Friday, September 21, 2012

Twin sons of different mothers

These two muck about in my head lately, knocking over the furniture.

Maybe it's their Irish natures, though sewn through with Irish myself I'd hate to cast aspersions.

Maybe it's because they crave attention or like to get their way.

If it wasn't for all the commotion up there, I'd swear they're the same person.

Actually, I think they are.

Spooky resemblance, don't you think? In look and deed.

The guy on the left is Sam Brannan, hero and villain of my tour of Sacramento's Underground.

On the right is his sesquicentennially separated twin, San Francisco Giants "closer" Brian Wilson. He's the pitcher who's supposed to preserve a win for the Giants in the final innings of each game — except he's been out all season having his pitching arm rebuilt. Every day, fans feel his absence, as the Giants make do with an array of relief pitchers known as closer by committee. His absence is less of a nuisance as the Giants near clinching the National League West title, so Wilson has taken to inhabiting the dugout, leading the cheers for his team, his billowing black beard filling empty space.

Each has been the toast of San Francisco in his day.

Sam Brannan is a wonder to me, mostly because few people on tour have ever heard of him. The exceptions are fourth graders who have been paying attention to their California history lessons; alumni of Sam Brannan Middle School in Sacramento; and occasional visitors to Calistoga, the resort town Brannan created in the Napa Valley. That's OK, because I get to tell people his strange story.

Yet almost everyone on tour — even a family from rural Illinois last week — will have heard of John Sutter, who built a fort near what became Sacramento, and dreamed of empire.

Sutter built his life by charming creditors and running away from debt he inevitably amassed. Fleeing debt and family in Switzerland, he lit out for the western United States, living on credit and learning about forts and frontier hospitality as he went.

In 1839, Sutter essentially bamboozled the Mexican governor of the California territory into believing he was a great Swiss military hero, and was granted 68 square miles of land at the Sacramento and American and Feather (Plumas) rivers to watch out for Mexican interests in these far northern reaches. From his fort he rescued weary travelers from the Sierra, including survivors of the Donner Party, and carved out an agricultural base, and did his part to decimate the Indian population.

His plan to create a vast Swiss colony, though, literally fell apart at the discovery of gold. Onrushing gold seekers destroyed his fort and consumed his crops, and Sutter fled again, seeking but not getting redress from Congress.

While Sutter had no idea what to do with the news, Sam Brannan seized on it, exhorting the world to come looking for gold and then selling the onrushing hordes the equipment they'd need.

Brannan had come to the West Coast with his own dream of empire — for the Mormon church. An elder in the church, Brannan had sailed from New York with more than 200 Mormons at the same time Brigham Young was leading most of the Mormons out of Illinois to what became Salt Lake City, Utah. When Brannan failed to convince Young to keep moving west, it was the last straw in Brannan's fitful relationship with the church. They agreed to a mutual divorce, and Brannan returned to California still dreaming of empire — a land bonanza.

Gold gave Brannan the means to lure people west, and he became California's first millionaire on their lust. He continued to gather fabulous wealth by finagling land, selling at high prices, lathering, rinsing and repeating. He owned a fourth of the new city of Sacramento, a fifth of San Francisco, and at one point had invested more in the Central Pacific Railroad than any of the Big Four (Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford). He subdivided a vast ranch he bought in Los Angeles, effectively beginning the urbanization of Southern California.

With a small armed force, Brannan even tried to take Hawaii from King Kamehameha III in exchange for a pension for the floundering monarch, but the king's police chief sent the raiders packing.

A brawler, Brannan is said to have presided over the first marriage in the state of California — and organized the first hanging in San Francisco. He gave generously to San Francisco schools, but tore down squatters' homes in Sacramento, and ordered enemies shot. Let's say he was flawed.

Brannan's speculative empire fell apart in an expensive divorce and a massive grant of Mexican land he had neither the means nor the wits (he was a drunk) to maneuver. Brannan is forgotten, save for a Yuba City park, a state park in the delta, a San Francisco Street and the aforementioned middle school. Yet Sutter's name tattoos so much of northern California, a puzzling imprimatur of grace and stature — Sutter Home Winery, Sutter Neuroscience Center, for example.

Two colossal figures who fell apart suddenly and ignobly. Two alcoholic philanderers. Yet one lives on in sanitized, romanticized memory and the other recedes. I wonder why.

Bearded Brian Wilson builds his legacy as I write. He's more of a persona, and the real person is probably hidden deep. As his beard grew and became unnaturally black during the Giants' 2010 home stretch to the World Series, Wilson rose in off-kilter flamboyance, and he reveled in it, becoming one of the most popular players on the team, a roaring lion of eccentricity.

The beard and close-set eyes, like Brannan's, make him intimidating. Giants fans and ordinary citizens know to "Fear the Beard."

Wilson's beard grows larger, and tattoos have crept the length of his left arm during his free time.

The Giants should clinch the Western division this weekend, and will have done so without Wilson on the mound. He will have to reassert his presence on the team next season.

So I have to wonder: Is Wilson Brannan's karmic cousin, or does he just bear a strange resemblance?

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