Black History Spotlight: William Leidesdorff Jr.

Here at Breedlove Market, we gain inspiration from the rich history of successful black entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and creators that overcame unimaginable circumstances. Their ability to overcome systemic racism and constructed inequity guides a path forward for everyone today. Despite the work put in by these individuals, they frequently are not taught in traditional educational systems. Without teaching the success of our past, we can't expect success in the future. With that in mind, we want to highlight 28 historical figures, one for each day of Black History Month. We hope that their inspirational true-life stories will inspire you to also chase after your dreams.

William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr.
William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr.

For the fifth day of Black History Month, we're covering the life and legacy of William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. one of the earliest biracial U.S. citizens in California, a founder of the city that became San Francisco and a highly successful businessman.

Leidesdorff was born on October 23, 1810, in Christiansted in Saint Croix, Virgin Islands (then known as the Danish West Indies as the island was under Danish rule). He was the oldest of four children of Wilhelm Alexander Leidesdorff, a Danish sugar plantation manager, and his common-law wife Anna Marie-Sparks, reportedly of African and Spanish descent.

In 1837, Leidesdorff, Sr. officially "adopted" all of his children to give them legal standing under Danish Law.

Leidesdorff migrated to New Orleans, becoming naturalized as a United States citizen. He began working as the master of shipping vessels and gained positions with firms believed to be associated with his father or mentors. Documents show Leidesdorff working as a Ship Captain from 1834 to 1840 in the Port of New Orleans.

He then traveled to New York to work on the schooner Julia Ann, a ship that sailed from New York to Yerba Buena (today's San Francisco), which was then a part of Mexico. He navigated through Panama, St. Crois, Brazil, Chile, the Sandwich Islands (today's Hawaii), Sitka (today's Alaska), and on to California.

Leidesdorff Street, San Francisco
Leidesdorff Street in San Francisco, CA

After arriving in Yerba Buena, Leidesdorff began working to build his businesses. His business launched the first steamboat, purchased in Alaska, to operate in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River. He also built the first hotel in San Francisco, named City Hotel, and the first commercial shipping warehouse. The street where Leidesdorff had his warehouse later became Leidesdorff Street off the Embarcadero.

In 1844, Leidesdorff obtained 35,521 acres of property from a land grant from the Mexican government. The property was located on the south bank of the American River, near today's Sacramento. Mexico provided the land grant because it was actively encouraging Americans to settle within their territory in exchange for religious conversion to Catholicism, the state religion of Mexico, learning to speak Spanish, and accepting Mexican citizenship.

Leidesdorff kept his residence on the property for eight years and served as one of six aldermen on the Ayuntamiento (general term for a town council). Then, after the Mexican-American War, the United States took over California. Leidesdorff was selected as one of the first three members of the San Francisco school board. This board organized the first public school, with Leidesdorff donating some of his lands for the school. Later, he was elected City Treasurer.

In 1845, he accepted the request to serve as the United States Vice-Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco during the James Polk administration. This invitation represented the measure of his political standing in the city. Leidesdorff also had the U.S. Declaration of Independence read for the first time in California on the veranda of his home in celebration of Independence Day, all before the American Flag was raised over San Francisco.

Leidesdorff was one of the wealthiest men in California. His wealth continued to grow throughout the rest of his life, growing significantly right before his death. Prospectors found gold near the American River, and with his property nearby, the value of his land skyrocketed.

Leidesdorff died on May 18, 1848, of typhoid fever. Some other accounts list the cause of his death as pneumonia, typhus, or murder.

Mission Dolores
Where Leidesdorff remains interred.

Due to his stature in the community, half-mast flags were raised, business was suspended and schools were closed. His remains are interred near the front entrance of Mission Dolores.

Recognizing the impact of Leidesdorff's legacy on California, there are several tributes to his life and legacy; 15 miles of U.S. Route 50 is dedicated to him along the boundary of his property near Sacramento. The Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, California, had a Leidesdorff Exhibit in May 2010. The U.S. Virgin Islands held a Leidesdorff Bicentennial Celebration on October 23, 2010, named the "Golden Legacy of William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr."

If you'd like to learn more about William Leidesdorff Jr., his life, and legacy, we recommend the following sources that we used to create this post:

  • Black Past

  • Gary Palgon, William Alexander Leidesdorff: First Black Millionaire, American Consul and California Pioneer

  • Museum of the City of San Francisco

Breedlove Market is a marketplace that sells products exclusively from black-owned brands and businesses. We aim to take out the challenge of finding the right black-owned product and make it easier to shop with a purpose.

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