In 1846, Samuel Brannan sailed to San Francisco—then a tiny Mexican village called Yerba Buena—as the leader of a Mormon exodus. Brannan and his two hundred followers hoped to build in San Francisco a refuge from the anti-Mormon persecution that had followed them through the eastern United States.
They traveled with the blessing of church leader Brigham Young, who planned to lead an overland contingent of Mormon pioneers to join them later.
Brigham Young's party only made it half way. Salt Lake City, not San Francisco, would become the Mormons' new capital.
But Sam Brannan stayed in California, using the church's printing press to publish the California Star, San Francisco's first newspaper, while also founding a number of businesses, including general stores in San Francisco and at Sutter's Fort near the Sierra foothills.
In early 1848, Brannan observed customers at the Sutter's Fort store paying for their whiskey with gold dust. Sensing an opportunity, Brannan began buying up all the picks, pans, and provisions he could lay his hands on.
Then he returned to San Francisco, where he ran through the streets waving a quinine bottle packed with gold dust, shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" The Gold Rush was on. Within days, nearly every man in San Francisco decamped for the mines—and nearly every one stopped at Brannan's store for supplies. Pans Brannan had bought weeks earlier for 20¢ sold for $15 each. In just over two months, Brannan made $36,000—the equivalent of about $750,000 today.
Brannan printed up two thousand copies of a special edition of the California Star touting "immensely rich" gold deposits in the Sierra, then packed them on a mule train headed east. By the end of 1848, due in large part to Brannan's promotional efforts, gold fever struck the major cities of the eastern United States, and tens of thousands of prospectors joined ships and wagon trains bound for California—where they, too, would become Brannan's customers. Throughout much of 1849, Brannan's store did more than $150,000 of business a month.
Brannan made so much money that Brigham Young sent a messenger out from Utah to demand a tithe for the "Lord's Treasury." Brannan refused, famously declaring, "You go back and tell Brigham that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord." Brannan was soon excommunicated from the Mormon Church.