William Alexander Leidesdorf was the first black millionaire. His wealth was based on assets. Born in the Virgin Islands, Leidesdorf left for New Orleans at a young age and worked in trading. He was a sailor who had made a good living sailing from Louisiana to New York.
One year, he purchased the 106-ton ship he named “Julia Ann” and sailed to San Francisco. He would change the financial structure of the town by building the first steamship, the first shipping warehouse, hotels and horse track on the San Francisco Bay.
Leidesdorf was appointed Vice Consul to Mexico by Consul Thomas Oliver Larkin in 1845, becoming the nation’s first black diplomat. He held a reputation for having the largest home in the city and threw parties for the rich visitors in town.
At age 38, Leidesdorf was stricken with brain fever. He died suddenly. As a highly respected diplomat, he was given the city’s highest honors at his funeral. Flags hung at half-mast from all military barracks and vessels in the port. Guns were fired during the funeral procession. He was buried inside Mission Dolores church, where the most respected individuals were interred.
The Leidesdorf estate had a reported $50,000 in debt on the property. But the land had been the same land that was near a recent gold discovery. Upon further inquiry, gold was discovered on Liedesdorf’s property, worth nearly $1.5 million.
Relatives from all over the country came to inquire about heirs to the Leidesdorf fortune. The Captain of the U.S. Army, Captain Joseph Libby Folsom, traced Leidesdorf’s heritage back to his mother, who was still living in the Virgin Islands. He paid her $75,000 for the title to the estate. Folsom only enjoyed the wealth for a short period of time, as he died at age 38 like Leidesdorf.