Samuel Brannan was best known as a publisher, American settler, and land developer. He made a fortune but later lost it and died poor and obscure. For a time, he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Brannan’s Journey to Membership in the Church
Brannan was born on March 2, 1819, in Saco, Maine. At the age of fourteen, he moved with his sister Mary Ann and her husband to Painesville, Ohio, where he was apprenticed to the printer’s trade. During their journey to Ohio, they met Orson Hyde and Heber C. Kimball, who taught them about the gospel. Brannan’s brother in law Alexander bought a copy of the Book of Mormon from them. The three were later baptized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1833. Brannan was ordained an elder in 1838.
Brannan took the sum of money he inherited when his father died and bought himself out of the last year of his apprenticeship. He used some of the money to begin his real estate ventures by obtaining a piece of land near Cleveland, but his hopes were destroyed when the market crashed and his land became worthless. In a later trip to New Orleans to live with his brother Thomas, Brannan pooled his money with his brother to buy a printing press and type. But after his brother died from yellow fever, Brannan then moved back to Painesville. There he renewed his activity in the Church and was called to serve as a missionary in Ohio, although he served only a short time due to contracting malaria. He also married Harriet “Hattie” Hatch. His next calling in the Church was as a printer in Connecticut, where he worked with apostle William Smith, a brother to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Brannan’s Journey Away from the Church
While relocating to Connecticut, Brannan fell in love with Ann Eliza Corwin and although intending to divorce his wife and marry Ann, he never officially did. He did marry Ann and the two traveled to New York City and he began printing a Latter-day Saint newspaper called The Prophet, which was later renamed The New-York Messenger. Later that year, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were martyred and Brigham Young became president of the Church. Brannan began advocating that Joseph’s brother William should be the prophet, and William agreed; they were both disfellowshipped from the Church. Brannan asked for reinstatement a year later, and he was granted full fellowship in May 1845.
Brannan and the Ship Brooklyn
When the Saints began their exodus from Nauvoo, Brannan, as presiding elder, was tasked with the responsibility of helping members of the Church in the East join the Saints in the West. He chartered the ship Brooklyn with funds provided by the East Coast passengers who could not afford to travel overland. From the west coast, they would continue on land to meet the Saints, as soon as they knew where they had settled. The ship sailed from New York in February 4, 1846 (the same day the Nauvoo Saints crossed the Mississippi), with 238 Latter-day Saints.
Brannan also loaded the ship with a printing press and a flour mill. The ship’s course took them around Cape Horn, with a planned stop for supplies in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they arrived on June 20, 1846. In Hawaii, after a conversation with Commodore Stockton who told him about the United States’ planned assault on Mexicans in Monterey, Brannan planned to colonize Yerba Buena. When the ship landed there on July 31, 1846, Yerba Buena had already been taken by the United States during the war with Mexico. Brannan and his company began colonizing the San Francisco area. Brannan sent twenty members of the group to settle an area near the Sacramento River, calling it New Hope, but due to various disputes, the venture failed.
On January 9, 1847, Brannan used his press to begin printing San Francisco’s first newspaper, the California Star. Brannan joined with The Californian newspaper to form The Daily Alta California in 1848, which he later sold.
Brannan’s Second Journey Away from the Church
In June 1847, Brannan and others met with Brigham Young in Green River, Wyoming, while Young traveled with the first group of pioneers to the Great Basin region. Brannan urged President Young to bring the Saints to California instead, which Young rejected. Brannan returned to California and continued to act as leader of the Church for the area.
Brannan began to make a fortune when he opened a store at Sutter’s Fort. It is said that he fueled his income by shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold!” on the streets. He also built many large buildings in Sacramento and San Francisco and built more stores to sell goods to the miners. He also began buying land in San Francisco. He established trade with China, Hawaii, and the East Coast. He also bought land in Honolulu. His drive was for wealth. He had many financial squabbles, but became California’s first millionaire despite them. According to Wikipedia:
- Brannan continued to receive tithes of the church members, but no records have been found showing that those tithes were forwarded to the leaders of the church in Utah. Many members stopped paying him and began making their way eastward toward Salt Lake Valley known to the Mormons as Zion.
- In a few accounts of Brannan's dealings with the LDS church it is said that Brigham Young sent the apostle Amasa M. Lyman to collect the tithing money that Brannan had withheld from the church's institution. When Lyman arrived Brannan was unable to account for the tithes that Brigham Young and other Mormons claimed were given to him or that he owed from his own personal income. He reportedly told them, "You go back and tell Brigham Young that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord", although historians, such as Will Bagley have found this is likely just legend. In another account, Lyman was sent to gather $10,000 of owed tithing from Brannan (or more if he was willing). After a couple of visits all of Brannan's debts to the Mormon church were considered to be paid in full.
Brannan was elected to the first town council of San Francisco as part of the new U.S. territory. He helped organize and became the first president of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, a de facto police force with “a propensity for hanging.” After California had gained statehood in 1850, Brannan was elected as a California state senator. He bought California’s first steam locomotive and helped construct the first wharf in San Francisco.
Church leader Parley P. Pratt visited him on July 11, 1851, when he and his mission companions came to establish the Pacific Mission of the Church. On September 1, 1851, Brannan was excommunicated from the Church for “a general course of unchristianlike conduct, neglect of duty, and for combining with lawless assemblies to commit murder and other crimes.”
Brannan’s Loss of Wealth
Brannan bought land in the Napa Valley and founded the town of Calistoga and the Napa Valley Railroad. At one point, Brannan and others were shot at by residents who resented Brannan’s take-over of the area.
His wife, Ann, who lived primarily in Europe, divorced him in 1870 and Brannan was forced to liquidate his property holdings in order to pay the divorce settlement. He became a brewer and developed a drinking problem. He moved closer to the Mexican border where he married Carmelita de Llaguno and eventually received $49,000 from the Mexican government for helping them expel unwanted Frenchmen from their lands. With the money, he returned to San Francisco, paid his debts, quit drinking, but died a pauper, unable to pay for his own funeral. He died on May 5, 1889, in Escondido, California. After a year of lying unclaimed in the San Diego County receiving vault, his body was recognized by chance and he was given a burial.