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  William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.


William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.


(born October 23, 1810 - died May 18, 1848)


was one of the earliest Black settlers in California and a highly successful, enterprising businessman.


A West Indian immigrant of mixed race: African, Danish Jewish, Spanish and Virgin Islands Creole, William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. became a United States citizen in New Orleans in 1834. He migrated to California in 1841, settling in Yerba Buena (San Francisco), then a village of about 30 families. He became a Mexican citizen in 1844 and received a land grant from the government for 35,000 acres on the American River, known as Rancho Rio de los Americanos.

He served as US Vice Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco beginning in 1845. After the United States took over California in 1848, Leidesdorff was on the school board and also served as City Treasurer. Shortly before Leidesdorff's death, gold was discovered near his land, vastly increasing its value. By the time his estate was auctioned off in 1856, it was worth more than $1,445,000.

An international Leidesdorff Bicentennial Celebration will feature the "Golden Legacy of William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.," on October 23, 2010 in his native isle of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.








Early life and education

Born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands when it was under Danish rule, William Leidesdorff, Jr. was the oldest son of four children of Danish sugar plantation manager Wilhelm Alexander Leidesdorff (who used Alexander Leidesdorff as his name) and his common-law wife Anna Marie Sparks, an enslaved woman reportedly of African and Spanish descent whom Leidesdorff freed during their relationship.

Wilhelm Leidesdorff was reportedly of Jewish descent from the community of Altona, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein. He became a naturalized Danish citizen and converted to the Lutheran Church. He went to North America and the Caribbean to further his career as a merchant. As a sugar factor, Leidesdorff had lived in New Orleans under Spanish rule before the Louisiana Purchase.[1]

Leidesdorff, Jr.'s mother Anna Marie Sparks, was described in an account of the early 1950s as a Carib Indian woman, believed to have had African and European ancestry. Her race was noted only in a census report.

Many people observed that what were called "Carib" people had various hues that likely reflected mixed ancestry, ranging from dark brown to lighter shades of brown, resulting in a Virgin Islands Creole, to which his mother could have belonged.[2]

Other sources said the mother Marie Anne Spark (as she was also known) was a mixed-race woman of African and Spanish heritage, thought to have been born in Cuba. In census records, Marie Anne Spark was classified as a free Carib Indian, but few Carib survived into the late 18th century.[3] Together the accounts demonstrate that she was a light-skinned woman of mixed-race ancestry.[4]

As an infant, William Leidesdorff, Jr. was baptized as a Lutheran, the faith which his father had adopted.[5] In 1837 Leidesdorff, Sr. formally adopted all four of his illegitimate children with Anne Marie to give them legal standing.[6]



Leidesdorff, Jr. left St. Croix at about fifteen years of age and was reportedly educated in his father's nation of Denmark. After schooling, Leidesdorff, Jr. went to New Orleans, where he worked in a cotton enterprise.

In 1834 he became a United States naturalized citizen.[7] He held posts with firms associated with his father or perhaps his mentors. Official ship manifest documents show that Leidesdorff operated as Ship Captain or Master, 1834-1840, out of the Port of New Orleans and was thought the last Black Ship Captain in New Orleans after strict enforcement of the Negro Seamen Acts.

Leidesdorff traveded to Washington D.C. and became the Master of the schooner Julia Ann from New York to Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) in Alta California, then part of Mexico, in 1841.[8] His route was via Panama, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Sitka, Alaska following the Pacific Ocean currents during t



IN 1841, the schooner Julie Ann sailed into the San Francisco harbor and dropped anchor by the village of Yerba Buena. The owner of the Julie Ann was William Alexander Leidesdorff, who would become one of California's leading citizens and the owner of the land on which Folsom is now located.

A year earlier he had been a successful trader in New Orleans. Leidesdorff owned 12 ships and a prosperous business. He was engaged to be married and was head over heels in love with his fiancée. Then, without warning, he was refused admission to her home and the engagement ring was returned. Her parents informed him that she was no longer interested in seeing him. Though there is no proof, it seems that her proud Creole family had learned his West Indian mother had Negro and Carib blood in her veins thus making him unacceptable as a son-in-law.

Heartbroken, Leidesdorff sold all his property and ships, and left New Orleans forever. He sailed the Pacific, trading and moving on, until he arrived in Yerba Buena. He traded with both the Mexicans and the Russians. By 1844, trade in wheat, tallow and hides earned him enough money to purchase a lot at Clay and Kearny Streets. He also had a warehouse built at California and Leidesdorff Streets.

He became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a land grant of eight Spanish leagues, or more than 35,000 acres. The grant, called the Rancho Rio de los Americanos, began at about the point where Bradshaw Road connects with the river. A sign was posted there, one side faced west and was lettered Sutter while the east facing side said Leidesdorff. The grant extended upriver to where Folsom Prison is today. Two years later Leidesdorff had an adobe home built at the western end of his property, but he never lived there.

Meanwhile, Leidesdorff's career in San Francisco was spectacular. He became the contract agent to furnish supplies to the Russians and collect Sutter's debt. He built the City Hotel, the finest in San Francisco. He was a treasurer of San Francisco. He served on its first City Council and the first school Board. He was a close friend of Commodore Robert Stockton and was appointed Vice Consul by Thomas Larkin.

He brought the first steamboat to San Francisco Bay, the double side-wheeler SITKK. In 1847, the year after he had the adobe built, he took the SITKK to Sacramento. Little is recorded about the trip except that he raced an ox cart on the downstream trip to Benicia and lost.

The plans he had for the Rancho de los Americanos will never be known. On May 18, 1848, as the first reports of rich gold strikes on the banks of the American River came filtering into San Francisco, William Alexander Leidesdorff died of pneumonia or typhus (two different accounts list different causes of death).

Source and Original Article




In San Francisco


"With the name of William Alexander Leidesdorff, we begin the documentary history of pioneers of Negro origin in California." [9]

On arriving at Yerba Buena, Leidesdorff, Jr. began to build his businesses. The village then had only thirty families, so it did not take long for the ambitious man to make an impact.[10]

He launched the first steamboat to operate on San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River; it was 37 feet long and purchased in Alaska,. He built the City Hotel, the first hotel in San Francisco, and the first commercial shipping warehouse, the latter on what became Leidesdorff Street off the Embarcadero.

In 1844 Leidesdorff became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a land grant from the Mexican government for 35,521 acres on the south bank of the American River. He named the property Rancho Rio de los Americanos.

During this period, Mexico encouraged Americans to settle in its territory by granting large land grants; in exchange the government required Americans to convert to Catholicism, the state religion; learn to speak Spanish; and accept Mexican citizenship.[11] Leidesdorff named his ranch Rancho Rio de los Americanos. He went on to establish extensive commercial relations throughout Hawaii, Alaska and Mexican California.

During the eight years of his residence, Leidesdorff served as one of six aldermen or town councilors of the Ayuntamiento; after the United States took over California, he was one of three members on the first San Francisco school board, which organized the first public school in the city; later he was elected City Treasurer. His house was one of the largest, and he donated land for the first public school.[12]

In 1845, during the President James Polk administration, Leidesdorff was hired by the US Consul Thomas O. Larkin as the US Vice Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco, a measure of his political standing in the city despite his Mexican citizenship. Larkin was the first and last U.S. Consul appointed to serve in California.[13] After the United States took over and the American flag was raised over San Francisco (July 1846), Leidesdorff had the U.S. Declaration of Independence read for the first time in California at his home in celebration.

Leidesdorff, Jr. bore a high reputation for integrity and enterprise. He is said to have been "liberal, hospitable, cordial, confiding even to a fault."[14] Leidesdorff became one of the wealthiest man in California, but the value of his property began to rise dramatically just before his death, when gold was discovered along the American River. He was said to have been a man of fine appearance, with a "swarthy" (dark) complexion.[15]

In March 1848, the California Star reported the total non-Native population of San Francisco as only 812: 575 males, 177 females and 60 children. Soon after that, many men departed for the American River gold fields in hopes of striking it rich. Other towns were nearly emptied in the frenzy of the Gold Rush.[16]







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