GOLD RUSH MEMORIES OF A CALIFORNIA PIONEER: SAM BRANNAN
This is a monologue based on an interview published in the Sacramento Bee, January 21, 1888, which had been printed previously in the San Diego Union.
A spotlight comes up on Sam Brannan sitting in a chair with a St. James Hotel sign above him. F Street sign also present.
SAM SPEAKS: “ In case you don’t know who I am, I’m Samuel Brannan. I led the first group of Mormon (first group came in 1841 with Bidwell) colonists to California in July 1846, right after it came under the control of the U.S. government. A lot of things have been said about me over the years in elementary school class rooms and various newspapers. Most of it has gotten pretty distorted and I’d like to set the record straight on some of it. No reporter has ever come to me and asked for something about my life for publication. As I look back on it at this point in my life, I wonder how differently things might have been for me now.”
I was born sixty six years ago in Saco, Maine - the last child of an Irish immigrant father and a mother who was the niece of George Washington’s Secretary of War. I was closest to my sister May Ann and really missed her when she married and moved to Boston. When they moved to Ohio in 1833, I left home to be with them, learned the printer’s trade, and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who everyone knows as the Mormons.
SAM STOPS AND PONDERS THE STATEMENT
Well, anyway I caught malaria while helping my brother, Tom, on his mission in Ohio. I came back where I was shortly asked to serve a mission of my own in New England and New York. I advanced in the Mormon leadership, got married to Ann Eliza Corwin, and worked on the presidential campaigns of Joseph Smith in 1844, until he was killed at Carthage, Illinois. I had the main Mormon newspaper in the East at that time, which was called The Prophet. On July 20th, we had a special black bordered column paper announcing the stunning news of the martyrdom of Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith by a painted mob while in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. It was a tragic event, but my faith was unshaken. I gave sermons throughout New England and New York. I enjoyed preaching then, and many of my sermons lasted for 2 hours. I also took the opportunity polish my statesmanship by speaking on American Democratic principles.
I later decided to change the name of my newspaper to the Messenger, and I wrote about secular subjects – like western emigration. I set up an emigrating office in the City of New York, with a new travel agency, and advertised it in the paper. I took up the theme “Hurrah for California” and told all about the work of Capt. Lansford W. Hastings. (You’ll remember him as the one who promoted the infamous Hasting’s Cutoff that led to the tragic demise of the Donner Party.)
If I remember rightly, it was about the second week of November in 1845 that I was asked to organize a sea-borne migration to California. Orson Pratt, an apostle of the Church, told us that the members of the Church were going to move from the United States to the area west, to avoid further persecution. When only 26 years of age, I was appointed to assemble a group to leave by sea, which was to leave as soon as possible. The fare was $50 and $25 extra for food.
He stops again to ponder – then continues.
We had a hard time finding a ship to hire for this voyage, because there were rumors of a possible war with Mexico and most of the ships were hoping to get lucrative contracts hauling war materials for the government. We finally found a Capt. Richardson, who had the Ship Brooklyn. He agreed to transport us if he could also haul supplies to the Sandwich Island to help finance the trip. You know this place now as Hawaii. We tried for months to leave, but we kept running into all kinds of delays. I do remember we finally left on a Wednesday afternoon, February 4th. I found out months later, that this was the exact same day Brigham Young sent the 1st wagons across the frozen Mississippi River when leaving Nauvoo.
The Brooklyn was an unlikely ship for this task. She was fully rigged, but was only 125 feet long and about 28 feet across the beams, and weighed only about 450 tons. We loaded it with all kinds of tools for 800 men. I mean an assortment of farming tools, blacksmith and carpenters tools, school books, my printing press, along with other necessities of life for a 6-7 month voyage and life in a new land. We also brought two milk cows, 40-50 pigs, and all manner of fowl. We were bent on setting up a new colony and we certainly came prepared to do it. It was a gigantic undertaking. In addition to all of our stuff, there was 500 barrels of paying freight being delivered to the Sandwich Islands
That trip was a very trying experience! They always talk about the trip the Pilgrims made in 1620. That voyage had 120 puritans on board and they traveled about 3,000 miles in 63 days. Our’s turned out to be the longest religious voyage in history with our 238 members traveling 24,000 miles around Cape Horn in South America for 4 days short of 6 months. We had to sleep on small bunk beds and the space was so limited that taller people had to stoop over to walk between decks. We also had long tables with benches for meals, activities and church services. I made up a list of rules and regulations for the emigrants on board the ship, which set times to get up, when to eat, church service times, and standards for conduct and cleanliness. Capt. Richardson seemed impressed with us and kept his crew from swearing around us, out of respect for our beliefs.
We only got out 4 days, when we got caught in a frightening gale. All of the passengers were locked in the hold and were “tossed around like feathers in a sack.” We were all huddled together singing hymns, when the Captain even came down below to tell us to prepare to die, as this was the worse storm he’d ever seen in all of his days of sailing and he’d done everything he could do. He said our time had come unless God interposes. Many of the group told him they knew that God was sending us on this voyage and would surely take care of us. The Captain shook his head in disbelief and as he went back up on deck, he said, “They are either fools and fear nothing, or they know more than I do!” This went on for days. Most were violently seasick. We couldn’t do any cooking, so anyone who could think of eating had to eat sea biscuits and water. We even had to tie women and children in their berths at night, as there was no other way to keep them in. After five days, we sailed out of the storm. It was great to get up on deck and breathe fresh air. Both milk cows had been killed by the pitching and rolling of the ship during the storm, and the over 100 children stared in amazement as the cows were hoisted by block and tackle, swung over the side of the ship, and dropped into the sea. A short time later near the equator we came into the doldrums. This was the only thing feared more than storms, as it was a space of dead calm. For 3 days we sat totally motionless on the sea in the horrible oppressive heat, like it came out of a furnace.
We left New York in winter, but now we were in the summer season of South America. The weather was hot and humid. During the whole trip, the only time the thermometer got below 50 degrees, was once when we passed by an iceberg, it fell to 36 degrees up on the deck. Our drinking water grew thick and covered with slime and we were only allowed 1 pint per person per day. Rats were all over the ship and cockroaches and vermin infested all of our provisions. We were all looking forward to landing at Valparaiso Island off the coast of Chile, but just as we got near a big gale blew us past it. The whole ship was sad and depressed at this event. Three days later, on May 5th, the Captain was able to make port at the island of Juan Fernandez – 360 miles off the coast of Chile. The island (famous as Robinson Crusoes’s Island) only had two families and a few natives, but we were able to rest for 5 days and replace our supplies. There were lots of fruits, vegetables, animals and fresh water. We loaded about 18,000 gallons of it into casks and carried it onto the ship.
We arrived at the Sandwich Islands on June 22nd. These were the only two stops in the whole 6 month trip to Yerba Buena. We did have ten deaths (4 adults and 6 children) and 2 births. The male child born on the Atlantic side was called Atlantic and the female born on this side was called Pacific.
We had to lay off the coast for several hours on the morning of July 31, 1846, outside of San Francisco Bay for the fog to clear. We had been told at the last stop, that the United States was at war with Mexico and we’d been told to buy some guns in case we had to fight our way on shore at the village of Yerba Buena when we arrived. You can imagine how shocked we were when we sailed into the harbor and saw the good old “Stars and Strips” flying. The USS Portsmouth had arrived 3 weeks earlier and seized it for the U.S. They actually called the alarm for battle, but stood down when lookouts told them about all the women and children on board. The village of Yerba Buena had a little over 100 people and with our 238 members, it quickly became a “Mormon Town.” We built a school and had the first English speaking school in California. The members of the ship had deposited their money with me and I set up the first bank in the area. We also set up the first post office.
In the fall, I sent Brother Stout to head up the colony of New Hope, near the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers. We planted 150 acres of wheat there. I printed my first issue of the newspaper, the California Star, January 9, 1847. Times were really busy then as we waited to hear what the rest of the Church was going to do.
As soon as the snows melted and I could get over the Sierras, I took a small group and headed east to find Brigham Young and tell him what a beautiful area we had settled in. I finally found him on the Green River in what is now Wyoming on June 30, 1847. I was excitedly telling Brigham about our area and he said if it was all that wonderful, that it wouldn’t be long before the whole world would come in and drive the saints out like they had done in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. I followed along with his wagon train until he came into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake and proclaimed, “This was the Place!” I couldn’t believe he’d settle our people in such a desolate area! After this meeting, I began to fall out with the Church leadership. I thought I was right and he was totally wrong. I left them in Salt Lake and headed back for California. Brigham sent a Capt. James Brown of the Mormon Battalion to go to Monterey, California and collect back pay for Battalion members who’d spent the winter in Pueblo (now Colorado). Capt. Brown had a letter for the other discharged members of the Battalion, telling them that unless they had food enough for the winter, to stay in California and come in the spring with any food, livestock, and seeds they could bring with them. There were over 100 skilled workmen who stayed over and agreed to work for Sutter. Six of these men went with foreman, James Marshall, to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley east of here. It was here, of course, that they made the big discovery of gold on Monday, January 24, 1848, while digging out the millrace. When I got back to San Francisco, the Saints had built over 100 buildings.
I traveled up the Sacramento to meet with Capt. John A. Sutter who ran quite a business establishment at his fort, on the American River. C.C. Smith and I went into partnership on a little store at Sutter’s Fort. The store was a general frontier emporium. We had a general assortment of hardware, clothing and outfits for anyone wishing to cross the mountains with pack animals. We opened it on Columbus Day 1847. I even hired Capt. Sutter as sales agent for my newspapers the California Star.
People have asked me for years; how did I find out? Some say I first heard about the gold discovery from my business partner, C.C. Smith, who received gold dust for a bottle of brandy from Jacob Wittmer, one of Sutter’s teamsters, who bought it at my Sutters Fort Store. ACTUALLY on Feb 8th it was at the store of Edward Von Pfister in Benecia. He sailed on the Brooklyn with me from Honolulu to San Francisco. On that day, the supervisor of the sawmill, Charlie Bennett, a veteran of the 1st Dragoons, was sent to San Francisco to get title to the gold country for Sutter and Marshall. Charlie showed all of us several ounces of gold dust. I reported in my paper on March 18th that gold had been found in “considerable” quantities in the raceway of Sutter’s sawmill. The “Other” paper, The Californian reported it three days earlier. Again on March 25th, I wrote, “So great a quantity of gold taken from the mine recently found at New Helvetia, that is become an article of traffic in that vicinity.”
You know most people here still thought of the gold strike as mere speculation and rumor? It took quite a while for real mania to begin. There had been stories about gold being found at Placeritas Canyon in Southern California back in 1842, and took out more than $50,000 over the next 2 years. Most people just weren’t impressed by the discovery that much at first.
It was in March of 1848 that the Willes brothers of the Mormon Battalion met with me and told me about their success down stream on the American, at a site which was the first major gold strike after Coloma. It became known as Mormon Island, and was one of the richest finds of the whole gold rush that followed. I put a notice in my paper on April 22nd telling all about that new more extensive and valuable mine, which was downstream from Coloma. I told Henry Bigler, also one of the Battalion workman at Sutter’s Mill, that I could secure the mine as church property. I advised the Battalion boys to go to work in the mine and not to forget to pay one-tenth of their earnings to me, as the Presiding Authority of the Church in California. I felt they should also give me enough money to get title for the claim for the mine and for a future temple.
I gave my last sermon to a Mormon congregation in San Francisco on the last day of April 1848. I was too busy in April to visit the mines, but I did leave on April 30th, arriving here on May 4th on what we called the Embarcadero. I spent the next 2 days visiting the Gold Mines at Mormon Island near what you now call Folsom. What I saw convinced me that there was more gold than all the people in California could take out in 50 years! That’s when I decided to build a warehouse and another store right across the street from here.
It was that day, on May 8th, that I packed a sample of the metal into a small quinine bottle and I sailed down the Sacramento River - arriving in Yerba Buena on May 10th. I then stepped out from the ferry onto the beach and held the bottle of dust in one hand swinging my hat with the other shouting “Gold, Gold, Gold from the American River!” It caused quite a stir. Some of the mechanics never even took their aprons off when they left for the mines. I had some extra room in the California Star issue I was printing, so I printed the news of the discovery and hired some former members of the Battalion, and others, to take 2000 copies East to St. Louis on horseback. I understand it was the source for the August 1848 New York Herald article that first infected the eastern United States with Gold Fever (Thomas Larkin wrote that article for the Herald.). The rest is history. It was a wonderful, but busy, busy time. The world rushed in and California achieved early statehood and never even had a chance to become a territory.
I displayed the gold at my house in San Francisco, on Dupont Street (now Grant). I called a meeting of the Saints there and informed everyone about the gold mine at Mormon Island. I encouraged everyone to leave and work in it. As it turns out, that was my last meeting with the Saints. I left with lots of goods I purchased and came back here on May 16th ready to profit from the little excitement I stirred up there. By the next week on Monday, there were fleets of small boats leaving the Bay towards Sutter’s Fort and Mill. By the middle of June the abandonment of San Francisco was complete. Three fourths of the male population had left for the mines! Reflectively - Maybe this is when I allowed gold fever to get the best of me, too?
I spent all my time up at my stores. I built one in Coloma, with William Stout, and in July I bought out C.C. Smith from my store at Sutter’s Fort. We were doing very well then, very well indeed. My stores were the largest and held the best assortment of goods in the country. I averaged about $4,000 a day during those times. One half to four-fifths of the amount sold was clear profit. My shipments to San Francisco were about $25,000 weekly. We shipped goods on a schooner up and down the Sacramento River to the Bay. It took 2 days down the river, and 6 days to come back up.
I soon became one of California’s first millionaires. I partnered with Sutter’s son, John Sutter, Jr., and bought and sold Sacramento City Real Estate, establishing this city in 1848. We built and rebuilt much of what you now call San Francisco. I had wine grape vines imported from Europe and planted them in Napa Valley. I built a railroad from San Francisco to Calistoga for my health resort. I’ve never understood why that resort venture never worked out, but I just couldn’t get enough people to go there. Of course, now Napa Valley is famous for the wines made from those grapes planted way back then. As I look around here, I’ve got to say that Sacramento City has done very well too. It’s just growing and growing. You know in 1853, I was even elected State Senator from San Francisco. I never served. I resigned before even being sworn into office.
I got so caught up in my business ventures that I spent less and less time with my wife and family. I began drinking quite heavily and womanizing. I even took things into my own hands and helped organize the Vigilante Committee in San Francisco (originally organized by William Coleman). Without that Committee of reputable businessmen, San Francisco would not have survived. Well…. That’s another story!
In 1865, I gave $30,000 in gold to Mexico to prepare $10 million in bonds for sale. It was to support President Benito Juarez in his war with Maximilian of France. I even put in a sizable amount of money to build the trans-continental railroad. All of this took most of my cash flow. My fortune was tied up in mortgages, loans, the rest in real estate and businesses.
Brigham Young had sent Apostle Parley P. Pratt to San Francisco to collect the tithing and other monies I had been collecting from everyone out here and I refused to give it to him. You know they would have been wealthy, if they’d have come here to the coastal valleys of California. Brigham Young never did understand the value of California! Although I’d been a leader in the Church and brought all those members to this area, they excommunicated me back in the 1840s. They called it “un-Christian-like conduct,” for improper use of Church funds and participating in the Vigilante Committee in San Francisco.
My biggest tragedy was losing Lisa and the family. She loved Europe. I loved California. It was a wonderful time in the 1850s and 1860s. Our family home was probably the social center for over a decade in San Francisco.
Pause for reflection
I don’t really know what happened and when. Our lives were wonderful at first, even though she would never move to Sacramento City. Too hot, she said. Never bothered me, the heat. It was while she was gone that I was friends with local ladies. Even Lola Montez was my friend. Oh well, can’t do anything about it now. I was in total state of shock when she sent a lawyer fellow over with a letter with a divorce decree and a demand for $500,000 in cash. She didn’t even tell me to my face. She was a good woman, and I did love her. She took the money and the kids and moved permanently to Europe. Once I liquidated my holdings to get all that cash, I never ever really recovered. Before I knew what was happening, I had almost had lost everything. The way things are going, I hope I have enough money left for a proper burial when the time comes.
As I reflect back on my life, it is amazing that I could have gone from the top of the world to the bottom in such a short time. It seems like when I was active in my Church and followed righteous principles that I believe in, I was very happy and successful. When I turned my back on all of that and lost sight of how important my family was to me, all of my success turned to failure. I hope you young people remember that, because I think the message has a ring of “Eternal Truth”!