Captain Joseph Libby Folsom arrived in California in 1847 as a staff officer with the New York Volunteers, a regiment of men formed in New York under the command of Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson. A native of New Hampshire, a graduate of West Point and a veteran of Indian wars, Folsom joined the Volunteers in New York and served as the regiment’s assistant quartermaster.
The orders for Colonel Stevenson were for a military occupation of California, in which Stevenson was to cooperate with Commodore Sloat, the current Naval commander for the US Pacific Fleet, and to serve under General Kearny who was at that time marching from the Midwest towards southern California. Since San Francisco was seen as the most important area to hold, Stevenson’s regiment was sent there.
However, there was a second and maybe more important reason for the formation of this regiment, which was purposely mostly single men. That was to discharge the men in California once their duty was done, thereby significantly increasing the American civilian presence in the land they hoped to acquire from Mexico.
The men were recruited at several locations around New York and ultimately a total of eight companies of infantry was formed with about 60-70 men per company. The 3rd US Artillery, Company F, was attached to give them expertise in that area. This brought the total number of men, officers and enlisted men, to around 720.
Escorted by a small Navy sloop named the Preble, the regiment sailed from New York on September the 26th, 1846, in three transports of about eight hundred tons burden each, the Thomas H. Perkins, Loo Choo and Susan Drew.
Captain Folsom, along with Stevenson and other staff officers, sailed on the Thomas H. Perkins. After a fine passage of little more than five months, the Thomas H. Perkins entered the harbor of San Francisco and anchored off the site of the town, then called Yerba Buena, on the 6th day of March, 1847. The remaining ships arrived soon afterwards.
The New York Volunteers were made up of men from every walk of life, from professional soldiers like Folsom, to blacksmiths, painters and journalists. They are praised gloriously by some authors and yet by others, described more as a rag-tag group made up of criminals and ner-do-wells.
There is some basis for the latter opinion, it being that Stevenson himself, was apparently fleeing from some civil authorities at the time the ships left. Also, during the trip there was a time when Stevenson’s handling of one soldier created a concern of possible mutiny.
Folsom carried the message to Stevenson who was resting in his quarters. Upon hearing Folsom’s concerns about the possible mutiny, Stevenson pointed out to Folsom that he had carefully laid a trail of gunpowder from his bunk to the powder storage in the ship’s hold and that he would light the trail should a mutiny occur.
When Folsom carried Stevenson’s message to the remainder of the men on board, the talk of mutiny subsided.
Upon their arrival in Alta California the regiment found it in quiet possession of the American land and naval forces.
Most of the regiment was posted in small detachments throughout the various towns with a few companies being sent into Mexico, where they faced little opposition.
Folsom, in addition to serving as Stevenson’s assistant quartermaster, acted as Customs Collector and Harbor Master of the Port of San Francisco in 1848.
A few months after California was ceded to the United States and gold had been discovered at Sutter’s mill, the men were discharged.
Not only a professional soldier who had taught at West Point after his graduation from it, Folsom was also a businessman with good sense. Even though he, like the other soldiers, had difficulty living on the meager wages paid soldiers at the time, he was able to find enough money to purchase several lots in the now booming city of San Francisco. It was a man named William Leidesdorff from whom he purchased the land.
William Leidesdorff owned not only a significant amount of property in San Francisco, but the 35,000 acre Rancho Rio de Los Americanos, east of today’s Sacramento.
A short time after Folsom purchased the lots from Leidesdorff, Leidesdorff unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 38. Some authors say that Folsom was appointed executor of Leidesdorff’s estate and others say that he wasn’t. In any case, he found out about Leidesdorff’s land holdings and wanted them.
In 1849 Folsom went to the Danish West Indies (now Virgin Islands) to visit with Leidesdorff’s relatives, including the lady believed to be his mullato mother, Anna Marie Spark or Sparks. Using $75,000 that he had raised from investors, he purchased their interest in the estate, later estimated to be worth $1,500,000 as a result of the discovery of gold.
He then returned to California believing he held full title to the lands. Unfortunately, when the news of the transaction spread there were other relatives of Leidesdorff who believed they had been cheated, both in the Danish West Indies and in Hungary, where some others believed he was born.
The legal challenges from the relatives in the Danish West Indies were easily overcome since there was a law in effect that did not allow non-whites to testify against whites in court. The suits by the Hungarian “relatives” were ultimately dismissed for being too late, but not until the following century.
Although in serious debt having to borrow money to pay the cost of unending lawsuits, Folsom was one of the richest men in California, based simply on his land holdings.
He built an elaborate residence for himself in San Francisco, complete with stables, a conservatory and a large garden. But, hundreds of immigrants and gold seekers were arriving in California daily and squatters were becoming a serious problem everywhere, not only on his San Francisco lots, but on the Rancho Rio de Los Americanos where gold had been discovered at several locations, including Negro Bar.
Hiring guards to protect his San Francisco lots, Folsom set about developing the Rancho Rio de Los Americanos. He selected a site near the American River for a town, which he named Granite City, and, in 1854, went looking for help in developing it.
Colonel Charles Lincoln Wilson, a businessman who had arrived in California in 1849 was attempting to build a railroad from Sacramento to Negro Bar and then outward from there. After incorporating the Sacramento Valley Railroad, he headed back east to find money, rails, rolling stock and someone to engineer it. In 1854 he returned to California with an experienced railroad survey engineer named Theodore Judah.
Folsom found Judah at his office in the Sacramento’s Hasting’s Building, at the southwest corner of 2nd and J Streets, and hired him to survey and lay out his new city.
The lots in Granite City, with streets named for early California pioneers, along with friends and relatives of Folsom, were ready to sell in June of 1855, and by January of 1856, all were sold.
Folsom would have again been rich from the sale of the lots, except for the fact that in July of 1855 he had died while visiting at Mission San Jose.
Like Leidesdorff, Folsom was only 38 and a bachelor when he died. It would be left to his heirs to complete the building of the town and conferring to it the name Folsom after its founder.
Not much is known as to why Folsom died, but according to W. F. Swasey, in his book “The Early Days and Men of California,” “His obsequies took place in San Francisco and were an imposing pageant.”
His memorial was the town of Folsom, on the site of Rancho Rio De Los Americanos, 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.
Robert Ernest Cowan connects two of them in a comparison of Leidesdorff and Folsom, that was 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.”