William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.: California’s Black Millionaire Founding Father
His legacy is as long as his name.
Known as the “African Founding Father of California” William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (1810-1848) helped start San Francisco.
He was America’s first Black millionaire thanks to highly lucrative businesses in shipping and lumber.
And he was multi-racial…African, Cuban and Jewish.
Leidesdorff’s contributions and name are largely lost today, but his story is the reason why America is great.
Leidesdorff was born in Saint Croix, the oldest son of four children, to a bi-racial mother (African and Spanish) and a Jewish father. He was baptized Lutheran, as that was the assumed faith of his dad.
In 1834, Leidesdorff became a U.S. citizen. Seven years later, after working stints in New Orleans and New York, he migrated to California, settling in a small village that would eventually become San Francisco. That’s when Leidesdorff developed his businesses. He built the first hotel, horse racetrack, commercial shipping warehouse and public school in San Francisco. He operated the first steamboat in San Francisco Bay.
When Leidesdorff initially migrated to California the territory belonged to Mexico. Consequently, Leidesdorff needed Mexican citizenship to fully and successfully conduct his businesses. However, that status required he convert to Catholicism and learn Spanish. He complied and, in 1844, Leidesdorff was granted Mexican citizenship…as well as 35,000 acres of land south of the American River.
After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), California came under U.S. rule. Leidesdorff”s ability to speak Spanish and understand Mexican political culture proved a perfect pick to serve as U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico. Eventually, he served as President of the San Francisco School Board, City Treasurer and a City Councilman for San Francisco’s first government. Leidesdorff never married and became one of the wealthiest bachelors in California’s pioneer years.
On May 18, 1848, William Leidesdorff unexpectantly died, following a bout with typhoid fever (which was a viral epidemic at the time). His funeral shut down San Francisco. Flags flew at half-mast. Businesses and schools closed. The entire town mourned his passing. To this day San Francisco and Folsom, CA honor his legacy with Leidesdorff streets. He was honored with a final resting place inside Mission Dolores Church.
He was only 38 years old…still in the prime of his life.
Leidesdorff’s vast land holdings included the American River, near present day Sacramento. And that real estate proved fortuitous. Beneath Leidesdorff’s dirt was gold. Lots and lots of gold. The treasure was good, but the timing was not. as William passed away just as the California Gold Rush of 1849 heated up. He’d never know his true net worth. In 1856, a portion of his property was auctioned for $1.4 million ($51.6 million in today’s dollars). Due to the fact Leidesdorff had no will nor heirs, his estate has been intestate. Consequently, a complete inventory of his holdings has never been reckoned.
In the end William Leidesdorff’s reputation was, according to one biographer, “liberal, hospitable, cordial, confiding even to a fault.” He was the man who seeded the Golden State of California and built the city of San Francisco.
William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Pioneer. San Francisco Founder. Millionaire Businessman. Diplomat.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “William Leidesdorff” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Leidesdorff
- “William Leidesdorff” (Jewish Encyclopedia): https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9729-leidesdorff-william#ixzz0YStM51GT
- Washington, G. (2007, January 26). William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/leidesdorff-william-alexander-1810-1848/
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