Sam Brannan and the Gold Rush: Biography & History

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  • 0:00 Origins of a Journalist
  • 1:05 The Gold Rush Hits California
  • 2:25 Brannan as an Entrepreneur
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hill
Sam Brannan was a Mormon businessman, journalist, and entrepreneur who made a fortune during the California Gold Rush. He is touted as California's first millionaire. Learn about the man and then test your knowledge with a quiz!

Origins of a Journalist

If you could go back in time a join the flood of people in the California Gold Rush to strike it rich, what would go after: the gold or the business of thousands of fortune hunters going for the gold? If you answered 'the business,' your thinking is in line with a man named Sam Brannan.

Sam Brannan was born in Maine in 1819 and his family moved to Ohio when he was a teenager. He showed an interest in journalism, and he studied as an apprentice in a print shop. Similar to circuit rider pastors and lawyers in his age, Brannan traveled from town to town covering new stories.

Brannan was a devout Mormon and relocated to New York to write for Mormon presses. In 1846, he sailed from New York City on the ship Brooklyn with 238 passengers for California to establish a Mormon territory. He had discussed with Brigham Young, the successor to Joseph Smith, of uniting their groups together, but Young opted to settle his own colony in Utah. This would have important consequences later on as we'll see later.

The Gold Rush Hits California

Once in California, Brannan continued as a journalist and founded the California Star, which was San Francisco's first newspaper. His fortune suddenly turned when the Gold Rush hit, and men like Brannan took advantage of it. Brannan wanted to see this Gold Rush for himself, and see it he did, while managing to collect some gold specks which he took back to San Francisco, where he publicized the news under the heading: 'Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.' He's generally credited with becoming gold's first and biggest advertiser.

Brannan wanted a share, though, and he relocated to Sacramento to open a general store near the infamous Sutter's Mill, where the gold had been first struck. The city was buzzing with activity as thousands of fortune-seekers and miners moved in to pan for gold.

Over the next few years, over 100,000 people poured onto California shores by wagon train and boat! Brannan, always looking for ways to make some money, saw that the best means to profit from the Gold Rush was to become the chief supplier of mining equipment. He bought up every scrap of mining supplies that he could find, from shovels and pans to pickaxes, and sold them from his store.

Here's the important thing to remember, though: Brannan didn't become wealthy from finding gold himself, but rather as an equipment supplier. Though the gold was real, most miners didn't find large quantities, and it was entrepreneurs like Brannan who made the real fortune.

Brannan as an Entrepreneur

Brannan eventually returned to San Francisco where he expanded both his business and civic reach. He invested widely in general stores, banks, railroads, telegraphs, and land. In 1850, he helped organize the Society of California Pioneers to promote the study of California history. He was elected to the city council, and in 1853, he was elected to the California State Senate. He also founded the city of Calistoga in the Napa Valley region, with the goal of turning its hot springs reserves into a bustling spa resort. To funnel more tourism in, he founded the Napa Valley Railroad Company to make transportation easier between San Francisco and Calistoga. Clearly, Brannan seemed to have found his niche.

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