the East Coast.  Seeking religious freedom, Young selected California, still part of Mexico.

Brannan convinced 238 emigrants, 70 men, 68 women with 100 children to join in the migration.  A six-month 24,000-mile odyssey on the chartered ship “Brooklyn,” took them around Cape Horn to the Sandwich Islands, present-day Hawaii, finally landing in Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. 

The Mormon ship, The Brooklyn

Sailing out of New York Harbor on February 4, 1846, it was the same day as the start of Young’s exodus from Nauvoo.  Always thinking ahead, Brannan took along a grist mill and his printing press.

By then, he’d already met and possibly married Ann Corwin, he’d met in Connecticut.  The couple and their nine-year-old son, Samuel, survived the  voyage  but ten passengers did not.   Nine were apparently buried at sea.   While his fellow travelers struggled in accommodations no better than steerage, he lived in relative luxury in officer’s quarters.  

Rendering of Yerba Buena, 1848

Arriving in California on July 31, 1846, the new settlers discovered Yerba Buena didn’t actually belong to Mexico any more.  It had been captured by the Americans 22 days earlier and no longer offered sanctuary from U.S. law.  The weary immigrants decided to stay anyway, tripling the population of the remote pueblo overnight.  

The following year, Brannan established San Francisco’s California Star newspaper and traveled to Utah, hoping to persuade Brigham Young to bring his followers to California.  Young, however, elected to remain in Utah, apparently angering Brannan.  But as the highest ranking church official in California, he continued to receive the tithes from its LDS members. 

When the funds were not forthcoming in Utah, Young sent the apostle, Amasa Lyman, to retrieve the church’s money.  Brannan refused Lyman’s demands, reportedly saying he would  turn over the tithes when he could receive a receipt signed by the Lord himself.  The whereabouts of the cash is still unknown.

Brannon’s store at Sutter’s Mill

At the time of Lyman’s visit, however,  Brannon had already established a store at Fort Sutter at present-day Sacramento.  He was also buying up land nearby, perhaps answering the question of the missing tithes.   When his customers began paying in gold dust, he hurriedly bought gold pans and other mining supplies, selling them at a huge profit.  The California Star didn’t get around to reporting the big Sutter’s Mill scoop until after Brannon had already made a small fortune.

Hard to tell where Brannan’s personal interests merged with his promotional instincts for the new territory.  He purchased a steam locomotive, speeding western settlement, joined fellow entrepreneurs to build San Francisco’s fabled wharf and founded the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance.  It was the vigilantes that got Brannan into terminal trouble with the LDS.  The committee’s penchant for hanging people without benefit of a trial finally caused his church to “disfellowship” the once trusted leader. 

Brannan’s Calistoga Resort, 1862

Brennan had been elected to the legislature when California joined the union in 1851. He was believed to be the richest man in the state.  And after visiting the Napa Valley in 1860, he spied an opportunity to get even richer. He developed a luxury hot springs resort, Calistoga, on 2,000 acres.  Opening in 1862, it immediately attracted the wealthy denizens of San Francisco.  His Napa Valley Railroad helped fill the spa with well healed visitors and make Sonoma County a transportation hub.

But it all came crashing down when second wife, Ann Corwin Brannan, (left) filed for divorce.  In order to settle the court’s community property decree, the millionaire was forced to sell his real estate holdings for cash, leaving him virtually penniless.

His next venture added  a new dimension to his problems.  He established a brewery and quickly discarded his former faith’s teachings on abstinence from alcohol.  

Drifting to Mexico, he received ranch land from Mexican president Benito Juarez, aiding his benefactor when French forces invaded the country in 1861.   Nearly three decades later, a grateful Mexican government paid Brannon $48,000 for his property, more than $1 million today.

By this time the 69-year-old had sobered up, returning to San Francisco in 1888.  He paid off his debts and died just a year later in Escondido on May 5, 1889   He was again penniless. His remains lay unclaimed in San Diego County for another year before being recognized and  finally given a Christian burial at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Apparently “apples don’t fall far from the tree,” as the saying goes. Brannan’s son, Samuel, a Swiss trained mineralogist, died penniless, as well.   He’d  spent the better part of 40 years looking for silver in Mexico, only to be ruined by the silver bust of 1889.  He was buried next to his penniless father in 1931.

The city Samuel Brannan had so generously aided in its infancy did not completely forsake him.  Brannan Street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood still bears his name, now home to some 21st Century visionaries – tech companies. 

Ann Corwin Brannon, founder of her husband’s final misfortune, also died in poverty chasing silver.  She lost all the money she had won in the divorce settlement investing in the Comstock Lode silver strike.  

The Sharpsteen Museum, 1311 Washington Street Calistoga, California, details the history of Samuel Brannan and his Calistoga resort.  It was created by Ben Sarpersteen, a long-time Disney director and producer. His 30-foot  diorama of the original Hot Springs Resort is the museum’s centerpiece, having taken three years to complete.  An early stage-coach from the Calistoga and Clear Lake Stage Line is also on display along with a working model train of the Napa Valley Railroad. The museum is open daily from 11 to 4.  For more information go to, call 707-341-2443 or write Sharpsteen Museum, 1311 Washington St., Calistoga, CA 94515. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.