REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
By WILLIAM V. WELLS.
Few names among the prominent pioneers of California have been more intimately associated with the history of the State than that of Mr. Brannan. A review of many of the principal enterprises for internal or metropolitan improvement during the last twenty years, would reveal him as their zealous advocate and master mind, either as the originator or the active promoter; and it may be truly said of him that he has not been surpassed by any individual in the State in his encouragement of industrial progress.
Mr. Brannan was born in Saco, in the State of Maine, in 1819. He immigrated to Lake County, Ohio, in 1833, where he entered upon an apprenticeship to letter-press printing. Before the term of his indenture was completed, he bought up, in 1836, the remainder of his time, and although a mere youth, entered into the great land speculations at an era when the whole country was seized with the mania of making fortunes without the worrying need of time, trouble, or capital. A year later he turned again to the press, and traveled the country as a journeyman printer. In the course of the five following years he visited most of the States of the Union. In 1842, he established and published in New York a weekly newspaper, styled the New York Messenger.
As early as 1846 he formed a company of pioneers to settle upon the distant and then unknown shores of California, and the ship Brooklyn, in which, with two hundred and thirty immigrants, he sailed from New York, arrived at San Francisco in July of the same year. When Mr. Brannan first landed in California he was about twenty-six years of age. He at once became a leading and influential member of the isolated little community, and soon after his arrival he erected the machinery of two flour mills, in a locality answering to what is now Clay street. These were the first introduced into the country. He also, in January, 1847, projected and published a weekly newspaper, called the California Star, which was the first journal that appeared in San Francisco, and was the parent of the present Alta California. All this was before the discovery of gold, and when the early settlers little suspected that the progress and development of their new and distant home would be aided by any of the remarkable events that soon after made California a centre-point of attraction for the whole world.
In the fall of 1847, Mr. Brannan opened a store at Sutter’s Fort, under the name of C. C. Smith & Co. This was the first establishment of the kind formed in the Sacramento Valley. In the spring of 1848, he bought out Mr. Smith, who shortly afterwards returned to the Atlantic States possessed of a handsome fortune. Mr. Brannan continued the business during the heat of the gold excitement, and there laid the foundation of his present great wealth. In 1849, he returned to San Francisco, where he had preserved a residence and citizenship, and, under the firm of Osborn & Brannan, conducted an extensive business for nearly a year in Chinese merchandise. In the noted affair of “the Hounds,” about midsummer of that year, he took a leading part, and was active in extirpating that band of desperadoes from the city. In August following, he was elected a member of the first regular Town Council; and in 1851 was chosen President of the famous “Vigilance Committee.” About the end of 1851, Mr. Brannan visited the Sandwich Islands, where he bought extensive properties in farming land, and real estate in Honolulu. In 1853, he was elected a State Senator of California.
It is impossible in our narrow limits even to allude to the numberless public affairs in which this gentleman has been engaged. The cause of education always found in him an ardent supporter. He was one of the founders of the first school in San Francisco, and contributed liberally to the edifice. Many of the most elegant structures in the city were built by him, and there is scarcely an institution of public usefulness that has not experienced the benefits of his impulsive generosity. Libraries; institutes; lectures for charitable purposes; churches; Sunday schools; works of art; literary societies; military companies; hospitals; poor artists, authors, and editors; needy inventors, and suffering humanity generally, of whatever religion or nationality, have had cause gratefully to remember his liberality. Not only associations of public beneficence have found a friend in Mr. Brannan, but he has been a pioneer in, and a liberal encourager of, a curious variety of enterprises, embracing some of the most useful branches of California industry. The importation, via Panama, of rare breeds of French and Spanish merino sheep, at a time when the success of such investment was problematical; the collection throughout France, Spain, and Italy, of choice varieties of grape cuttings, he having visited Europe in 1857 for that and other purposes; the reclaiming of tuleland along the San Joaquin river, thus setting the example to others; the raising of blood stock, the improvement of his extensive farming lands in various parts of the State, have divided his attention with the management of his real estate in San Francisco. The Pacific Railroad, Overland Telegraph, Express Companies, banking and insurance and loan associations— enterprises connected with and forming the very essence of the prosperity of California— all of these have found in Mr. Brannan one of their most ready and intelligent coöperators.
In 1868, he purchased the entire landed estates of Abel Stearns in Los Angeles county, embracing an area of about one hundred and seventy thousand acres, which resulted in the opening of those extensive tracts to settlement by small farmers, thus greatly stimulating the industry of that portion of the State. In the silver mining regions of Eastern Nevada, Mr. Brannan’s restless business talents have also been exerted, in the erection at Robinson District of saw mills, quartz mills, and smelting works, the building of toll roads, and development of one of the richest mineral districts in that State; together with the location of valuable tracts of timber and agricultural lands near Mineral City and in Steptoe Valley.
From among his numerous enterprises, we may particularize the instance of Napa Valley, where he is the proprietor of the Calistoga Hot Springs, and a valuable estate of three thousand acres surrounding them. Here, his all-pervading activity has created out of bare nature the principal watering place in California, not inaptly termed the “Saratoga of the Pacific Coast.” This famous place of fashionable resort is too well known in California to require any extended description at our hands. Its climate, rivaling the most celebrated localities of Italy or the south of France, and the scenery, uniting the grandeur of the loftiest summits of the coast range with the pastoral features of the adjacent rich farming country, have made Calistoga the favorite resort of tourists and invalids from all parts of the country. This costly scene of comfort and healthful recreation Mr. Brannan has reared by his own unaided resources, and the effect of his far-reaching enterprise is felt in the impetus he has given to the prosperity of all that section of the State. The Napa Valley Railroad, connecting Calistoga with tide water at Vallejo, is especially due to his persistent energy.
We cannot close this imperfect sketch without recording the unwavering and outspoken loyalty of Mr. Brannan to the cause of the Union in the darkest periods of its trial by fire and sword. On the stump, in the press, among the people, his voice has been heard in emphatic denunciation of the rebellion, and his contributions in aid of the cause he espoused were unstinted in fitting out officers for the war, in printing and disseminating loyal documents, and in every way strengthening the hands of Government. In the second Lincoln campaign, Mr. Brannan was chosen as one of the Presidential Electors from California. During that memorable contest he canvassed the northern part of the State, and aided materially in carrying the Union ticket. His generous sympathies were not confined to his native land. The cause of freedom in Mexico, menaced by the French intervention, received his substantial aid. In 1866, he armed and equipped at his own expense a company to join President Juarez, and these recruits, composed of hardy and experienced frontiersmen, rendered important services in expelling the foreign invaders.
Mr. Brannan is a signal example of the American self-made man. Starting in life a poor boy, thrown early on his own resources, and with few of the advantages possessed by the youth of the succeeding generation, he had the sagacity to foresee the mighty future of the Pacific coast, and the pluck and energy to avail himself of the circumstances of the times. As his influence in the community has thus far been beneficial to the welfare of California, so it is equally certain that it will continue to be exerted for the best interests of his adopted State.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 455-459.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.