Folsom A to Z: William Alexander Leidesdorff

By: Rachel Zirin, Senior Reporter
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Editor’s note: Folsom A to Z is an intermittent series in the Telegraph where readers can learn facts and history about Folsom. Each week, the Telegraph will select a landmark, place, historical figure and major historical event that start with the next letter of the alphabet. This week we continue with “L.”

  • William Alexander Leidesdorff was born in October of 1810 in St. Croix, Dutch West Indies.
  • Leidesdorff was the first child of a Danish Jewish sugar plantation owner, William Leidesdorff, and a free woman of color, Anna Marie Sparks.
  • As a young man, he went to New Orleans, where he learned the import/export cotton business and how to captain a sailing ship.
  • Leidesdorff spoke six languages.
  • By the age of 29, he owned 12 ships and prospered as a New Orleans trader.
  • Leidesdorff fell in love with a young woman descended from a French nobleman, but their love match was quickly extinguished when Leidesdorff told his bride-to-be of his racially mixed parentage.
  • Shortly after that, the young woman died of cholera – or a broken heart – and Leidesdorff vowed to make a new start. 
  • He sold all of his ships, possessions and business interests, and purchased a schooner named Julia Ann and set sail for western waters. 
  • After trading his way around the Horn, Leidesdorff arrived in Yerba Buena (early San Francisco) around 1841.  
  • Using his well-honed financial acumen, Leidesdorff made shrewd real estate investments in the new town. 
  • Leidesdorff established the first hotel and general store in San Francisco, as well as its first shipping warehouse; he was the city's first elected city treasurer; and operated the first steamship into San Francisco. 
  • In 1846 Leidesdorff captained the first steamship, Sitka, into Old Sacramento. 
  • He was also a civic leader, serving as a member of the city council and of the school board. 
  • Leidesdorff was instrumental in the founding of public education in CA in 1848. 
  • He was so well regarded that in 1845 he was appointed U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico, even though he was a Mexican citizen, making him the first U.S. diplomat of African descent.
  • Leidesdorff had become a Mexican citizen in 1844 in order to acquire 350,500 acres of land, the Rio de los Americanos Rancho. 
  • Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena made the grant to Leidesdorff. 
  • The tract ran along the American River, between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada foothills, and included the land that would become the town site of Folsom. 
  • His home in San Francisco was the largest in town and was the town's social hub.
  • Leidesdorff died on May 18, 1848 at the age of 38 of malaria. 
  • At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest and most influential man in California.
  • Leidesdorff is buried beneath the stone floor of Mission Dolores in San Francisco.
  • In 1849, the land was purchased from Leidesdorff's heir, his mother, by Captain Joseph Libby Folsom for $75,000.
  • Neither Leidesdorff nor Folsom lived to see the town of Folsom.
  • Leidesdorff Street was named in his honor.