Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor
Scoundrel’s Tale: The Samuel Brannan Papers.
Reviewed by John Putman, Lecturer in the History Department of San Diego State University and doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego; he specializes in the history of the West.
The ongoing sesquicentennial celebration in California has generated renewed interest in the early years of the state’s history. Names like Sutter, Marshall, Huntington, and Stanford fill numerous newspaper and magazine articles honoring California’s rapid rise to national prominence. In the public schools children are regaled with fascinating stories of the rugged forty-niners and the frantic rush to extract gold nuggets and yellow dust from the ground. Samuel Brannan, however, is one individual who has escaped similar public attention. For scholars, Brannan was a Mormon apostate, gold-rush promoter, real estate developer, and vigilante. In his recent portrait of this California pioneer, Will Bagley has attempted to break free of these simple stereotypes and has offered us a more complex and rich understanding of this colorful and often misunderstood figure.
In Scoundrel’s Tale, Bagley explores Brannan’s life through his writings and the perspectives of his contemporaries. This book is neither traditional nor documentary history. As Bagley readily admits, his definition of what constitutes Brannan’s papers is rather broad. His subject’s personal papers did not survive the nineteenth century so Bagley attempts to reconstruct Brannan’s life through letters he wrote to others, newspaper articles and editorials, and his contemporaries’ own writings. Unlike most documentary histories, which tend to offer brief introductions to each document, Bagley weaves the documents — ranging from a few short lines to several pages — into an extended biography of his subject. While this approach added richness to Brannan’s experiences, this reviewer wonders whether this detracts from the book’s value as a repository of primary source material.
Despite this difficulty, Bagley’s decade-long odyssey to find every note and scrap of paper dealing with Brannan’s life bears much fruit. For students of the American West, Samuel Brannan is a fascinating figure who seemed to have his hand in nearly every important event in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Brannan participated or had some role in the Mormon migration, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, San Francisco vigilantism, and the subsequent economic development of California. Nearly a third of Scoundrel’s Tale focuses on Brannan’s ties with Mormon leaders in the 1830s and 40s and his participation in the Mormon’s westward migration. While the bulk of Mormon migrants eventually settled in Utah, Brannan organized a smaller settlement in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in 1846. Enamored by California and the subsequent discovery of gold, Brannan severed his ties with the Church of the Latter Day Saints when he failed to convince Brigham Young to make California the Mormon’s new home.
At this point Brannan entered the annals of California history. Hearing about the discovery of gold in hills and rivers near Sacramento, Brannan quickly stocked his general store at Sutter’s Fort and traveled to San Francisco with a vial of gold dust. Racing down the city’s streets, he screamed at the top of his lungs that gold had been found near the American River. He returned to his store and awaited the rush of men who bought their supplies from Brannan at inflated prices. Brannan then quickly prospered in what is perhaps the state’s first great industry — real estate development. At one point he was Sacramento’s largest landowner and later opened the Calistoga Hot Springs Resort. In between this and other business ventures, Brannan catapulted himself into San Francisco politics. In the early 1850s, he was a leading figure in the vigilantism that plagued San Francisco during this period. Bagley offers mostly newspaper accounts and subsequent histories to document Brannan’s participation in the vigilante activities. The post-Civil War period was not as kind to Brannan. In a confrontation with squatters at his Calistoga resort, he was shot several times and nearly died. Adding insult to injury, poor business decisions, a divorce, and simple bad luck resulted in the subsequent loss of most of his fortune.
Bagley completes this documentary history of Sam Brannan by examining his intriguing effort to establish an American colony in Sonora, Mexico. Apparently as payment for a loan he had extended to the Mexican government in the 1860s to help them drive the French invader Maximilian out of Mexico, Brannan acquired a land grant in Sonora. It was this effort to rebuild his wealth and reputation that eventually brought him to San Diego. Penniless, Brannan had to resort to selling pencils in Arizona to raise funds for a trip to San Francisco in the mid 1880s. Seemingly long forgotten in the city he had helped build, Brannan decided to move to San Diego to exploit the real estate boom that shook that city. His last few years were spent on a small fruit farm in Escondido where, until his death, he continued to try to make something of his Sonora land grant.
Scoundrel’s Tale offers the reader a fascinating window into the life of one of California’s most intriguing and colorful pioneers. Bagley has gathered together an impressive range of primary sources that advances our understanding of Sam Brannan. The most insightful and interesting documents, however, largely deal with Brannan’s years with the Mormon Church. Overall, the range of writings documenting Brannan’s California experiences is thin, though a few gems do shine through. These weaknesses notwithstanding, Bagley’s ability to weave biography with the various documents makes a solid addition to the library of any student of the history of the American West and California.