Prologue: The life and legacy of William Leidesdorff

by Hunter WorlandJun 16, 2023

Some of the most remarkable stories are the ones that are never told. So goes the history of early black American entrepreneurs whose successes were not rewarded but punished. In many ways, these chapters of our national story, even if rarely told, reflect the spirit of American industry as much as Carnegie, Vanderbilt, or Jobs; the railroad, the telegraph, or the personal computer; Standard Oil, Ford, or Microsoft. Around the United States’ fiftieth anniversary, Alexis de Tocqueville attributed American ascendancy to its ‘boldness of enterprise.’ I cannot imagine greater examples than the entrepreneurs who against lynch mobs, slave catchers, segregationists, or the Klan, risked mortality for the deadly sin of black industry.

Remembering these stories has as much to do with the past as the present. An understanding of entrepreneurial history without any characters of color — that is, a history with missing chapters — suggests that American entrepreneurship and white entrepreneurship are synonymous; that today’s black founders, operators, and investors are strangers in their own home.

The protagonist of this post will be a stranger too, for most readers. Yet his story feels remarkably familiar — his cycles of trial and error, his unrelenting ambition, even his relocation to California. While writing about his path, I realized his journey is not just another story that’s seldom told or a chapter that’s missing. It’s a prologue. One of the pioneers of the entrepreneurial West was a black man. His name was William Leidesdorff.

New Orleans, (Around) 1834

William made a promise he couldn’t keep. The young man had the opportunity to expand his horizons beyond St. Croix, a small green dot in the Caribbean. Born on a plantation in 1810 as the illegitimate son of a white Danish overseer and black mother, he had received a proper education — a rarity among the island’s black underclass — by virtue of his employer, an English shipping merchant. The same employer offered William the chance to manage the business in New Orleans, then just a recent addition to the United States. The only condition, the promise he could never keep: William had to use his ambiguous complexion to conceal his black identity.

A 19th century sugar plantation in St. Croix, likely not too different from the one William grew up in (New York Public Library)

Whatever racial nuances the islanders acknowledged would not apply in New Orleans, the Englishman warned. Across the whole Southern United States, ‘one drop’ of black blood, let alone a black maternal line, would invalidate whatever intellectual, educational, or professional credentials William had acquired. After all, as one antebellum planter explained, “a man’s merit” in the South is not measured by merit at all, but by “the number of Negroes he works in the field.”

William found success in the city, but could not live a lie. On a balmy Louisiana night, he revealed his secret to his girlfriend, a white woman who hoped to marry William. “My mother is a Negress,” he confessed. Their relationship ended the next day.

As word spread, his freedom, if not his life, could not have been more vulnerable to anti-miscegenation laws or vigilante injustice. Nor would his professional aspirations have been rewarded. If William would achieve some kind of American dream, it would have to be beyond the New Orleans auction houses, Louisiana swamps, and Southern plantations. He traded his assets for a sailboat and headed West.

Yerba Buena, 1841

Alta California, while modest in population, was remarkably diverse with Mexican rancheros, American settlers, Russian traders, British merchants, Mormon missionaries, and what remained of its indigenous communities. William settled in Yerba Buena, a sleepy seaside trading post ideally situated between a California mission and fort.

At last, on the frontier of the American continent in an outpost of the newly independent abolitionist Mexican nation, the black-Danish English-educated naturalized American finally felt at home. Unfixed from the sedentary structures of the South, he started over again — this time, without secrets or ambiguities.

He began in exports. Leveraging Yerba Buena’s maritime position and his formative experience as a sea trader, William ran ships from California to the Hawaiian Islands. He invested the capital back into the city. In 1843, he constructed Yerba Buena’s inaugural hotel. Alongside the coast and Yerba Buena’s natural bay, he developed cattle ranches that stretched tens of thousands of acres. On the waterfront, he established the town’s first warehouse.

San Francisco in 1846. William’s warehouse was located on the bank of the bay near today’s Embarcadero (New York Public Library)

As more Americans settled in and around Yerba Buena, the American Consul of Mexico appointed him to Vice Consul. William would have been the first black American diplomat, had President Polk not refused to confirm the appointment. His diplomatic role, if federally unacknowledged, was more than a hollow accolade. When the American soldiers provoked Mexico into a war of territory, William oversaw the transition from Alta California to (for 25 days) the Bear Flag Republic to the State of California.

After the war, the American Consul sent the White House, largely ignorant to its new territory’s inhabitants, a list of California’s most “principal men.” Among the 72 names, the consul listed the black man from St. Croix as “active, bold, honorable, passionate and liberal… Decidedly partial to the United States.” Indeed, William was a leading businessman and public servant in the country’s preeminent frontier town. Shortly after Mexico’s surrender, the mayor of Yerba Buena renamed the town after its nearby mission — San Francisco.

William’s local role grew alongside the city. Elected the city’s first treasurer, he funded San Francisco’s first public school. He imported the first steamboat to the city in 1847, although it failed to overcome the infamous Bay winds on its inaugural trip to Sausalito. The same year, he opened the first public racetrack near today’s Mission Dolores Park.

Sutter’s Mill, 1848

In a river outside Coloma, a sawmill operator noticed two “bright, yet malleable” flecks in the channel bed. He picked up the metals and brought them to his partner. “That can’t be,” his partner said. The operator replied assuredly, “I know it to be nothing else.” The discovery of gold at that sawmill sparked a rush that would lure 300,000 prospectors the next year to California, the eponymous 49ers.

The mill shared an upstream border with one of William’s many ranches, Rio de los Americanos. Its operator, shortly after news downstream broke, wrote to William that “the gold region of your land covers the whole of the Eastern part of the ranch… I do not write from mere conjecture, but from facts.” Already wealthy, San Francisco’s leading entrepreneur stood to gain a fortune unimaginable to the black underclass, the overseers, or even the planters of his youth. But by some cruel twist of fate, William Leidesdorff died of sudden “brain fever,” likely meningitis, within a month of the discovery. He was 38 years old.

St. Croix, 1849

A white man unexpectedly knocked on the door at the home of William’s mother — now also his “sole and universal heiress.” He discussed the death of her son and presented her with a contract for $75,000 in exchange for the rights to William’s estate. His mother signed, ignorant to what the man knew. Auctioneers valued William’s estate at over $1.4 million, over $55 million today adjusted for inflation and twenty times the amount in the contract. With her signature — rather, with his deceit — a mere fraction of William’s fortune advanced his family or community.

Ironically, more readers will recognize the white man’s name, Joseph Folsom, than William’s. He is the namesake of Folsom Prison — renowned for its infamous inmates and memorialized by a Johnny Cash performance — built on Rio de los Americanos, the goldmine Folsom claimed from the estate. Indeed, except for an alley in downtown San Francisco, few memorials bear Williams’s name. His story remains what his sole biographer aptly called a well-kept secret in the history of the West.


William Leidesdorff’s sole unaccredited portrait

An artist, reflecting on human identity, wrote “we are what we remember.” The same could be said of American entrepreneurship. Founders, operators, and investors not only memorialize the movements, figures, and enterprises of the past but use their stories to inform present activities — the patterns they recognize, the bona fides they value, the heroes they emulate.

I could only find one portrait of William Leidesdorff. Its strokes are broad. His features are blurred and undefined. The style is plain, unadorned. I found that symbolic of how he is remembered — the mismatch between the grandeur of his accomplishments and the modesty of his memorial to date.

It doesn’t have to be that way. William’s fortune did not pass down, but his legacy can. His portrait — however unadorned — should be a familiar fixture, a reminder to today’s black founders, operators, and investors that they are not strangers in their own home. Rather his achievements are a prologue for present and future chapters. We’ll be what we remember.

Notes & sources

I discovered William Leidesdorff in a book titled Black Fortunes by Shomari Wills, which tells the story of six self-made black millionaires, largely in the Reconstruction period, who defied slavery and Jim Crow to build iconic businesses. William is not a focus character but introduces the themes that future black entrepreneurs faced. The book is sweeping but highly readable. I could not recommend it more. As William’s mention in Black Fortunes is brief, I did more research in his sole biography, written by Gary Palgon.


1. Shomari Wills. Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African-Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires (2019)

2. Alan Taylor. American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850 (2021)

3. Gary Palgon. William Alexander Leidesdorff: First Black Millionaire, American Consul and California Pioneer (2005)

4. All photos are from the digital archive of the New York Public Library except the portrait of William Leidesdorff, the painter of which is unknown.