navigation bar Houghton Mifflin Social Studies California Studies
Biographies Unit Biographies

William Leidesdorff 1810–1848
Important San Francisco Citizen

William Leidesdorff was born in the Danish Virgin Islands, which are located in the Caribbean Sea. His mother was an enslaved African–Caribbean woman. When he was a young man, Leidesdorff was sent to New Orleans to work for his uncle's cotton business as a master of ships sailing between New York and New Orleans. Soon afterwards, both his father and uncle died, leaving him a good–sized inheritance.

In 1841, he bought a trading ship and sailed to California. Leidesdorff landed in Yerba Buena (present-day San Francisco). It was then just a small village. Leidesdorff and his ship made regular trips between California and Hawaii to move materials and products between the two locations. He built a store, a warehouse, and a hotel on land grants from the Mexican government. Leidesdorff became a leader in the community. He bought a large house and hosted parties for visiting government officials. He was elected to the city council. He also served as chairman of the school board. In 1848, he oversaw the building of San Francisco's first public school.

Leidesdorff is remembered for another San Francisco “first.” He was the first person to launch a steamboat on San Francisco Bay. He was a citizen who led California's economic and political development.

Comprehension Check

Why did Leidesdorff leave the Caribbean?

Critical Thinking

In what ways did Leidesdorff become a leader in San Francisco's community?