The Pioneers: William Leidesdorff

Already a highly successful, enterprising businessman, William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. arrived in San Francisco in 1841, when it was still a muddy village named Yerba Buena. He had made the voyage from New York as master of the schooner Julia Ann, stopping to trade in various South American ports, Hawaii, and Alaska. Leidesdorff launched the first steamboat, purchased in Alaska, to operate on San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River. He served as a town council member, City Treasurer, and as a member of the first San Francisco school board, although he had no children and never married. His home was reportedly the largest and finest in the city, where he entertained splendidly, and often. He became a Mexican citizen and acquired a 35,000 acre land grant he named Rancho Rio de los Americanos. In 1845 he was appointed US Vice-Consul to Mexico. When he died in May 1848, the town mourned him with flags flown at half-mast. Born in the Danish West Indies in 1810, he was the oldest son of a Danish father and a mother of mixed Spanish, Indian, and African ancestry. Some sources say he left home at 15 to be educated in Denmark and afterward migrated to New Orleans, where he became a naturalized American citizen and a ship captain; others that he engaged in maritime trade from early boyhood as the employee of an uncle in New Orleans. William Leidesdorff is recognized by historians as the “African Founding Father of California.” Streets in San Francisco and Folsom are named for him, and a stretch of freeway between Sacramento and Folsom, is dedicated to his memory.

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