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1st millionaire dies broke

1st millionaire dies broke

It could be said that Sam Brannan truly believed that the Lord helps those who help themselves. After all, it was Brannan who -- when confronted with the fact that he was pocketing tithes earned through Mormon gold mining operations and meant for the church in Utah -- replied, "I'll give up the Lord's money when he (Brigham Young) sends me a receipt signed by the Lord." A bigamist, alcoholic, public relations genius and real estate swindler, Brannan was California's first millionaire.

He landed in San Francisco in 1846 with 200 other Mormons, seeking sanctuary from religious persecution. After opening a newspaper, Brannan moved to New Helvetia, where he opened a store at John Sutter's Fort. When gold was discovered, Brannan owned the only store between San Francisco and the gold fields -- a fact he capitalized on by buying up all the picks, shovels and pans he could find, and then running up and down the streets of San Francisco, shouting "Gold! Gold on the American River!" He paid 20 cents each for the pans, then sold them for $15 apiece. In nine weeks, he made $36,000.

In the summer of 1848, with Sutter away from the fort, Brannan convinced Sutter's son to lay out a new town on the banks of the Sacramento River. Later, he persuaded the Sutters to give him 200 lots in the new town, called Sacramento City, in order to keep his store there. By the mid-1850s, Brannan was rich, dabbling in banks, railroads and telegraphs as well as land.

But a fondness for the bottle led to some disastrous business decisions, and an expensive divorce bankrupted him. By the time of his death, in San Diego County in 1889, Brannan was reduced to sleeping in the back rooms of saloons. California's first millionaire was a forgotten failure.


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