The first African American in San Francisco

William Leidesdorff

The schooner Julia Ann first sailed into San Francisco Bay and dropped anchor at the small village of Yerba Buena in 1841. William Leidsdorff had found a home. Born on what was then Denmark’s St. Croix Island, the illegitimate son of a Danish planter and Anna Maria Spark, a woman of mixed ancestry, he made his way to New Orleans at an early age and became a prosperous trader and the owner of twelve ships. When he found himself unceremoniously banned from the home of the woman he was deeply in love with, probably because his mother’s lineage had become known, he sold his business and his property, then quickly left New Orleans, and the woman, behind.

Once on the west coast he sailed from Alaska to Honolulu and back to California trading mainly in wheat, furs and tallow until he had money to buy a lot at Clay and Kearny Streets and a warehouse on California. In 1844 he became a Mexican citizen and was granted the 35,000-acre Rancho Rio de los Americanos on the American River east of John Sutter’s property at modern Sacramento. The present day cities of Rancho Cordova and Folsom were later founded on only a part of his huge grant. Even though he built an adobe home on the property he never lived there.

American River

Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Market Street Wharf,S.F. ca. 1860

Back in Yerba Buena his successes grew. He built the City Hotel, the first in town, served on the town council and the school board, and was appointed vice consul of the United States by Thomas Larkin. Then in 1847 he brought the first steamboat, the Sitka, to San Francisco Bay and sailed her up river to Sacramento. Then on May 18, 1848, almost exactly when Sam Brannan made his dramatic announcement of gold along the American River, Leidesdorff died suddenly at age 38.

Today Leidesdorff Street is a quiet alley lined with sidewalk cafes that runs from the Transamerica Pyramid to Pine Street between Montgomery and Sansome. But in William’s day Leidesdorff Street was the very edge of Yerba Buena Cove. It was the pier where Leidesdorff docked both the Julia Ann and the Sitka, then the port of San Francisco. Many other ships unloaded cargo here and, only a year later, thousands of gold hungry men bound for the mines along the American River first touched California soil on Leidesdorff Street.

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