Leidesdorf alley in San Francisco. (Brandon Doran/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How America’s first Black millionaire landed in California

America’s first Black millionaire was an immigrant from the Virgin Islands who became one of California’s founding fathers. William Leidesdorff was born in 1810 to a Danish sugar planter and a Caribbean woman believed to be of African and Spanish descent.

A portrait of William Leidesdorff, circa 1848. (California State Library)

In his early 30s, he found his way to Alta California, then under Mexican rule, and settled in the sleepy village of Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, where his accomplishments made him both wealthy and revered. He established the town’s first hotel and donated land to build the first public school. He built the first commercial shipping warehouse and operated the first steamboat to sail on San Francisco Bay. In 1845, he was made U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico, the nation’s first African-American diplomat.

Leidesdorff also built himself the city’s largest home, the only one with a flower garden. It was commonly used to fete important visitors from out of town. In 1848, Leidesdorff died of brain fever at the age of 38. A downtown alley is named for him in San Francisco.

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