“Samuel Brannan,” Church History Topics
The same day Brigham Young led Latter-day Saints westward out of Nauvoo, Illinois, Samuel Brannan (1819–89) led a group of 238 Saints on an ocean voyage from New York around South America’s Cape Horn to Yerba Buena, California. For a time, Brannan served as the senior leader of the Church in California and gained national fame for promoting several ventures during the gold rush of 1848 and 1849. Early histories of California identified Brannan as one of the most prominent figures in the state.1
Brannan joined the Church as a young man in Kirtland, Ohio, and worked as a printer’s apprentice for three years, boarding at times with Joseph Smith’s family. He later served a mission in New York City, New York, where he helped publish a Church newspaper called the Prophet.2 In Nauvoo, Church leaders considered disfellowshipping Brannan for entering into an unauthorized plural marriage, but ultimately they decided to restore him to “good standing.”3
Brannan opened an emigrating office to help arrange the Saints’ journey to the American West and discussed alternative routes with Brigham Young. Brannan’s group of emigrant Saints took passage on the Brooklyn, a ship bound for Hawaii and the coast of California.4 Despite storms and sickness, most of the passengers made the 24,000-mile voyage safely and reached the San Francisco Bay eager to build Zion. Brannan tried to persuade Brigham Young to shepherd the rest of the Saints to California, where prosperity appeared inevitable. Young resolved to settle in the Salt Lake Valley but appointed Brannan president of Church branches in California.
Brannan seized opportunities to publicize the California Gold Rush. As prospectors flooded the California settlements in 1849, Brannan amassed great wealth by outfitting newcomers for mining and travel, becoming California’s first millionaire.5 Brigham Young strongly encouraged Latter-day Saints in Utah to continue fortifying their settlements and forgo the rush for riches, but Brannan pressed Young and other leaders to invest in California land.
In 1850 a report reached Salt Lake City that Brannan had embezzled funds related to the voyage of the Brooklyn. Brannan settled the accounts to Apostle Amasa Lyman’s satisfaction, but Lyman was appointed to lead the Church in California from then on.6 The following year, Elder Parley P. Pratt arrived in San Francisco to supervise the Pacific Mission and convened a council that excommunicated Brannan for “unchristianlike conduct, neglect of duty,” and for participating in a vigilante group that had lynched four suspected criminals.7
Brannan continued to pursue his enterprises and, at the height of his influence, was at times “the richest man in California.”8 But bad investments and a divorce settlement in 1870 that awarded his wife with half of his estate left him poor and alone. He managed to pay off his debts and pursued further ventures in California and northern Mexico with little success. He died near San Diego, California, at the age of 70.9
Related Topics: California Gold Rush