During the Gold Rush, few miners became rich. But a lot of other folks did. Typical was California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Born in Maine in 1819, Sam Brannan, a merchant, manipulator, real estate speculator and Mormon elder, arrived in San Francisco in 1846 aboard the ship Brooklyn. He brought with him 238 men, women and children, mostly Mormons, and a stock of tools, a printing press, type, paper and machinery for a gristmill. Deep-chested, broad-shouldered, shaggy-headed, his extremely bland features were decorated with fashionable “sideburns and imperial,” and lit up by flashing black eyes. His dress was dandified, his speech bombastic, his manners coarse, his courage and generosity boundless, reported James A. B. Scherer in his book, The First Forty-Niner and the Story of the Golden Tea-Caddy. In January, 1847 Brannan began publishing his newspaper, the California Star. By the time Marshall discovered gold, Brannan already owned not only the newspaper, but a hotel, flour mill and store. He opened several general stores, one of them at New Helvetia, better known as Sutter’s Fort. Noticing that a few folks came to the fort with gold to buy whisky and other commodities, he realized something was up and quietly began buying and hoarding every article of merchandise he could find in northern California. He of course found a market desperately eager for his products. Col. Richard Barnes Mason, appointed to the military command in California, wrote in 1848: “The principal store at Sutter’s fort, that of Brannan and Co., had received in payment for goods 36,000 dollars’ worth of this gold from the 1st of May to the 10th of July.”

Also, seeing his Mormon followers taking out as much as $250 a day each, Brannan made a claim in the name of the church and levied a tax, the “Lord’s tithe,” which, as it just so happened, benefited Brannan more than the Lord.

On May 12, Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust in his hand, shouting, :Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” According to one eyewitness, in a few days time no more than twenty men were left in the whole city. Prices on mining supplies jumped tenfold. After his store at Sutter’s Fort began taking in $150,000 a month, Brannan no longer had need for the tithes.

Brannan was making money so fast that Brigham Young, head of the Latter Day Saints in Utah, wrote to inquire if a tithe might be forthcoming for “the Lord’s treasury.” Brannan’s reply to Young’s messenger: “You go back and tell Brigham,” he said, “that I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord.” Soon after, Brannan lost his standing in the Mormon Church.

Vicente Pérez Rosales, a Chilean gold miner, described Brannan’s store near Sutter’s Fort. “We saw there a cabin of unfinished boards, a few huts of woven branches and a short distance away a large store with a huge sign that read ‘Brannan and Co.’ The chief of this establishment was the ex-Mormon Brannan, owner of the evil-omened Dysy-my-nana [a boat], and the possessor of one of the securest fortunes in California at that period. He was the head or parish priest of his sect on this side of the Sierra Nevada, shrewd enough to take advantage of the labor of his numerous parishioners; having also managed to monopolize a rich tract along the banks of the American, he had become rich in a very short time. 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.”

By 1856 Brannan was said to have owned one fifth of the entire city of San Francisco and as much of Sacramento. He was said to have been earning between $250,000 and $500,000 per year, an enormous sum for the times. He became a major landholder in the Calistoga area. An affinity for whiskey and a bitter divorce settlement finally led to his financial ruin many years later.

Sam Brannan
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