He was a man of many “firsts”. A mixed-race man born out of wedlock in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, William Alexander Leidesdorff went on to become the first Black millionaire when gold was found on his property not too long before he passed away in 1848.
Living in San Francisco as the city’s first prominent businessman of Black ancestry, he established the first hotel in San Francisco, the first public school in California, built the first waterfront warehouse in San Francisco, and introduced the first steam-powered craft in the San Francisco Bay. Leidesdorff also became the first African American to represent the U.S. as Vice-Consul to Mexico and was elected to be the first City Treasurer of San Francisco. But many soon forgot his story.
Born the son of Alexander Leidesdorff, a Jewish Danish sugar planter, and a mulatto woman on St. Croix Island, he was given Danish citizenship. His father hardly raised him. An English plantation owner took care of him and his education. The plantation owner even sent him to New Orleans to live with his brother where Leidesdorff became a cotton merchant. He did well in the mercantile industry and when the Englishman and his brother passed away, Leidesdorff became heir to their New Orleans estate.
Leidesdorff tried marrying a blonde, fair-skinned woman who traces her family to Louis XIV of France, but the marriage failed after Leidesdorff revealed to the woman’s family that he was of mixed ancestry. The woman’s family canceled the wedding. Leidesdorff then decided to leave New Orleans. He first sold his estate then bought a 106-ton schooner Julia Ann which he sailed around Cape Horn to California in 1841. California was governed by Mexico at the time; Leidesdorff settled in the Mexican village of Yerba Buena on San Francisco Bay. Yerba Buena was noted for its makeshift homes and muddy streets but Leidesdorff saw it as the perfect place to build a seaport and trade center.
Opening a mercantile business, reports said Leidesdorff developed an export-import trade route between San Francisco and Honolulu, selling tallow and hides and making huge profits. He used the money earned from that business to start building his empire. He bought a lot at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets which eventually became the site of his hotel. He then went on to build the cargo warehouse before opening a general store and becoming a shipbuilder.
In 1844, the Mexican government granted Leidesdorff 35,000 acres of land in the Sacramento Valley after he applied for Mexican citizenship. Ranch Rio de Los Americanos was located not far from where James Marshall discovered gold in January 1848, according to BlackPast. Even though he had Mexican citizenship, Leidesdorff was still a patriotic American and even helped the American takeover of California. Yerba Buena officially became San Francisco. Leidesdorff continued to grow his business, and he soon earned fame and respect in his community. His estate, the largest in the town, was often used to welcome diplomats.
San Francisco’s population would grow thanks to the Gold Rush, changing the town into a fully-fledged city. Some say Leidesdorff never profited from the Gold Rush but shortly before he died in May 1848 at the age of 38 of typhoid fever, gold was found on his property, eventually making him the first Black millionaire in America.
To show how influential Leidesdorff was, businesses closed on the day of his funeral. Flags also hung at half-mast and he had the honor of being buried inside Mission Dolores Church, where one may still see his gravestone today.
By the time his estate was auctioned off in 1856, it was worth over $1.4 million, which is more than $30 million today. “William Alexander Leidesdorff is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the pioneering of the West and the creation of the State of California,” according to author Gary Palgon in his book, William Alexander Leidesdorff: First Black Millionaire, American Consul and California Pioneer.
So how did San Francisco forget one of its pioneers? Sftravel.com explains that the “onrush of miners and frenetic development of San Francisco soon dimmed the memory of Leidesdorff and his empire.” The platform adds that skyscrapers, museums, stores, and restaurants have replaced his iconic City Hotel, warehouses, home and other structures.