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Early History of California

Early History of San Francisco

“Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California,” by Guadalupe Vallejo

“Life in California Before the Gold Discovery,” by John Bidwell

William T. Sherman and Early Calif. History

William T. Sherman and the Gold Rush

California Gold Rush Chronology 1846 - 1849

California Gold Rush Chronology 1850 - 1851

California Gold Rush Chronology 1852 - 1854

California Gold Rush Chronology 1855 - 1856

California Gold Rush Chronology 1857 - 1861

California Gold Rush Chronology 1862 - 1865

An Eyewitness to the Gold Discovery

Military Governor Mason’s Report on the Discovery of Gold

A Rush to the Gold Washings — From the California Star

The Discovery — as Viewed in New York and London

Steamer Day in the 1850s

Sam Brannan Opens New Bank - 1857
WILLIAM ALEXANDER LEIDESDORFF
by Sue Bailey Thurman

Photo of William Alexander LeidesdorffWITH THE NAME OF William Alexander Leidesdorff, we begin the documentary history of pioneers of Negro origin in California. No nationality or racial minority migrating to the state could wish to have a more distinguished antecedent. Born in the Virgin Islands, the gifted son of William Leidesdorff, a Danish sugar planter, and Anna Marie Spark, a native woman having Negro blood, Leidesdorff found his way to California as early as 1841.

He left the Virgin Islands as a youth, journeying to New Orleans, to engage in maritime trade. With time, his fortunes increasing, he became a master of vessels, sailing between New Orleans and New York. However, he soon felt the lure of the West, and selling his personal effects in New Orleans, bought the 106-ton schooner, “Julia Ann,” in which he would make the now famous trading voyage to the Pacific. After long months in passage he brought his vessel into San Francisco Bay, landing at the point known as Yerba Buena Cove. Leidesdorff came ashore and the sleepy little town that awaited him was never the same again.

For the intrepid newcomer threw himself into the making of California history, finding the innumerable demands of a community experiencing birth pains completely to his liking. Among the several business ventures claiming his attention, he has the distinction of launching the first steamboat to sail on San Francisco Bay.

Bancroft, the recognized historian of the period, refers to this event in Volume 4 of his celebrated History of California: “In maritime annals of this period, the appearance of the first steamer in California’s waters merits a passing notice. The steamer had no name but has ever since been called the ‘Sitka.’ Her dimensions were: length, 37 feet; breadth of bow, 9 feet; depth of hold, 3 1/2 feet; drawing, 18 inches of water, and having side wheels moved by a miniature engine. She was built by an American at Sitka, as a pleasure boat for the officers of the Russian Fur Company and was purchased by Leidesdorff, being brought down to San Francisco in October, 1847. She made a trial trip on November 15 and returned later to Santa Clara and then to Sonoma. Finally on the 28th of November she started on the great voyage of her career to Sacramento, carrying ten or a dozen souls, including George McKinstry, L. W. Hastings, and the owner as far as Monterey. She returned to Yerba Buena and was wrecked at her anchorage in a gale but was saved, hauled inland by oxen and transformed into a launch or schooner.

FROM “SITKA” TO “RAINBOW”

“As the “Rainbow” she ran on the Sacramento River even after the discovery of gold. A notice of arrival from Sitka is even found in the San Francisco, California Star, October 23, 1847, also a notice of the steamer at Sonoma, November 25, when there was a celebration with toasts to the rival towns of Sonoma and San Francisco, December 1, 1847.”

But the owner of the “Sitka” had engaged in a half dozen other fascinating pursuits since becoming a California citizen. He was naturalized in 1844, and obtained thereafter a grant of thirty-five acres of land, to which he gave the name the “Rio De Los Americanos” ranch, located on the left bank of the American river. The decree confirming the boundary of this tract reads:

“Beginning at an oak tree on the bank of the American river, marked as a boundary to the land granted to John A. Sutter, and running thence South to the line of Sutter’s two leagues, thence easterly by lines parallel to the general direction of the American river and at a distance of as near as maybe two leagues therefrom: thence along the southerly bank of said river and boundary thereon to the place of beginning.”
With such vast holdings he continued to establish himself as a business man of amazing acumen when he bought a lot on the corner of Clay and Kearny and built the town’s first hotel, which with prophetic insight, he called the “City Hotel.” Later, extending his import-export trade (particularly in tallow and hides), he built a warehouse on the corner of California and Leidesdorff streets, the latter being the short street on the waterfront of the Embarcadero of the day, which was named for him.

He had a flair for politics, and in 1845 was appointed Vice Consul to Mexico by Consul Thomas Oliver Larkin, serving under the jurisdiction of Commodore Stockton, then military governor of California. In this capacity Leidesdorff gave aid to Fremont and the Americans raising the Bear flag in the historic rebellion at Sonoma in 1846. His official report of this incident to Consul Larkin, not published until 1939, remains an important document of the period.

A bachelor to the end of his days, Leidesdorff nevertheless established himself in a commodious home on the corner of California and Montgomery Streets, a step from the present high-storied Russ Building, and from this vantage point won international fame as one of the city’s most genial hosts. Whenever government officials, American or Mexican, came to town, Leidesdorff’s home, the largest and most impressive in the area, was always chosen as the scene for lavish state entertainment. He had the urbanity of a seasoned diplomat, politician, and man of affairs. His cuisine offered the finest foods and wines and he could boast the only flower garden in all Yerba Buena.

On the local level, he held civic positions of honor and trust. He was a member of the town’s first council; he was town treasurer, and one of the three members of the first school board which supervised the building of the first public school erected for children in the community.

In a lighter vein, he found occasion in the field of sports, to indulge the lively spirit of speculation and daring which he brought with him into California. Among his last ventures, in 1847, was the staging of the state’s first horse race, on a “meadow” near Mission Dolores, especially improvised for this unprecedented event.

Leidesdorff died of brain fever in 1848 at the early age of thirty-eight. In his death he was accorded the highest recognition a bereaved community could tender a beloved and honored citizen. Flags hung at half-mast from all military barracks and vessels in the port. Minute guns were fired as the funeral procession made its way through the winding streets to Mission Dolores, where with imposing ceremonies his body was laid to rest.

But the Leidesdorff story did not end here. For years afterward, the history of the man was linked with the history of his estate. At the time of his death, his property was encumbered with debts amounting to some $50,000, but the discovery of gold in that same year, later increased its value to nearly a million dollars.

Joseph Libby Folsom, captain in the U. S. Army and at one time collector of the port, set himself the task of finding the Leidesdorff heirs and securing from them the right and title to their kinsman’s California estate. He journeyed all the way to the Virgin Islands in search of Anna Marie Spark, the mother, who still lived in the islands with her other children. Folsom paid her the sum of $75,000, which gave him absolute title to the whole of the Leidesdorff property. The various business transactions that followed in the ultimate sale and disposition of this property became a cause celebre straight through to the end of the century.

But Folsom himself lived only a short time to enjoy the wealth obtained from the Leidesdorff estate. He died at Mission San Jose, in July, 1855, at the same age as Leidesdorff, at the time of his death. His memorial was the town of Folsom, which stood on the site of “Rio De Los Americanos” ranch, and the old Montgomery Block in San Francisco, built by Halleck in 1863, on a very small portion of the property owned by Leidesdorff, and later by Folsom.

There is magic in the names of the streets in San Francisco. “Larkin,” “Stockton,” “Sutter,” “Leidesdorff,” “Folsom.” Streets, which as “men in the flesh” were once closely associated. Some of them run parallel or across each other, as the blending of a dream. They serve to remind the city of those men who gave it its beginning. Robert Ernest Cowan connects two of them in a brilliant comparison of Leidesdorff and Folsom, published in the Quarterly of the California: Historical Society, June, 1928:

Both men were ambitious, venturesome, clear in vision, wide in mental perspective, firm in their conviction, and capable in their many undertakings. Both had an unbounded faith in the future of the beloved city, wherein they had lived and toiled and died.”
Greater tribute may not be given the first pioneer of Negro origin who came to San Francisco, made his contribution and passed on. But the citizen of today—of whatever racial, creed or national origin, migrant like himself—may walk “The City’s” streets with dignity, knowing that Leidesdorff helped immeasurably to establish this right, a hundred years ago.
In: Pioneers of Negro Origin in California by Sue Bailey Thurman.
San Francisco : Acme Pub. Co., ©1952.

Courtesy of the San Francisco African American Historical Society.

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