Sam Brannon was, for a time, a Mormon best known for causing a great deal of trouble within the Mormon community. He joined the church at age fourteen when his sister, with whom he lived joined the church and moved to Kirtland, Ohio where the Mormons were gathered. He learned the printing trade in the Church’s printing company, but soon left the community and wandered the country as a sort of freelance printer. In 1843, he served a mission and the next year was the editor of a Mormon paper called, “The Prophet.”
In 1845, he began preaching odd doctrine of his own invention. Since this doctrine promoted extreme immorality for women, he was excommunicated. However, he pleaded for reinstatement, which was given.
In 1846, Brannon organized a group of Mormons in the east for a five-month journey by ship. The Mormons were preparing to go west, most by foot to Utah. Brannon’s group would head for California. There were 238 Mormons on the ship.
According to Will Bagley, Brannon and a small group of other men in New York had organized the journey with a larger plan than to simply get to the west to organize a way station for immigrants. They wanted to establish an independent country and originally sought 20,000 people to join them in this plan. It would include California and the Oregon Territory. They created this plan independently of the Church.
They decided to contact Brigham Young, still in Illinois with the Mormons who were preparing to head west. Brannon began trying to convince Young that California would be better than Utah for the Mormons and Young considered the possibility. Then Brannon submitted a contract to President Young which stated that the Church would give half of all the land they purchased in California to him. Young quickly realized Brannon was not at all interested in the well-being of the Church, but was strictly interested in his own wealth and well-being. The plan was rejected and the Mormons headed toward the Rocky Mountains. Brannon set sail with 230 Mormons, rather than the 20,000 he had hoped for, on the ship Brooklyn. Ten died during the journey. His plan to start a new country failed for lack of interest by others.
Brannon started a newspaper on his arrival and then a general store. When the gold rush began, he was able to amass a great deal of wealth from it. Six Mormons were on hand when gold was first discovered. They were part of the Mormon Battalion, a group of soldiers put together by the United States government to help with the Mexican American War. They had been en route to Utah with the Mormon pioneers when the church was asked to provide men for the battle. Although some protested—after all the journey was only necessary because the government had chosen not to protect their right to religious freedom—Brigham Young asked them to cooperate. He saw an opportunity to provide much-needed funds for the pioneers, most of whom had lost everything in the need to flee for their lives and to demonstrate their loyalty to a country that had failed them. He promised them save passage if they went, and they were never called on to fight. When they were released in California, some stayed behind to work and earn additional funds to assist the struggling church and its many members in financial need. Many had been widowed or orphaned during the exodus to Utah. This decision to stay in California a little longer put them on the scene for the discovery of gold.
The miners took about 25,000 dollars in gold to Utah when they left, but Brannon refused to donate the tithing portion he was asked to donate to the church. He said he’d pay tithing when God Himself provided the receipt. Within two years, Brannon was again excommunicated, this time permanently. He went on to become quite wealthy, but among his many business projects was a winery. In time, he became an alcoholic and ended his life in poverty and destroyed by the alcohol.
Sources: The Apostate Mormon, California Missions Resource Center
San Bernardino Take Over Plot Needed Mormons, Mark Muckenfuss, Press-Enterprise, 15 October, 2012
Gathering the Dispersed Nauvoo Saints, 1847–1852, William G. Hartley, Ensign, July 1997
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.