Californian history is so interwoven with Spanish and Mexican history that I feel I’m doing it an injustice even as I am reviving parts of it that have lain dormant for far too long. Every time I think about posting about someone like Mary Ellen Pleasant or Archy Lee , I discover something that floors me. I firmly believe that if my history teachers cared about telling the whole truth of California instead of just the American perspective, they would have taught that one of the founders of San Francisco was a Black man.
Born in 1810 in the Virgin Islands, William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr’s father was a Danish-Jewish planter and his mother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. Leidesdorff was treated more like a son than property and was educated by his father who eventually sent him to work in New Orleans at his uncle’s cotton enterprise. As master of ships, Leidesdorff sailed between New York and New Orleans for the family business before collecting a large inheritance when his father and uncle died. Having attained the status of a wealthy cotton broker, he proposed marriage to a love interest but was refused because of his African heritage.
Heartbroken, Leidesdorff set sail for the west, reaching the Hawaiian Islands in 1838. He began shipping Hawaiian sugar to the mission in Yerba Buena to trade for animal hides. Three years later, and having envisioned Yerba Buena as a desirable destination, the smart merchant decided to make the Bay Area his permanent home. He became a Mexican citizen and was granted 35, 521 acres of land which he called Rancho Rio De Los Americanos. Among his many development projects, he built the City Hotel, established a shipping warehouse (on the site of the present-day Embarcadero) and launched the first steamboat to sail on San Francisco Bay. He also acquired 41 lots in Yerba Buena and built the city’s largest house right where the Bank of America tower currently stands.
In 1845, Leidesdorff was appointed Vice Consul to Mexico and was able to leverage his keen ability to discern when the tides were turning. Leidesdorff supported John C. Fremont and was totally down with the Bear Flag Rebellion. When California became an American state, Leidesdorff didn’t miss a political beat. He was the town treasurer, sat on the town’s first council, was a member of the first school board, and oversaw construction of the first public school. He was known for hosting the most lavish gatherings where he showed off the area’s only flower garden and served the finest wines and cuisine. He also organized the first horse race in California which took place near Mission Dolores where he is now buried. He was just 38 years old when he died of typhoid fever in 1848.
There are two streets— one in San Francisco and one in Folsom—and a 15-mile section of U.S. Route 50 that are named for Leidesdorff. That particular stretch of freeway borders the Historic Leidesdorff Ranch which is in Sacramento County.