Sam Brannan, California’s First Millionaire

“In case you don’t know who I am, I’m Samuel Brannan. I led the first group of Mormon 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.”[1]

Samuel Brannan was to Calistoga what Nathan Coombs was to Napa. He was born in Saco, Maine, in 1819, the youngest child to a mother who was the niece of Benjamin Lincoln, the first Secretary of War, and an Irish immigrant father. Brannan spent his teen years with his sister May Ann and her family in Lake County, Ohio, as a printer’s devil. He tried his hand at land speculation, but when that failed he became a journeyman printer and traveled around writing copy. He became affiliated with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and married Ann Eliza Corwin. He ran the Mormon newspaper The Prophet and got involved in politics.

Brannan led a large group of Mormons to Yerba Buena in 1846, and described the journey in harrowing detail:

We only got out 4 days, when we got caught in a frightening gale…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 worst storm he’d ever seen in all of his days of sailing and he’d done everything he could do…Many of the group told him they knew that God was sending us on this voyage and would surely take care of us…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 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 and 2 births. The male child born on the Atlantic side was called Atlantic and the female born on this side was called Pacific.[2]

Brannan published a newspaper in San Francisco for a few years, then established a general store near Sutter’s Fort. He is credited for popularizing the Gold Rush, and his claims made him wealthy as he sold goods to the influx of miners with C.C. Smith & Company, his co-owned general store at Sutter’s Fort. In the earliest days of the Gold Rush, his was the only store between Gold Country and San Francisco. This also got him into trouble with the Mormon Church. They accused him of diverting tithe money to his business, which he refuted by supposedly saying “I’ll give the Lord his money when I get a receipt signed by the Lord.”

In 1859 he bought a square mile of land in the far north of the Napa Valley containing hot springs. As the legend goes, during a particularly drunken evening, Brannan meant to say he would turn California into the famous Saratoga Springs, New York, but accidentally said he would make it the “Calistoga of Sarafornia,” and thus Calistoga gained its name. Brannan interested himself in a large variety of entrepreneurial endeavors. He showcased a silk worm farm, operated a brewery that was said to employ a member of the infamous Donner Party, and capitalized on the land’s natural resources. He didn’t stop there. Brannan was a key backer to the controversial railroad extension to Calistoga, and eventually the upper valley was connected by both road and rail. By the time Calistoga was incorporated in 1886, Brannan had long since relocated to San Diego County. California’s first millionaire was nearly broke after losing most of his personal fortune (tied up in real estate) to a bitter divorce. He died in 1889 debt free but without enough left to cover his funeral costs.


[1] Sam Brannan: Gold Rush Memories of a California Pioneer [Blog]. (2007, March 14). Retrieved from

[2] Ibid.