Samuel Brannan was born in Maine in 1819. At age 14 he moved to Ohio with his family, where he completed an apprenticeship with a printer in 1836. He spent the next five years moving from state to state as a journeyman printer, and he converted to Mormonism in 1842. He later moved to New York City to help publish several Mormon newspapers. In 1846 He chartered a ship at his own expense and brought 236 emigrants to San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena. Their arrival immediately tripled the city's tiny population.
Within a year of his arrival, Brannan had built the first two flour mills in San Francisco and published the first newspaper. That same year he moved to John Sutter's settlement on the Sacramento and American Rivers and established a general merchandise store. The Mormon Church claimed that he had diverted tithe money to this commercial enterprise and expelled Brannan when he refused to return it. He is alleged to have told them "I'll give the Lord his money when I get a receipt signed by the Lord."
On May 12, 1848, Brannan set off gold fever in San Francisco when he waved a bottle of gold dust and shouted "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" He received the gold as payment for goods he sold in his store at New Helvetica at Sutters Fort. His general store was soon doing an average business of $150,000 a month. Within several years, Brannan's meteoric commercial success had made him California's first millionaire.
In 1849, Brannan returned to San Francisco, where he continued his business activity and was elected to the city council. In July of 1849, Samuel Brannan played a leading role in the formation of the Committee of Vigilance, which served as a citizen's police force. On July 16, 1849, he spoke from a roof on the plaza and demanded that the Hounds, a band of ex-soldiers who had been terrorizing the tent communitites, be arrested. Two hundred and thirty volunteer policemen were deputized by the newly formed Law and Order Party and put on patrol. Brannan, meanwhile, became the first president of the committee.
Throughout the 1850s his wealth and influence continued to grow; he became a major California landowner and helped to establish several banks and railroad and telegraph companies. He was also a founding member of the Firemans Fund and served on its original board of directors in 1963. Although considered the richest man in California for a time, Brannans alcoholism and his volatile temperament eventually cost him his health and his fortune. He died in rural San Diego County in 1889.
From: PBS: New Perspectives on the West
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