The incredible story of William Leidesdorff, San Francisco’s Black founding father

One of The City’s most important pioneers remains little-recognized today

San Francisco’s history is, quite literally, inscribed on its streets. Just look at the signs. Nearly every street in and around downtown is named after a major figure in The City’s founding. Nearly all were white men. Most, if not all, did awful things in addition to building modern San Francisco.

But one pioneer — honored only by a tiny Financial District alley — stands out not only for his background and his remarkable life story, but for his unsung impact on The City.

William Alexander Leidesdorff was a ship captain and a merchant. An entrepreneur and a public servant. A patriotic American and a Mexican citizen. A Black man and a Jew. He is also widely believed to be the first millionaire of African American descent.

In the 1840s, Leidesdorff helped shepherd San Francisco into existence, creating enduring institutions like the public school system and treasury. His untimely death in 1848 meant he never saw his adopted home grow into a great metropolis, or the unimaginable riches produced by his vast landholdings in The City and in the foothill gold fields.

Today, the only trace of Leidesdorff’s legacy on the cityscape is a two-block alley between Montgomery and Sansome streets. Leidesdorff Alley is also the cross street of The Examiner’s new home at the Merchants Exchange Building. While the paper is not quite as old as Leidesdorff (The Examiner was founded in 1865), we thought it would be fitting to dedicate our first historical “Faces” profile to our nextdoor neighbor. (A statue and plaque of the man at the corner of Leidesdorff and Pine was funded in part by The Examiner Owner and Publisher Clint Reilly.)

A skateboarder rolls through the Leidesdorff Street alley. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A skateboarder rolls through the Leidesdorff Street alley. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Leidesdorff was born in 1810 on St. Croix, in what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands, to a Danish-Jewish father and a Creole mixed-race mother who had previously been enslaved. In 1834, Leidesdorff came to New Orleans where he went into business with his brother, who was working as a ship captain. His travels took him as far as New York City and Hawaii.

During this period, and throughout his life, Leidesdorff did not live out in the open as a person of color. He would have been forbidden by law to pilot a ship in Louisiana if he had. One notable exception ended in disaster: Before his marriage in New Orleans, Leidesdorff revealed his parentage to his white fiancée, who abruptly called off the engagement.

Upon settling in California in 1841, Leidesdorff began to diversify his businesses. In the sleepy town of Yerba Buena, San Francisco’s predecessor, he built a warehouse, shipyard and lumberyard near the corner of California and Montgomery. That land, which was then on the waterfront, is now marked by Leidesdorff Street. In 1847, he built the City Hotel, the first in Yerba Buena, on the corner of Clay and Kearny streets.

Leidesdorff was actively involved in civic life in Yerba Buena, serving on the inaugural town council and acting as town treasurer. He also donated the land to create the first public school in California, and sat on the state’s first school board.

In a less successful endeavor, he piloted the first steamship on the Bay, in the hopes he could make it to Sutter’s Fort, now Sacramento, in 24 hours. In reality, the journey lasted six days, and the ship sank shortly after its return to Yerba Buena.

Leidesdorff’s ability to speak Spanish (in addition to at least five other languages) ingratiated him with the Mexican government. Upon earning his Mexican citizenship in 1844, he was given land grants in Yerba Buena as well as 35,000 acres in the Sierra foothills, in what is today the city of Folsom.

But Leidesdorff’s allegiance to Mexico was weak. He served as the Yerba Buena deputy to Thomas O. Larkin, the Monterey-based U.S consul to Alta California, who laid the groundwork for American conquest in the Mexican-American War. Leidesdorff helped equip U.S. troops, at times donating his own money and supplies. When Commodore John D. Sloat peacefully claimed Yerba Buena with 200 American sailors on July 7, 1846, Leidesdorff flew the Stars and Stripes at his hotel, and hosted Sloat and his men for a party.

A portrait of William Alexander Leidesdorff, circa the 1840s. (San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

A portrait of William Alexander Leidesdorff, circa the 1840s. (San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

Leidesdorff’s legacy also includes shameful chapters. He accepted Native American slaves from his friend John Sutter as payment for a debt, foreshadowing the widespread (and little acknowledged) institution of indigenous slavery in California that only grew in the 1850s and ’60s. Leidesdorff also hosted the first-ever recorded minstrel show on the West Coast at his hotel.

Leidesdorff’s strange and dramatic story continued even after his death from Typhus in 1848. Once he was laid to rest in Mission Dolores with no children and no will, an epic contest began to claim his estate.

An enterprising army officer named Joseph Folsom smelled opportunity, and embarked on a transcontinental journey to find Leidesdorff’s mother, Anna, in St. Croix and buy the estate from her. After agreeing to a price of $75,000, Anna soon realized she was selling for a massive discount, but after a protracted legal battle, Folsom emerged with the estate.

Through his machinations, Folsom gained a huge gold-producing territory near Sacramento, which he named for himself, as well as 47 lots in what was then downtown San Francisco, becoming the wealthiest man in California. By the time of his own premature death in 1855, the value of the Leidesdorff-Folsom estate had increased 20 fold.

For Thor Kaslofsky, Leidesdorff’s third great grand nephew, this de facto land theft tracks with America’s racial history.

“Not surprisingly, a lot of dirty land dealings went on,” he said. “But it wasn’t Leidesdorff who emerged from the situation with a long legacy in landholdings. It was Folsom.”

Kaslofsky, who lives in San Francisco and fittingly works in real estate, thinks Leidesdorff deserves more recognition in his adopted hometown. “The shortest street in San Francisco is named for a Black man who did more for San Francisco than many of the other names that are listed on schools and on streets.”

For The City’s long-marginalized Black community, Leidesdorff is a reminder that “we have a place here… we helped build this place,” Kaslofsky said, adding that his mother, Norma Krieger, is hoping to make a movie about Leidesdorff’s life. “There are so many more painful points of reference for us, versus something that’s celebrated.”

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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