William Alexander Leidesdorff was born in 1810 in the Danish West Indies. The son of a white Jewish Danish plantation owner and his common-law wife, Anna Marie Sparks, who was said to be of mixed African and Spanish and/or Carib ancestry, Leidesdorff left St. Croix in his teens to travel to Denmark in order to obtain his education.
He moved to New Orleans as a young man and became a master of shipping vessels as well as a naturalized American citizen.
In 1841, Leidesdorff navigated a ship to California via the South American route. He landed in Yerba Buena (what is now San Francisco) and began to build the empire that would make him a very wealthy man.
He launched a steamboat operation and built the city’s first hotel, the City Hotel, as well as the first commercial shipping warehouse.
In 1844, he became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a large land-grant.
Leidesdorff served on town councils, organized the first San Francisco public school as a member of the school board and was elected as City Treasurer.
On March 15, 1848, gold was discovered on Leidesdorff’s property.
He died suddenly–without having married or having children–on May 18, 1848. He is considered one of the great pioneers of California and the “first black millionaire.”