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Latter-day Scoundrel Sam Brannan

By Will Bagley 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: August 14, 2008 
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Sam Brannan, from Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific Coast (1870), edited by Oscar T. Shuck.
Sam Brannan, from Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific Coast (1870), edited by Oscar T. Shuck.
From his base in Gold Rush–era San Francisco, the onetime Mormon elder and newspaperman defied Brigham Young and flaunted his reputation for wickedness.

Brannan was not disposed to do Brigham Young any good at all.

Early California was filled with colorful characters, few more encrusted with legend than Sam Brannan (1819–1889), the Mormon elder and newspaper publisher who brought a shipload of Mormons to the Mexican province in July 1846 and became the Golden State's first millionaire. When Brannan sailed into San Francisco Bay aboard the chartered Mormon emigrant ship Brooklyn, his flock was "all armed to the teeth," and he had hopes of establishing an independent outpost of the Mormon Kingdom of God. (Brannan had even stowed several artillery pieces and the kingdom's white banner in the ship's hold.) His plans collapsed when he spotted the American flag USS Portsmouth had raised three weeks earlier over the village of Yerba Buena when seizing the bay for the United States. Realizing the Navy had forestalled his ambitions, Brannan yelled, "By God, there is that damned American flag!"

The most famous of all Brannan tales tells how he used his office as president of the Latter-day Saints in California to collect "the Lord's tithes" from Mormon miners, some of whom had been present when James Wilson Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848. Legend has it when Brigham Young sent an apostle to collect "the Lord's money," Brannan told him, "You go back and tell Brigham that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord, and no sooner!" According to some versions, the apostle brought along Mormon avenger Porter Rockwell to assure Brannan's cooperation.

Unfortunately, like many great tales, it didn't happen. But the story of what really transpired is even better than the legend.

The "receipt signed by the Lord" story assumes that Brannan collected tithes from Mormon miners. No less an authority than William Tecumseh Sherman recalled that when he visited Mormon Island—the first big strike of the gold rush—in July 1848, he found Brannan "was on hand as the high-priest, collecting the tithes." One Mormon asked military governor Colonel Richard B. Mason, "Governor, what business has Sam Brannan to collect the tithes here?" Mason answered, "Brannan has a perfect right to collect the tax, if you Mormons are fools enough to pay it."

The primary sources tell a different story. The money Brannan collected in the goldfields was actually a 30 percent finder's fee assessed by his partners; Brannan's 10 percent cut was a fee for him to secure title to the land. (Mason decided it was beyond Brannan's authority to grant land titles, so his services were pointless.) According to Mormon miner Azariah Smith, Brannan called a meeting "to see who was willing to pay toll and who was not" and that Brannan determined that "most of them agreed to pay the toll, and some would not." John Borrowman confirmed that "Brannan & Co. requires 30 per cent" of the gold he had found, but at the end of May he quit "paying rent, as I consider it an imposition." Neither Smith nor Borrowman identified the toll, or rent, as tithing

So, if Brannan was not collecting tithes from the Saints in California in 1848, who was? It appears no one. After the first miners reached Salt Lake in the fall of 1848, they deposited gold worth more than $6,500 in the Brigham Young gold accounts. Not all this money was tithing, but Azariah Smith deposited $84.63 and recalled that he went "to Pres. Brigham Young, and paid my tithing." (Smith also gave a dollar each to the 12 apostles.) Clearly these men paid tithes on their golden windfall directly to Brigham Young, not to Sam Brannan.

The Mormon prophet, however, wanted more of California's gold. He worked hard to discourage loyal Saints from deserting Zion (present-day Utah) for El Dorado, but in late March 1849, according to a journal of the time, "It was decided to send Elder Lyman and Orrin P. Rockwell to California with an epistle to the faithful Saints, and also to preach the Gospel and look after the interests of the Church and the Saints." Apostle Amasa Lyman left Salt Lake in mid-April with at least 20 men and several families; one of his main assignments was to collect funds for the LDS Church.

Amasa Mason Lyman was one of early Mormonism's most dynamic leaders. Converted in 1832, he had been arrested with Joseph Smith for treason in Missouri in 1838 and had suffered through all the religion's ordeals until it found a refuge in the Great Basin. In 1851 Lyman established the Mormon settlement of San Bernardino, which quickly became the second largest city in California. A renowned orator, Lyman also had a powerful independent streak that led him to conclude that Christ was "simply, a holy man" and to denounce the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre—positions that led Brigham Young to excommunicate him in 1870.

Lyman carried a very odd letter from Young to Brannan. The prophet assured the now-disaffected tycoon there were no legal complaints against him, as Brannan had suggested. "The man who is always doing right has no occasion to fear any complaints that can be made against him," Young wrote, adding ominously, "and I hope you have no occasion to fear." Since Brannan had been "blessed abundantly," Young said he expected to receive "$10,000, at least, of your tithing, on return of Elder Lyman"—if he sent $100,000, so much the better. "If you want to continue to prosper, do not forget the Lord's treasury, lest he forget you."

Once Brannan had "settled with the treasury," he should remember that Brother Brigham had "long been destitute of a home, and suffered heavy loses and incurred great expenses in searching out a location and in planting the Church in this place." Young asked Brannan to send him $20,000, "(a present) in gold dust to help him in his labors. This is but a trifle where gold is so plentiful, but it will do me much good at this time." Young then asked him to throw in another $20,000 to divide with his two counselors, Brothers Heber Kimball and Willard Richards.

Some historians have tried to pass this off as a joke, but the next line, "a hint to the wise is sufficient," became one of Young's hallmark phrases: It meant, basically, "Don't make me spell it out." To make things crystal clear, Brother Brigham wrote, "Should you withhold when the Lord says give, your hope and pleasing prospects will be blasted in an hour you think not of, and no arm to save [you]. But I am persuaded [of] better things of Brother Brannan."

Lyman wasted little time in delivering Young's letter. He wrote back to Salt Lake in early July 1849, noting that most of the Mormons still in the goldfields had made money but were "profligate in spending it. In this way, thousands of dollars of the fruits of their labor has been wasted." The only trace of their golden windfall was "their confirmed habits of profligacy and dissipation."

Lyman described his visit with Brannan. "I think that Samuel will do something for the Church if he is let alone," the apostle reported guardedly. He intended to give the new millionaire "an opportunity to do all the good he may have the means or disposition to do."

Brannan was not disposed to do Brigham Young any good at all. Unbeknown to the Mormon prophet, the California mogul had already washed his hands of Mormonism weeks before Young wrote his letter. In mid-March 1849, Brannan wrote his sister in Boston, reporting that he had cleared more than $100,000 during the previous year—and he hoped to keep the cash "from the authorities of the Church. They have forsaken me." Brannan felt that Young had ignored his requests for information and, in fact, was unclear why they sent him to California in the first place, "Unless it Was to Get me out of the Way, Suposing [sic] it Being a Spanish Country i Would Be Kil[l]ed." He was sent in 1846 with only "a parcel of Women and Children and a few Men settlers." He suspected, however, that Young and his henchmen would not ignore him for long: "When the Lord finds out I have Got a Little Money, He will Begin to feel after me." And Brannan made it clear that his use of "the Lord" was not in reference to God Almighty.

Lyman returned to "feel after" Brannan and his wealth in early January 1850. The messenger's journal did not describe the conversation, but it contained no hint of conflict. He returned in June accompanied by fellow apostle Charles C. Rich, and relations between the men were again cordial—and financially advantageous for Lyman. Rich wrote on June 28: "We paid Mr. Samuel Brannan a visit and learned from him that he stood alone and knew no one, only himself and his family. He agreed to turn over some books." Lyman's journal even noted that Brannan "made me a present of some $500." Brannan's "present" appears to have been a successful attempt to buy the support of his old friend, who apparently never informed Young of Brannan's generosity.

When Lyman did get around to reporting his visit to Salt Lake, he wrote that he had resolved the church's claims against Brannan, which centered on debts and assets related to the Brooklyn voyage. "[Brannan] now disclaims any connection or interest with the Church," Lyman wrote. He added that Brannan regarded "communications from the Brethren…rather as insults than otherwise." Brannan was a lost cause, and "making drafts on him has amounted to a waste of paper and time." Young apparently wanted Lyman to confiscate the press of The California Star, the newspaper Brannan had launched soon after landing in California, but Brannan had already sold the machine and claimed he had paid for it himself "with the exception of some $300, which he expected to pay on his return to New York."

Lyman's last conversation with Brannan also dealt with debts. "He stated that he had borrowed or raised money, for which he had given his receipts which money was to be credited to the individuals furnishing it as tithing," the apostle wrote. The money—some $1,700, borrowed from John Neff and John Van Cott—was spent on the Brooklyn venture, an official church operation. "Brannan says he is ready to pay on the presentation of his receipts, which are in the hands of Brothers Neff and Van Cott of the Valley and Brother Barus of Boston, by forwarding the receipts as early as possible."

Brannan kept his word to Lyman and reimbursed the Saints. Lyman wrote from San Bernardino in 1853 that he had received $500 "we collected of Samuel Brannan on the receipt held by John Van Cott." This apparently paid off the last of Brannan's Mormon debts.

By the time Brannan settled his accounts, Apostle Parley P. Pratt, his old partner in the newspaper business, had "disfellowshipped" him from the LDS Church. Pratt gave Brannan the boot in September 1851 for "a general course of unchristianlike conduct, neglect of duty, and combining with lawless assemblies to commit murder and other crimes," a reference to Brannan's leadership of San Francisco's first band of vigilantes. Interestingly, Pratt said nothing about robbing the Saints—or the Lord—even though he later denounced his former colleague as "a corrupt and wicked man."

No one can know exactly what transpired during Lyman's meetings with Brannan. If the apostle brought along Porter Rockwell, there's no evidence to show it. But the discussion of receipts looks like the genesis of the "receipt signed by the Lord" legend and suggests Brannan himself made up the story partly based on his recollection of discussions with Lyman. It's easy to imagine an older Brannan in his cups, regaling his audience with the story of how he defied Brigham Young, a tale that grew more colorful over time. At Brannan's death, George E. Barnes told how Brannan was "custodian of all the gold" gathered at Mormon Bar, "which, as the story goes, they saw for the last time when it passed into his hands." When the authorities at Salt Lake demanded the gold, they "were refused by Brannan with a coarse joke, too common to be repeated here." Barnes' delicacy suggests that the popular story about a receipt signed by the Lord may be a sanitized version of a more explicit original.

The wide currency of the story suggests it was a standard part of Brannan's repertoire, designed to distance himself from his Mormon past and spread the legend of his bold defiance. There is little doubt he was convinced this defiance had put his life in danger. John Morris recalled that Brannan always traveled with a heavily armed escort when he visited his estate at Calistoga.

California pioneer Asbury Harpending concluded that Brannan's fearlessness stood him in good stead. According to Harpending: "Brigham could not permit such a flagrant breach of church discipline to remain unpunished. Flock after flock of 'destroying angels' took flight from Salt Lake City, duly commissioned to bring back Samuel's scalp or perish in the attempt. But their holy work was always a dismal failure." Brannan always managed to waylay "the 'destroyers' halfway out in the trackless desert, or mountain fastnesses, with a competent group of exterminators." Some of the angels, Harpending said, returned to Salt Lake "minus tail feathers and otherwise damaged," but most never returned at all. He credited Brannan with conducting "a private and successful war" against the Mormons, but details of that victory are hard to come by.

Sam Brannan enjoyed the notoriety such stories brought him and remained an implacable foe of Brig-ham Young's brand of Mormonism until the day the prophet died, on August 29, 1877. But Brannan never lost his affection for his old friends still in the church.

In the 1880s, when the now-broke mogul dreamed of starting another empire, he offered John Taylor, Brigham Young's successor, half his 200,000-acre Mexican land grant if Taylor would settle it with industrious Mormons and send Brannan $1,000.


Western historian Will Bagley's edition of Sam Brannan's collected works,
Scoundrel's Tale: The Samuel Brannan Papers, was published by Utah State University Press in 1999.


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