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June 4, 2018

William Alexander Leidesdorff: Forgotten San Francisco Pioneer

In the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid lies a marker that points to a compelling rag-to-riches tale of prejudice, love lost and the pioneering spirit that built San Francisco. But it is a story that has rarely been told. 

Financial District hotshots pass by tiny Leidesdorff Street, hardly more than an alley, and few can pronounce its name. Little do they know that the namesake of this charming hitching post-lined lane blazed the trail for them some 150 years ago. Fewer still realize he was the city’s first prominent businessman of black ancestry. 

William Alexander Leidesdorff was born the son of Alexander Leidesdorff, a drifting Danish seaman, and a mulatto woman on St. Croix Island in the West Indies. The child was given Danish citizenship, though his father never shared in the raising of young William. However, an English plantation owner grew fond of the young boy and saw to his care and education. 

When Leidesdorff grew into a strapping young man, the Englishman sent him to New Orleans to live with the planter’s brother and to become a cotton merchant. Leidesdorff and the mercantile industry were a perfect fit. He quickly learned the industry and built a reputation as a keen businessman. When the Englishman and his brother suddenly died, just months apart, Leidesdorff fell heir to their New Orleans estate. 

When he was not managing the estate, the striking, young and wealthy Leidesdorff courted a southern belle named Hortense, whose prominent family claimed membership in New Orleans’ high society and whose lineage heralded back to Louis XIV of France. Keeping his mixed ancestry secret, Leidesdorff became engaged to the blonde, fair-skinned Hortense. 

On the eve of the wedding the anguished Leidesdorff revealed the secret of his roots. Outraged, his fiancée’s family forbade the union and the wedding was canceled. Brokenhearted, he sold his estate, bought a large schooner and prepared to leave New Orleans. A few days before his departure, Hortense died suddenly, some say of shock from the loss of her love. While on her deathbed, she made her last dying wish — that her tiny golden crucifix be given to her true love. A priest fulfilled her wish, presenting Leidesdorff with the delicate symbol of her love and the marriage that was never to be. 

After passing time in New York and Hawaii, Leidesdorff, then 31, came to California which was governed by Mexico in 1841. He arrived at the tiny backwater of Yerba Buena, a sparsely populated village of marshes, muddy streets, saloons and makeshift homes. But what Leidesdorff saw, unlike many of his contemporaries, was a town with the tremendous potential to be a thriving seaport and trade center. 

Leidesdorff opened a mercantile business and developed a profitable export-import trade route between San Francisco and Honolulu. He sold hides and tallow, California’s principal exports during that era. 

From the proceeds of his business Leidesdorff began to build his empire. He purchased a lot at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets that later became the site of The City’s first hotel; built the town’s first cargo warehouse; opened a general store; became a shipbuilder; and established a lumberyard. 

In 1844, the Mexican government granted Leidesdorff 35,000 acres of land in the Sacramento Valley when he applied for Mexican citizenship, a common practice at the time. Despite his defection in citizenship he remained a patriotic American. 

In 1845, Leidesdorff rose to new stature when he was appointed American vice-consul for the Port of San Francisco. While the Mexican Government was losing its grip in California, Leidesdorff was secretly aiding the American take-over of California. In 1846 with the population expanding to a modest 1,000 residents, Yerba Buena officially became San Francisco. 

Leidesdorff then refocused his energy on his businesses. Leidesdorff was interested in establishing a 24-hour rapid trade line between San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley. He felt that a steamship was the answer to more speedy deliveries, so he purchased an American-made steamship that was eventually called the “Sitka.” 

No steam-powered vessel had ever floated on the waters of San Francisco Bay until Leidesdorff’s boat came through the Golden Gate. A test-run was planned and Leidesdorff invited some friends for the voyage up the river to Sacramento. Instead of the one-day jaunt he planned, the trip took six days, proving the Sitka to be slow and ineffective. His vision of a rapid transit between the Bay and the Sacramento Valley remained only a dream. 

A short time later, a storm sank the Sitka, thus ending that chapter of the Bay’s maritime history. Nonetheless, Leidesdorff’s boat is recognized by historians as the first steam-powered craft on San Francisco Bay. 

By this time, the residents of San Francisco viewed Leidesdorff as a community leader. When visiting diplomats needed to be entertained, Leidesdorff was called upon to play host in his stately home. The largest estate in town, his abode was known as the “Cottage,” and was located on California and Montgomery near what was then the waterfront. 

For those who knew and dealt with him, Leidesdorff proved to be an interesting and lively character. According to one of California’s early historians H.H. Bancroft, Leidesdorff was “intelligent, fairly well educated, speaking several languages, enterprising, public-spirited and honorable, but somewhat obscured by quick temper, jealousy and a tendency to quarrel.” 

As the town’s most prominent host and one of its most influential businessmen, Leidesdorff continued to add to his list of firsts in San Francisco. He was a member of the first town council; served as the first treasurer; served on the town’s first school board and helped plan and build the first public school; built the town’s first hotel, The City Hotel, at the Clay and Kearny property; and organized the first official horse race ever held in California on a meadow near Mission Dolores. Few could have been better positioned to profit from the discovery of gold that was about to push San Francisco into the international spotlight. 

With the onslaught of gold-diggers and new businesses, San Francisco’s population exploded, and the town began a new era as a city unmatched in the West. But Leidesdorff never profited from the Gold Rush. Just a few months before the boom changed the town into a full-blown city, Leidesdorff unexpectedly died of typhoid fever at the age of 38. 

Flags hung at half-mast and all places of business closed on the day of Leidesdorff’s funeral. With Market Street lined with mourners and military gunners firing in unison every minute, the funeral procession moved slowly toward Mission Dolores, where he was buried. To this day, a tombstone marks his burial site in the floor of the chapel. 

“Warm of heart, clear of head, sociable, with a hospitality liberal to a fault,” were Bancroft’s words of Leidesdorff after his death. “His hand ever open to the poor and unfortunate, active and enterprising in business and with a character of high integrity, his name stands as among the purest and best of that sparkling little community to which his death proved a serious loss.” 

Leidesdorff never married and had not written a will. His estate, upon his death, valued at $1.5 million — the equivalent of at least $30 million today — fell to his next of kin. His mother, Anna Maria Spark, who still lived on St. Croix was visited by the shrewd Army Captain Joseph Folsom from San Francisco. He persuaded Anna Maria to sell him the estate for a mere $75,000. Once she discovered the swindle she took Folsom to court in a long and savage battle, but lost the case. 

The onrush of miners and frenetic development of San Francisco soon dimmed the memory of Leidesdorff and his empire. Gone are his City Hotel, the Cottage and his warehouses. In their place stand skyscrapers, chic restaurants, museums and trendy stores. 

A plaque, dedicated in 1988, rests on the corner of Leidesdorff and Sacramento streets, honoring the life of one of San Francisco’s most visionary pioneers.

Photo by vgm8383 / CC BY-NC.

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