Nov. 12, 2022

California Tycoon: William Leidesdorff

California Tycoon: William Leidesdorff

One of the founders of the city of San Francisco, very little is known about William Alexander Leidesdorff. Born on the island of St. Croix in 1810, Leidesdorff helped pave the way for the sleepy pueblo town known as Yerba Buena to become a bustling, thriving port city.

Join me this week as I dive into the life of William Leidesdorff.


“A History of Black Americans in California: A.M.E Church.” National Parks Service. (LINK)


“A History of Black Americans in California: Historic Sites.” National Parks Service. (LINK)


Savage, W.S. “The Influence of William Alexander Leidesdorff on the History of California.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 38, No. 3. July 1953. (LINK)


  “William Leidesdorff: Forgotten Black California Pioneer.” Los Angeles Sentinel. Los Angeles, Calif: Los Angeles Sentinel, 1996.



Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey everyone, welcome back. 


Tucked away under the shadows of the Transamerica building lies an unassuming street that, if you blink, you will miss. Leidesdorff is little more than an alley and like many other streets in the city, is named in honor of a man who laid significant ground work to turn San Francisco from a sleepy pueblo into the bustling metropolis it is today. 


There are many details and nuances missing from the life of William Leidesdorff, however the bits we do know makes it a little distressing to realize just how little attention is paid to his contributions. 

So, today, I am diving into the life of William Leidesdorff. Who was he? What did he do? And why is he such a mystery today? 


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


Before I dive into the story of today’s topic, I thought it was important to set everything in the proper context. Given such little attention has been paid to Mr. Leidesdorff’s life and influence thus far, there is a lot of conflicting information about a lot of his life. Everything from the racial makeup of his mother to just exactly how and why he came to the United States is debated in the various journals and online sources I could find. In fact, I was only able to locate one treatment on the life and times of Leidesdorff and it was not written by a historian, or published by a university press, so I hesitated in using it as a main source for information. There is reference to some primary source material, which I found valuable, but otherwise I did try to fact check other items with what I had available. Having said all that, let us begin.


Born on October 23, 1810, William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr entered the world on the island of St. Croix. His parents, Danish seaman Alexander Leidesdorff and a mulatto woman Anna Marie Sparks, lived together for several years and never married. While some argue about his mother’s race, the overwhelming consensus appears to agree she had to have had at least some African heritage. Under Danish law, William’s father could remain unmarried and still claim paternity of his children, thereby granting them Danish citizenship and in 1837, he did just that. It is believed William is one of four children and was the eldest in his family. As I mentioned, many of the details of Leidesdorff’s childhood remain unknown and so we are left to guess what his home life might have been like and how living on the island may have influenced his future career as a sea captain. 


Sometime in William’s youth, an English plantation owner decided to take on the charge of young William and ensured he received an adequate education. There is no known documented reason that I could find and so the man’s motivations remain a mystery. In one of the sources I read, the English planter was without other children and was taken by young William. It also seems as though William’s natural father may have left his little family, leaving a young Anna Marie Sparks to figure out how to care for her small children. Perhaps the offer from this stranger to care for her son was seen as a blessing in disguise. Whatever the motivations, William received an education and learned the mercantile business with the assistance of his English benefactor, 


As an early adult, William was sent to New Orleans, where he was to learn more about the shipping industry under the tutelage of his faux uncle, the brother of the man who had provided for William thus far. Leidesdorff excelled at the trade and upon the death of both the benefactor and his brother, William found himself flush as neither had any heirs to speak of. While living in New Orleans, Leidesdorff became a naturalized citizen and fell in love. He became engaged to a white woman from a prominent family who assumed the young man was of the same race. Given his heritage, Leidesdorff could pass for white which allowed him greater freedom of movement. He decided to come clean to his fiance and share his true lineage; upon hearing this, the engagement abruptly came to an end. This seems to be the only time William publicly disclosed his ethnic makeup, perhaps having learned a tough lesson of what it meant to be black in America during this time. 


So distraught at losing the love of his life, Leidesdorff sold the estate in New Orleans and spent time in New York and Hawaii before landing on the shores of California, landing in Monterey around 1841. Always the industrious type, William saw an opportunity to establish a trade route between California and Hawaii and went to work. He was successful in his endeavors and eventually moved further north to the sleepy pueblo town of Yerba Buena; or as we know it today, San Francisco. 


Before it was renamed in 1847, San Francisco was given the name Yerba Buena by the Spanish who were looking to settle the coastal town. The name Yerba Buena came from a local plant that was abundant in the region which also translated to good herb. After first making contact in the later part of the 18th century, soldiers were tasked with creating both a military fort and a mission in the area to enable settlement and conversion of the local population. The military fort, the Presidio, was set up along the coast and is still there to this day. Moving further inland, the settlers also established Mission San Francisco de Asis, otherwise known as Mission Dolores, with the hope that future immigrants would set up housing between the fort and mission. The Spanish maintained a tenuous hold on the area until Mexico won its independence in 1821. 


Given the makeup of the small town, Leidesdorff enjoyed considerable influence and quickly moved to lay the foundation to enable the sleepy community along the coast to transition into the bustling city we know it today. He helped the town become a shipping center by establishing the first cargo warehouse and lumber yard. He also worked to establish the public school system and held various positions within the budding municipal government including being a member of the first town council, serving as first treasurer and sitting on the town’s first school board. 


In 1844, in exchange for becoming a citizen, the Mexican government allotted Leidesdorff with a substantial land grant in the Sacramento valley. Stretching nearly ten miles, the nearly thirty five thousand acres stretched from what we know today as the cities of Rancho Cordova to Folsom. And if you know your California history at all, then you know this land deed was prime territory for the upcoming Gold Rush. Despite becoming a Mexican citizen, Leidesdorff’s true allegiance remained with the United States and he aided the Americans in their efforts to take over California. In 1845, perhaps in recognition for his efforts thus far in transforming Yerba Buena, the United States asked Leidesdorff to serve as the American Vice Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco, making him one of the first black diplomats in United States history. 


Still committed to the betterment of the coastal town, Leidesdorff purchased a plot of land in 1846 at the corner of Clay and Kearney streets where he established the region's first hotel.  Known simply as The City Hotel, it was described as a single story adobe building with a wrap-around porch and enjoyed a sweeping veranda along its front. The hotel no longer exists and today is the site of Portsmouth Square park. Given his various efforts at improving the area, his numerous public service posts and the esteem that came with the Vice Consul position, Leidesdorff was held in high regard and seen as one of the most prominent citizens in the area. Traveling diplomats often enjoyed Leidesdorff’s hospitality, who was frequently called upon to host various individuals at his stately home. 


Always the pioneer, Leidesdorff hoped to further increase the speed of transporting goods within the state by leveraging the various waterways. Hoping to use the power of the steamboat, Leidesdorff purchased a 37 foot schooner and made sail in November 1847. The launch signified the first time a steamship was in the San Francisco Bay. Carrying ten passengers, Leidesdorff had estimated the trip from the San Francisco Bay to Sacramento would take one to two days tops. Unfortunately, the power of the river proved to be stronger than anticipated and the ship did not arrive to their destination until nine days later, arriving on December 7th. Leidesdorff still hoped to leverage this technology in the future, however he passed away before he could make this a reality. 


Just five months after attempting his steamboat launch, Leidesdorff died on May 18th. He was only 38 years old. His cause of death was meningitis, often referred to as brain fever. As an example of just how respected Leidesdorff was, his death was widely reported in the newspaper, with the California Star writing quote, “as a merchant and a citizen, he was prosperous, enterprising, and public-spirited and his name infinitely identified with the growth and prosperity of San Francisco,” end quote. The entire city went into mourning, with businesses shutting down and flags flying at half mast on the day of his funeral. He was buried at the Mission Dolores, the same mission built by the Spanish, where he remains today. 


Never married and without any known heir to his estate, Leidesdorff’s vast land holdings were up for grabs. Though he held a significant amount of debt on his property in Sacramento - totalling roughly $40,000, the value of his property was about to reach new heights thanks to the discovery of gold just months before his death. Given his holdings were so vast, the court appointed temporary administrators to try find potential heirs and get a sense of the true value of the properties. This was a time before probate laws were on the books and so the handling, valuing and distributing proceeds from large estates like Leidesdorff’s were a fairly new and convoluted process. To make matters infinitely more complicated, Leidesdorff was technically a Danish, United States and Mexican citizen meaning three country’s laws were potentially at play.   


And if that wasn’t complicated enough, things were about to get even murkier. Army officer Joseph Libby Folsom astutely recognized the potential windfall contained within Leidesdorff’s estate and made his way to St. Croix, where he offered Leidesdorff’s mother $75,000 for her claim on the land. Unaware of the discovery of the lucrative mineral, Anna Marie Sparks naively agreed. She later discovered the swindle and tried to recoup her losses, which combined with the various other lawsuits over the claims to her son’s land, tied the courts up for the next decade. At the end of the day, it was Joseph Folsom who came out on top. When all was said and done, the value of Leidesdorff’s holdings topped over a million dollars, saying nothing of the value of the gold extracted from the land. Folsom became so prosperous that he quickly became the wealthiest man in California and named a section of the state in his honor. 


And what about Leidesdorff? Where is his town or tribute? Well, like I mentioned in the opening of this episode, William Leidesdorff is largely forgotten, hidden amongst the piles of primary sources sitting in the archives throughout the state. Despite the fact that he was highly respected in his time and largely credited for laying the groundwork for San Francisco to become a city of commerce and trade, there is scant recognition of his efforts. From what I was able to locate, there are less than a handful of areas dedicated in his honor. There is a small bronze plaque on the corner of Commercial and Leidesdorff streets in the heart of the financial district and a stretch of Route 50 named in his honor. There is also a bronze statue in his honor on the corner of Pine and Leidesdorff streets listing his various accomplishments and impacts to the city. This is quite striking when you compare it to Joseph Folsom, who enjoys much more notoriety than the original owner of the lands that provided for his massive wealth. 


A man of varying backgrounds and likely the first black millionaire, William Leidesdorff remains one of the most understudied individuals in our history. He was many things: merchant; land owner; politician. Perhaps some day he will enjoy a wider name recognition and we’ll get a more complete picture of just who he was. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about one of the father’s of San Francisco. 


Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week. 


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.