The Apostate Mormon
In February 1846, under the leadership of Samuel Brannon, a controversial Elder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) , 238 Mormons set sail from New York to San Francisco on board the Brooklyn. Ten would die -- and two would be born -- on the epic six- month journey around Cape Horn.
This was the first group of American emigrants to move west by sea and the first civilian ship to round Cape Horn. Scott Tiffany’s award-winning documentary Forgotten Voyage tells the story of the Brooklyn. His video contains a map and Time Line of the voyage.
During the six month journey the ship ran out of supplies and had to stop off the coast of Chile at Juan Fernandez Island (also called Robinson Crusoe Island).
Upon their arrival in California, most of the Mormons settled in Yerba Buena where for a time they were the majority of the population. Twelve families headed north to found the first Mormon colony in California. New Hope, an agricultural community, was sited on the Stanislaus River. It dissolved within a couple years.
Several Brooklyn pioneers like John Horner became prominent figures in California. John and Elizabeth Horner were married shortly before the Brooklyn left New York City, and spent their honeymoon on board ship. After moving to Mission San Jose (now Fremont), they became wealthy during the gold rush by providing fresh produce to miners.
At one time John and his brother William owned over 30,000 acres of land. Horner was a remarkable man. He built an agricultural empire; ran the first steamship on the bay, the Union; built the first school house and laid out many of the roads in Alameda County, invented farm equipment and even a mechanical washing machine. At the first agricultural fair in California, held in San Francisco, Horner was given the title, "First Farmer of California. Throughout his life he helped many Mormon settlers get established.
The most prominent (and controversial) of the pioneering Mormons who arrived in California on the Brooklyn was Samuel Brannan, leader of the expedition. Brannan later became Mormonism's most famous apostate.
Samuel Brannan (1819-1889) was born in Saco, Maine, a small coastal village southwest of Portland. He was very close to his older sister, Mary Ann, who converted to Mormonism in Boston in 1832. When Mary Ann and her husband, Alexander Badlam, moved the next year to Kirtland, Ohio, site of the first Mormon "gathering," Brannan, then fourteen, went with them. He apprenticed in the church's printing office for several years, but he grew restless and left Kirtland in about 1837. For the next five years he traveled all over the country as a “tramp printer. In 1843 he surfaced as a missionary in Southern Ohio. By 1844 Brannan was in New York City where, for a time he was editor and publisher of The Prophet, a church newspaper.
Foreshadowing the later controversy in his life, Brannan was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1845 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 appealed his excommunication and soon got back in the good graces of the church.
After the difficult but successful journey of the Brooklyn, Samuel Brannan started the city’s first newspaper the California Star, and then established a general store near Sutter’s Fort. He profited greatly from the Gold Rush.
Six discharged members of the Mormon Battalion, recruited to fight in the Mexican American War, were at Sutter’s Fort at the time gold was discovered on January 24, 1848. One particularly rich region in the gold fields was called "Mormon Diggings".
Mormon miners took an estimated $25,000-$30,000 in gold to Salt Lake City in 1849, providing a substantial boost to it’s infant economy. However, Sam Brannan refused to send back a cut of his riches. He is reported to have told emissaries from Salt Lake that he would “turn over tithing money if they showed him a receipt from God.” In 1851 Brannan was excommunicated from the Mormon church, accused of "un-Christian life conduct and neglect of duty."
In 1850s Brannan became a major business force in San Francisco, establishing banks, a railroad and a telegraph company, and accumulating much land. He did much to advance education. Brannan was always “aggressive but liberal in his views, showing no signs of sectarianism” according to the historian Hubert Hugh Bancroft who asserts that he “probably did more for San Francisco…than was effected by the combined efforts of scores of better men.” Bancroft describes Brannan as “shrewd in his dealings, as famous for his acts of charity and open-handed liberality as for his enterprise, giving also frequent proofs of personal bravery.”
In 1859 Brannan purchased the Calistoga estate, establishing a winery and distillery on a grand scale. His later life deteriorated due to alcoholism. He was living in Mexico at the time Bancroft published his History of California in 1886 a sorry wreck physically and financially, yet clear-headed as ever and full of courage for the future.” Bancroft acknowledged that “thousands of pioneers in California remember this erratic genius with the kindliest of feelings, and hope that he may yet add a brilliant closing chapter to the record of one of the most remarkable characters in Californian annals.”This was not to be. His last ventures failed and he died in rural San Diego County, his passing hardly noted. Brannan Street in San Francisco is named after him.