Sam Brannan (1819-1889) was a newspaper publisher and merchant in San Francisco. He publicized the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, precipitating the Gold Rush, and was the first person to become a millionaire as a result of the Gold Rush. He is credited with having founded Yuba City. Sam Brannan Park in Yuba City is named for him, as are Sam Brannan Middle School in Sacramento and several businesses in Calistoga.
Brannan was born in Saco, Maine. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Ohio, where he joined the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He moved to New York, New York in 1844 and began printing a Church newspaper. In 1846, Brannan led about 237 other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from New York on a sailing expedition around Cape Horn to California, seeking a new seat for the Church of Jesus Christ, because the murder of church leader Joseph Smith, Jr., had made it impractical for the church seat to remain in Nauvoo, Illinois. The group landed in what is now San Francisco, tripling the size of the village. The Church appointed Brannan as the first president of its California Mission, but Salt Lake City, Utah was chosen over California to become the new seat of the church.
As a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brannan received the tithes of the workers in California who were members of the church. However, when Brigham Young wrote and asked Brannan to forward the tithes to Salt Lake City, pointing out that the tithes were "the Lord's money," Brannan said he would only do so if Young could send him a receipt signed by the Lord.1 Brannan made a considerable amount of money by continuing to collect tithes and keeping this money for himself.
Brannan used a printing press he had brought from New York to establish the California Star as the second newspaper in San Francisco. It later merged with The Californian from Monterey and became The Alta Californian. He also established the first school in San Francisco. In 1847, he opened a store at Sutter's Fort, in what is now Sacramento. Early in 1848, employees of John Sutter paid for goods in his store at Sutter's Fort with gold they had found at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma. Brannan then went to the mill and collected the tithes from the gold the workers there found who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brannan hurriedly set up several stores to sell prospecting supplies to gold miners, then strode through the streets of San Francisco, raising a quinine bottle full of gold for all to see and shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" As a result, his Sutter's Fort store sold $150,000 per month in 1849.
One of the new stores Brannan set up to sell gold mining supplies was in Yuba City. In 1849, along with his business partners Pierson Reading and Henry Cheever, he purchased land from John Sutter in what is now Yuba City. Brannan, as the senior partner, had the town site laid out and hired agents to sell the lots to future residents.
With his increasing wealth, Brannan also bought more land in San Francisco and in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was elected to the first town council of San Francisco and, after a series of sensational crimes in the area, helped organize the Committee of Vigilance, which functioned as a de facto police force. A squatter was murdered by the vigilante group and, although Brannan may not have pulled the trigger, he was considered the instigator and was subsequently disfellowshipped from the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for those vigilante efforts.
In 1853, Brannan was elected to the California State Senate. (That same year, he had a new house built that can still be seen at 112 J Street in Sacramento.) He was involved in developing trade with China, financial agreements with Mexico, founding the Society of California Pioneers, and developing banks, railroads and telegraph companies. In 1858, he built the first incarnation of the famous Cliff House in San Francisco. In 1859, after visiting the hot springs in Napa County, Brannan bought a huge tract of land there in 1859 and founded the town of Calistoga (said to be a combination of the words California and Saratoga), planning to establish a resort there. (Brannan Cottage Inn and Brannan's Grill in Calistoga are still named for him.) Brannan also founded the Napa Valley Railroad Company in 1864, to provide tourists with an easier way to reach Calistoga. In 1868, he purchased 160,000 acres of land in Los Angeles County as well.
However, Brannan lost most of his personal fortune due to bad land speculation deals with the Mexican government and due to his divorce. It was ruled that Brannan's wife was entitled to half of their remaining holdings, payable in cash. Because the vast majority of Brannan's holdings were in real estate, he was forced to liquidate to pay the divorce settlement. The railroad was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1869.
After his divorce, he became a brewer, but this led him to problems with alcoholism. While continuing to struggle with his alcoholism, he moved to San Diego, remarried, and set up a small ranch near the Mexican border, where he also continued engaging in land speculation with the Mexican government. When he was 69, the Mexican government paid him $49,000 in interest as a result of this land speculation. He then quit drinking and paid all his debts. But there was so little money left over after he paid his debts that when he died at age 70, there wasn't even enough to pay for his own funeral.
1. California: An Interpretive History (6th Edition) by James J. Rawls and Walter Bean. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993, pages 82-95