One of California's great pioneers is better remembered in Utah than in the Golden State. Maybe that's because our friends on the West Coast don't like to be reminded that just before the Gold Rush, Samuel Brannan made San Francisco "very largely a Mormon town." It's also because Utah Mormons like to point to Brannan's incredible rags-to-riches-to-rags life as a good example of what happens to Latter-day Saints who stray from the fold.
As a young newspaper publisher in New York, Sam Brannan was called one of the "young lions" of Mormonism and served as presiding elder over all the Saints in the East. Brannan had been with LDS founder Joseph Smith for nearly three years and became passionately devoted to the martyred Mormon prophet. Brannan also had surprising political connections. Mormon Apostle Willard Richards claimed the deal Brannan put together in New York to deliver the Mormon bloc vote "exalted" James K. Polk to the presidency.
When Brigham Young launched the "Great Western Measure" to move Mormons west in 1846, he selected Brannan to take a boatload of his flock around Cape Horn to California. So it was that some 230 Mormons sailed through the Golden Gate in July 1846, a year before Brigham Young decided Salt Lake City was the right place.
Brannan had met the pioneers on the Green River in Wyoming in 1847. Having seen both California and Utah, he disagreed with Young's intended choice. But Young fell in love with the Great Basin, largely because he figured it was a place nobody else on "God's footstool" could possibly want. Brannan returned west as president of the Saints in California, but he soon found more entertaining enterprises to occupy his time, such as wine, women and becoming the richest man in the new state.
Brannan started the Gold Rush. His newspaper, The California Star, reported seeing "a beautiful specimen of gold from the mine newly discovered on the American Fork [River]. From all accounts, the mine is immensely rich and already, we learn, gold from it, collected at random and without any trouble, has become an article of trade at the upper settlements. This precious metal abounds in this country."
Not many folks in California seem to have noticed, but when Brannan's newspaper hit New York, the rewrite editors at the Herald crafted a story that infected the East Coast with gold fever. Having bought all the shovels in the territory, Brannan strode up Montgomery Street on May 10, 1848, with a quinine bottle filled with gold dust, crying: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Within a month, the Star reported "the abandonment of San Francisco was complete." Everybody was at Brannan's store at Sutter's Fort buying shovels.
One of the great legends of the gold rush is that Brannan collected tithing for the Lord from the Mormon miners. When Brigham Young sent Apostle Amasa Lyman to collect the cash, Sam refused to turn it over without "a receipt signed by the Lord." Brannan ran through several fortunes before finally going broke after a divorce due to "his flaming devotion to the tender passion" with actresses. California historian H.H. Bancroft noted that "for twenty years or more he was rarely sober after noon."
In old age, Brannan settled on an orange ranch in Escondido and claimed tales of his involvement with Mormonism were "poppycock." Sam Brannan died broke, providing generations of Saints with a lesson on the wages of sin. But to this day, some Mormons hold a secret admiration for the man who outfoxed Brigham Young.
For more on Brannan, see the author's book, Scoundrel's Tale: The Samuel Brannan Papers