Monthly Archives: February 2015

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (1810? – 1848)

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.

On the north side of Highway 50, just to the west of El Dorado County, there is a sign saying that you are traveling on the “William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Memorial Highway.” Few people know of this person, but he was one of the Founding Fathers of California, and likely of African descent.

The name William Alexander Leidesdorff is not as familiar as many of the others we know from the era when California was still controlled by Mexico. He was an astute businessman who came to California in 1839 and by 1841 had settled in Yerba Buena (later known as San Francisco).

He constructed and opened the first hotel in that city, served as its treasurer, opened its first school and even served as Vice Counsel for the United States.
Soon after his arrival, he became a Mexican citizen which allowed him to acquire a huge land grant. His 35,000 acre cattle ranch, which was known as “Rancho de Los Americanos,” would lie to the east of John Sutter’s Fort at “New Helvetia” and contain today’s City of Folsom.

In 1848, just after the discovery of gold at Coloma and the acquisition of California by the United States, Leidesdorff died of typhus and was buried at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. He was 38.

In memory of this early pioneer, there is a five block long street in San Francisco named for him.

That much we know for sure. The rest of the story about him comes in at least two versions.

A substantial majority of those who have written about Leidesdorff, place the year of his birth as 1810 and the place of his birth in the Danish West Indies (often St. Croix). His mother was an unmarried mullato woman and his father was either a Danish sailor or a Danish man involved in the sugar cane industry.

As a young man Leidesdorff traveled to the eastern and then southern part of the United States where he was befriended by a New Orleans plantation owner and became wealthy.

In his late 20s, he fell in love with a French woman. Unfortunately, his mixed racial background came to light and her family forbid the marriage. She, we are told, died of a broken heart.

Leidesdorff ran away to sea and in 1839 arrived in California. We know what happened from there on. But, let’s go back and look at a different version of Leidesdorff’s early life.
The 12 volume “Jewish Encyclopedia,” published between 1901 and 1906, has a significant discussion about William Leidesdorff (or Leidesdorfer) that differs from this account.
According to it, he was born not in St. Croix in 1810, but probably in Szathmar, Hungary about 1802 . “He was the son of Mordecai Leidesdorff. (His cousin Yitl (Henrietta) married Akiba Eger, and their daughter married Moses Sofer (Schreiber),” it also states).

He left his home when about fifteen years of age, and his family never heard from him again. The encyclopedia then states, “A tradition became current in the Eger and Schreiber families that he had ‘gone to America’ and ‘become a great man.’”

He went to San Francisco (Yerba Buena) in 1840, but his history before his appearance there is obscure.

In Jamaica he passed as a native of Danish extraction. On leaving that island he went to New York, and subsequently to New Orleans, in which latter city he held the office of ‘Captain of the Port.'”

That, you can see, is much different from the first version and from there the story gets even more interesting.

The generally accepted version of what happened following Leidesdorff’s death has Capt. Joseph Libby Folsom going to St. Croix and buying all of Leidesdorff’s holdings including his San Francisco properties, from his mother for $75,000.

When the rest of Leidesdorff’s family heard about gold being discovered at Negro Bar, they believed that they had been taken and filed suit in a California court, claiming that they had been swindled and that not all of the legal owners of the property had sold their share to Folsom. Unfortunately for them, there was an 1850 California law that would not allow blacks, or any other non-whites for that matter, from testifying against whites in a court of law.

The version provided in the “Encyclopedia” is similar to this, but adds a few important points. It indicates that Leidesdorff died without a will and that Captain Folsom was appointed administrator of his large estate. Folsom visited Jamaica and “found some ‘relatives’ – even a woman who claimed to be Leidesdorff’s mother – and purchased the claims of all these people.”

But they obtained no standing in court. The uncertain condition of the probate laws, together with the fact discovered that William Leidesdorff, though he had held federal offices, had never been a citizen of the United States, and the additional fact that these Jamaica ‘relatives’ had sold titles to Captain Folsom which the courts could not approve, created so much confusion regarding the estate that, in 1854, Governor Bigler, in a special message to the senate, recommended the escheat of the estate (reversion of the property to the state), then worth a million and a half dollars, and suggested that proceedings be commenced for its recovery (“Journal of the Senate of California,” 1854).”

The “Encyclopedia” continues, “Another reason why the courts refused to admit the title of the Jamaica relatives was that there were ‘other heirs, who had never conveyed away their rights in the estate’ (Sweasy, “Early Days and Men of California”). These ‘other heirs’ lived in Europe.

“While Leidesdorff passed as a Christian and was buried in a Roman Catholic churchyard, he had never been known to be identified with any church. Some of his intimates claimed to have known that he was of Jewish extraction.

He is said to have been a man of fine appearance, ‘swarthy’ (Sweasy), and of an irascible temperament. He never spoke of his relatives; he never married; and, though conducting a great establishment, he practically lived alone.

The following facts appear in connection with his estate: (1) The claims of his Jamaica ‘relatives’ were thrown out of court, their evidence of relationship being summarily rejected. (2) No Danish family of the name of Leidesdorff ever appeared to claim the estate of William Leidesdorff of San Francisco. (3) Since 1854 the descendants of the Leidesdorfers, and the Eger and Schreiber families of Hungary, through legal representatives, have continued to contest the escheat of the estate, and have established their claims to the satisfaction of many eminent attorneys, though there is at the present time (1904) not the remotest chance of their recovering anything, the statute of limitations covering and protecting every title obtained from John L. Folsom and others who acquired possession.”

The “Encyclopedia” adds as a basis for its contentions the followings references: California Reports, 1854; Journal of the Senate of California, 1854: Soule, “Annals of San Francisco” (1855); Hittell, “History of California,” vols. ii. and iv. (1885-1897); Sweasy, “Early Days and Men of California.”

Whether one of these versions is true and the other wrong, we will probably never know. As with many stories, including some of those that are daily reported in the news, the truth may actually lie somewhere in between. One would think that after a century and a half we would be able to sort out historical facts about early California from fiction or rumor. Unfortunately, even though there were newspapers and books being written and published as this occurred and many of the early settlers were well educated, literate people who kept meticulous journals, that is not always the case.

Joseph Libby Folsom (1817-1855)


Joseph Libby Folsom

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 Alexander LeidesdorffWilliam 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.

Charles Lincoln Wilson

Charles Lincoln Wilson

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.”

Steppin’ Out – The Farm Table: Charcuterie, Good Food and Provisions

TFT-My friend and accomplice, Russ Salazar, has been after me for some time to try The Farm Table, the new restaurant and market at 311 Main Street in Placerville. I had added it to our list, but for some reason we ended up going other places instead.

A week ago last Tuesday we decided to give them a try, so we met there around 11 a.m. to have lunch. We grabbed a couple of menus, a couple of glasses of water and some utensils and found an empty table near the window looking out to Main Street.

Last November I had attended their Grand Opening and sampled a number of the meats and sausages that they make and/or cure themselves, and I was very impressed. Everything was excellent. So, I let Russ pick what we would try that day.

The special of the day was a house-made bratwurst on a poppy seed sandwich roll with whole grain mustard and pickled, braised cabbage. Both of us thought sounded really good. For our second sandwich, he picked the Farm Table Ham and Cheese, made with house-made ham, brie, mushrooms and winter greens on ciabatta, grilled. We asked to have each one cut in two, which is the way two people should share lunch.

You can add sides for $3 each, so he asked what the soup of the day was. It was lamb stew soup, so we has to try that. I was fascinated by the Pickled Root Vegetables, so that too went on our order.

Their food is made to order and it takes time. Don’t expect fast-food speed, so plan on 10 or so minutes or so of pleasant conversation and catching up.

Steppin’ Out – The Habit Burger Grill, Folsom

The_Habit_Burger_Grill_LogoA few weeks ago I was having a delicious burger at Shoestring, on Broadway in Placerville, and got into a conversation with a couple sitting nearby. They were comparing the food with another restaurant, a relatively new chain of burger places called The Habit Burger Grill.

I mentioned that I had been to two different Habits in Sacramento with my daughter and grandkids and really enjoyed the food. The lady asked me if I had been to the new one in Folsom, and I said I hadn’t. She introduced herself as Julie Harrington, the General Manager of that restaurant and gave me a couple of cards for free cheeseburgers, asking me come by. The gentleman with her immediately added that I should be sure and try the grilled albacore sandwich.

The Habit, it turns out, started in Santa Barbara in 1969, and only recently started spreading out, bringing “Santa Barbara Style” burgers to the rest of us.

Well, I had only tried their burgers, so I gave my friend Russ Salazar a call and the next week we drove down the hill to Folsom to visit The Habit which is located at 1115 E.Bidwell St., #126. The restaurant is actually easier to get to by turning south at Blue Ravine and then turning right into the parking lot almost immediately (you’ll see it).

It was about a quarter to noon when we arrived and the restaurant was buzzing with people. We got in line and looked over the menu on the wall. We decided to try the Original Charburger, the Albacore tuna filet and an order of sweet potato fries, along with a couple of drinks.

The line moved fast, so shortly we reached the counter and placed our order. We were handed our drink cups and one of those brown, square buzzers that vibrate and light up when your order is ready. Important: Everything is cooked to order!