The Peculiar Saga Of The Black Jew Who Founded San Francisco
In 1840 or 1841, a wedding in New Orleans was abruptly canceled. The bridegroom, admitting he was born out of wedlock and that his mother was black, fled on a ship bound for the West. His well-heeled bride-to-be died soon after this, some believe of shock.
That ashamed groom, who was not allowed to marry his betrothed, never wed but went on to become America’s first black millionaire and a founding father of the city of San Francisco.
William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. was born October 23, 1810, on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies. Gary Palgon’s 2005 book “William Alexander Leidesdorff: First Black Millionaire, American Consul and California Pioneer” reports that his father, William Leidesdorff, was a Jewish Danish seaman and sugar planter and that his mother, Anna Marie Sparks, was a plantation worker of Creole descent.
Leidesdorff Sr., who was not married to Sparks, did not appear to have had a hand in raising his son, but Leidesdorff fils found an early patron in an English foster father who groomed him to take over his family plantation and shipping business. He passed as the Englishman’s son and was told never to reveal that his mother was black.
“I believe that he was a very light-skinned individual,” Palgon, who is a Leidesdorff relative, said in a phone interview with the Forward. “A lot of my read is many of the people that he dealt with probably didn’t know A: He was Jewish and B: that he had a black mother. I think those were things that benefited him to be successful as an individual throughout his life.”
As a youth, Leidesdorff moved to New Orleans, where his foster uncle trained him to work as a cotton broker in the shipping trade, shuttling between New York and the Gulf of Mexico. It was in that burgeoning Louisiana city that Leidesdorff became captain of the port and fell in love. The object of his affection, and his would-be bride, was a woman named Hortense, who was once described as “blond, beautiful and as delicate and fragile as a piece of Dresden china.”
After Leidesdorff’s confession on the eve of their wedding, the ring was returned to him and he planned his next move. He was lucky to have come into a substantial inheritance from his foster father and uncle, who died within a year of his arrival in America. Leidesdorff sold his estate and bought a 106-ton schooner, “Julia Ann,” and set off for California, following the pattern of many settlers at the time, but not before he supposedly witnessed Hortense’s funeral procession.
Heartbroken, the jilted groom rounded Cape Horn, landing at a Northern California port town called Yerba Buena. Back then it was a small Mexican puebla numbering some 30 families. Leidesdorff saw its potential immediately.
“New Orleans had been partially developed, so he had in his head what could be,” Palgon said. “I think when he got out West and was running the shipping, he said: ‘Hey, I’m on the water. I’m in the West.’ The Gold Rush didn’t really start until towards the end of his life, but he saw the ability to create opportunity there.”
Leidesdorff established himself as a trader and began developing Yerba Buena, building its first hotel, presciently named the City Hotel, in 1843. A year later he became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a grant of 35,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley, on which he formed a cattle ranch, Rio De Los Americanos.
By 1845 the 35-year-old Leidesdorff, a polyglot and a people pleaser, was appointed America’s vice consul to Yerba Buena, in which capacity he assisted American interests during the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt. Following that successful rebellion against the ruling Mexican government by American settlers, Sonoma, California, operated as an unofficial breakaway state for 25 days, and it saw the jubilant rise of the Bear Flag and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence from Leidesdorff’s veranda on July 4. Within days the short-lived California Republic and its battalion were absorbed into the United States Army, which hoisted the American flag in the Bear Flag’s place. By 1847, Yerba Buena was rechristened San Francisco.
Leidesdorff established the first town council, serving as its first treasurer and laying the cornerstone of California’s first school from his position on the school board. He even launched the first steamship from San Francisco’s port.
In 1848, shortly after the discovery of gold on his property, and the formal recognition of San Francisco as an American possession with the end of the Mexican-American War, Leidesdorff died of meningitis. His funeral was met with flags at half-staff, a burial behind the famed Mission Dolores and an obituary in the California Star, lamenting that “the town has lost its most valuable resident.” Valuable indeed: In Leidesdorff, the town lost its richest citizen, who died without an heir or a written will.
The dispute over Leidesdorff’s fortune, which, with the newfound gold, accounted for $1.5 million, stretched on for half a century after his passing. But despite continuing litigation over the estate, Captain Joseph Libbey Folsom, the one-time collector at San Francisco’s port, was allowed to keep the deed and title to the land, which he purchased from Leidesdorff’s mother for the low sum of $75,000. During the gold rush, Folsom further developed the area, now known as Folsom, California. With this namesake, Folsom ensured his legacy where Leidesdorff’s has largely faded from memory, apart from a four-block street in San Francisco’s financial district and a 15-mile stretch of Highway 50.
In the end, the same things Leidesdorff overcame — his bastard birth, his bachelor status and his mixed race heritage — are what kept him from greater recognition in the time following his death. Still, those in the Pacific Northwest owe a lot to his industry and vision.
“We can categorize some people as being in the right place at the right time, and it’s not always luck,” Palgon said. “But if you look at his life, it’s really kind of incredible. He had to be a visionary, a leader. There are too many firsts given credit to him. It was more than happenstance. He definitely saw what could be, and recognized, ‘I want to be part of that.’”
Contact PJ Grisar at [email protected]