Friday, July 26, 1996, S.F.Gate
PAGE ONE -- S.F.'s Devilish Mormon Finally Gets His Due
History has not been kind to Sam Brannan, the hard-drinking Mormon who put San Francisco on the map.
Shunned by Mormon historians embarrassed by his less-than-saintly life and unappreciated by secular scholars who downplayed his role in San Francisco history.
San Francisco was just a tiny outpost named Yerba Buena when the Brooklyn sailed into the bay on July 31, 1846, with 230 Mormon immigrants Brannan had gathered together on the East Coast.
They were an industrious lot who immediately doubled the population of Yerba Buena, constructed 100 to 200 buildings and laid the foundation for the boomtown that would come two years later with the Gold Rush.
Brannan ran San Francisco, starting the city's first newspaper, cashing in on the Gold Rush and becoming California's first millionaire before he fell from Mormon grace and eventually slid into alcoholism, poverty and death.
``If Brannan and the Mormons hadn't built San Francisco into a trading center, the Gold Rush ships might have sailed right by. . . . They were in such a hurry to get to the gold, they wouldn't have made any unnecessary stops,'' said William Homer, a Mormon historian from San Jose and co-author with Richard Cowan of the recent book ``California Saints.''
California was still Mexican territory when the Brooklyn set sail from New York harbor on Feb. 4, 1846, carrying 238 Mormon pioneers. Ten would die -- and two would be born -- on the epic six- month journey around Cape Horn.
Some Mormon historians believe that Northern California -- not the basin of the Great Salt Lake -- was to be the new Mormon mecca, the place where ``the Saints'' could practice their controversial religion and polygamous lifestyle in peace.
Following the murder of their founder and fears of further persecution, these ``exiles from a wicked land'' renounced their allegiance to the United States and secretly planned to meet up with an overland party organized from Nauvoo, Ill., by Mormon prophet Brigham Young.
Under the leadership of Sam Brannan, the East Coast contingent reached San Francisco Bay a year before Young reached Utah, but three weeks after the Stars and Stripes was hoisted over the central square of Yerba Buena during the Mexican-American War.
Sailing through the Golden Gate, Brannan squinted through the summer fog at his new home, reportedly muttering, ``There's that damned flag again.''
Brannan was born on the southern coast of Maine on March 2, 1819, to a hard-drinking father and ``somewhat kinder'' mother. When he was 14, he moved to Ohio with his older sister and her husband.
There, Brannan fell under the sway of the 5-year-old Mormon sect and helped build the Kirkland Temple with other early followers of the charismatic sect leader, Joseph Smith.
After a failed marriage, land speculation losses and an unsuccessful attempt to start a newspaper in New Orleans, Brannan found himself back with the Mormons in New York City in 1844, serving as editor and publisher of the Prophet, a church newspaper.
In December of that year, Brannan was excommunicated by church leaders for ``false doctrine and immoral practices.'' According to church historians, Brannan taught the doctrine of ``spiritual wives,'' the idea that women could have sexual relations with any men they favored.
``Spiritual wives'' was an unauthorized twist on the 19th century Mormon practice of ``plural families,'' whereby men were allowed more than one wife.
Brannan traveled to church headquarters in Nauvoo to appeal his excommunication and soon found himself back in the good graces of the church.
On Sept. 15, 1845, he was back in New York and received a letter from Brigham Young: `` I wish you together with your press, paper and ten thousand of the brethren were now in California at the Bay of St. Francisco,'' Young wrote. ``We will meet you there.''
Brannan took the prophet's advice. Among the items unloaded from the Brooklyn was a five-ton press. In a matter of months, he began publishing the California Star, the first newspaper in San Francisco and the second in California.
But there was fierce infighting among the band of Mormons. Many fell away, while true believers were disappointed when Brannan failed to convince Young that San Francisco Bay was a better place of gathering than the Salt Lake Basin.
Brannan also refused to send Young a cut of his Gold Rush riches, reportedly telling emissaries from Salt Lake that he would ``turn over tithing money if they showed him a receipt from God.''
Meanwhile, Brannan was heading the infamous vigilante movement that rounded up and lynched alleged criminals in San Francisco during the wild days of the Gold Rush.
Church leaders excommunicated him in 1851, accusing him of ``un-Christian life conduct and neglect of duty.''
On November 15, 1851 Sam Brannan and party landed in the Kingdom of Hawaii and asked King Kamehameha III to give them land for a colony. Brannan was forced by the king to return to San Francisco.
Brannan remained in San Francisco, expanding his business into banking and land speculation, and founding the resort spa of Calistoga. His most visible monument in San Francisco is the long South of Market street that still bears his name.
But his biographers say a series of bad business moves, failed marriages and demon rum led to his demise. There were reports of him sleeping on a bench on a street he once owned in San Francisco and selling pencils on the streets of Nogales, Mexico, before he died in San Diego in May 1889.
Mormon Apostle David Haight, 89, a former mayor of Palo Alto, was born just 17 years after Brannan died and was one of the 15 men in the inner circle of Mormon power in Salt Lake City. He says there's a lesson in Brannan's life.
``Sam Brannan got too big for his britches,'' said Haight. ``And he died a penniless man.''