Where youth often acts as a liability, to Sam Brannan it was an asset. His early years were filled with accomplishments.
He was born March 2, 1819, in Sacto, Maine. At the age of 14, he moved with his sister to Ohio, where he learned the trade of a printer. After completing his apprenticeship, he traveled around the state for five years as a journeyman.
In 1837, Brannan moved to New Orleans and began printing a small magazine with his brother. It was well-received in the Bohemian Quarter, but it suffered a sudden end with a fever epidemic that took the life of his brother and many others throughout Louisiana, driving Brannan from New Orleans. He sold his type and placed his press in storage, moving to Indianapolis.
Soon Brannan found himself an editor again for a small paper, The Gazette, a weekly that also proved an ill-starred venture.
When he was 23, Joseph Smith of the Mormon Church authorized Brannan to begin the faith's publication The Prophet, later changed to The Messenger. Brannan was in charge of printing and helped procure ads. Joseph Smith's brother, William, wrote the editorials and booked subscriptions. Occasionally Joseph would contribute an article, and church elders sent poems and editorials.
Brannan was soon made an elder of the church and shortly after was chosen to conduct the Mormon exodus from Illinois to the West Coast, The Mormons arrived July 25, 1846, in San Francisco after a hazardous journey. Brannan immediately set up his printing press and founded San Francisco's first paper, The California Star. Its first regular issue appeared on Jan. 9, 1847.
The Brannan newspaper promised to “eschew with the greatest caution everything that tends to the propagation of a sectarian dogma,” and Sam kept his promise.
But he didn't stop there. Through his paper he proclaimed the need of a public school. The school was built, and the editor made the first contribution to it.
Brannan's activities were never confined to the newspaper world, for he performed the first Mormon wedding under the American flag in Yerba Buena. He started the first flour mill, organized the first committee of Vigilantes and became its first president.
Brannan was also elected a member of the first city council and helped organize the Society of California Pioneers and a volunteer fire company.
Toward the end of the same year that he had started his paper, Brannan moved to Sutter's Fort and opened a store.
As his fame grew, so did his wealth. He became San Francisco's first millionaire and gave away his money as easily as he made it. He had only one enemy, the lawless.
So generous was Brannan with his money that he gave thousands to widows and orphans to set up monthly endowments for them to last the rest of their lives, or at least the life of his fortune. He thought nothing of spending $1,000 per night to entertain his friends, which he counted in the thousands.
Though his genius and financial appetite knew no bounds, Brannan, like many another great man, met his downfall while trying to fulfill his one great desire — to build a dream resort at Calistoga. He poured fortune after fortune into the resort, his last venture, which never did pay off.
By October 1848, the first gold steamer weighed anchor out of New York and the big gold rush was on in the West. Brannan was its herald, prophet, spieler and pitchman. His fame spread until he became undoubtedly the best-known man in the mushrooming metropolis. When anyone wanted advice, they asked Sam.
At the age of 70, on May 7, 1889, Sam Brannan died, without a debt but without a cent.
A bronze plaque placed in the sidewalk at Broadway and Battery Streets, San Francisco, to mark the spot where the sailing ship Brooklyn dropped anchor in July 1846 with Sam Brannan and his historic party of pioneer. Mormons, was removed in 1957 to make way for foundation piers for an overhead crosstown freeway to points south.
Perhaps the plaque could be restored high on one of the supporting piers of the new freeway to reflect the vision of Sam Brannan and his contribution to California's newspaper history.
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*