The Story of William Leidesdorff, “California’s African Founding Father”


Hello and welcome to Essential California newsletter. This is Thursday June 23. I am Justin Ray.

The name of a California recreation area has been changed because it was deemed offensive. This is not the first time that the state has seen locals re-evaluate the name of a regionbut the controversy deserves closer examination.

California’s State Park and Recreation Commission has voted to temporarily rename a historic site park formerly known as Negro Bar while a new name is chosen. It will be known as Black Miners Bar, the commission said in a 7-0 vote.

For years, residents and visitors have been calling for a name change. An online petition launched in 2018 collected nearly 68,000 signatures. It was started by Phaedra Jones, a Stockton resident, a black woman, who was on his way to deliver an Uber Eats order and was outraged when she spotted a sign with the name “Negro Bar”. The petition notes that this is actually the milder version of its original, offensive name. (Zoom into San Juan and look right.)

While reading about the controversy, I heard about a man named William Leidesdorff, who once owned the land. When I tried to find recent articles about him published by this newspaper, I could not find any. So, I want to take this opportunity as the writer of this newsletter, while I have it, to tell the world about “California’s African Founding Father”.

The following information is from the book by author and civil rights activist Sue Bailey ThurmanBlack Pioneers in California“, the Sacramento bee, the San Francisco Examiner and the state legislature.

The legacy of William Leidesdorff

A photo of William A. Leidesdorff in “Pioneers of Negro Origin in California” by Sue Bailey Thurman.

(Justin Ray/Los Angeles Times)

William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. was born in 1810 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to Danish sugar planter William Leidesdorff and Anna Marie Sparks, an African.

He left as a youth, traveling to New Orleans to partake in the maritime trade. He became a captain of ships, sailing between New Orleans and New York. He also accumulated wealth.

But the West called him, urging him to sell his New Orleans assets and buy a 106-ton schooner named Julia Ann, who took him across the Pacific Ocean. After several months, he landed in the quiet Mexican fishing village of Yerba Buena Cove (part of present-day San Francisco) to create a world maritime center.

His ability to speak Spanish (in addition to at least five other languages) helped him build ties with the Mexican government. In 1843, Leidesdorff was naturalized as a Mexican citizen, which was done to help him acquire a large grant of land from Mexican authorities in the Sacramento Valley.

With dual citizenship, he was granted a grant of 35,521 acres of prime real estate on the left bank of the American River. He named it Rancho Rio de Los Americanos. Through global trade and the financing of business ventures, he helped stabilize and develop the Sacramento Valley. He also had the distinction of being the first African-American diplomat in history (even before Frederick Douglass), having been appointed Vice Consul to Mexico by Consul Thomas Oliver Larkin, serving under the jurisdiction of Commodore Robert F. Stockton , who was the military governor. from California. These accomplishments led him to be affectionately dubbed the “African Founding Father of California”.

But his legacy includes shameful chapters. He accepted Native American slaves from a friend John Sutter to pay off debts, an example of the little-recognized institution of native slavery that took place in the Golden State in the 1850s and 1860s. Leidesdorff also hosted the first recorded minstrel show on the West Coast.

When he died of typhus in 1848, he had no children or will, which sparked a battle for his estate. One of the areas he owned was the land at the center of the name dispute that started this newsletter. It was taken over by black gold miners, who were able to accumulate wealth and escape poverty.

* A fun fact: To find a book on William Leidesdorff in Los Angeles, I went to the Central Library downtown. A librarian noted that a book I was interested in had water damage and ripples. (She told me that each book had two stories – one inside and one outside.) She explained that the work injuries came from the great fire that engulfed the branch in 1986. Then she told me about a writer who documented the aftermath. She walked up and down the steps, talking to the staff about the incident. You couldn’t miss her because her hair was as red as the flames she would eventually tell. That writer was Susan Orlean.

A partially open book on a table.

Sue Bailey Thurman’s book ‘Pioneers of Negro Origin in California’ at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. The book suffered water damage from a fire on April 29, 1986.

(Justin Ray)

* Another note: Essential California will be written by my colleagues next week while I’m on vacation.

And now, Here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Interactive report: Black LA is all around us. I wanted to share this just in case you missed it. The LA Times has created an interactive story about “the beauty of Black Los Angeles”. We interviewed and took amazing portraits of the community. “We bring such a story to every place we go,” said Michael J. Fisher, senior pastor of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton. “We bring a culinary aspect, we bring the arts, we bring the dance, we will bring the energy, the poetry. Los Angeles Times

Portraits of Blacks.

A new series of portraits from The Times lets Black Los Angeles speak for itself.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

A woman and two dogs were fatally struck by lightning Wednesday morning in Pico Rivera as thunderstorms battered southern California, prompting authorities to temporarily close beaches and stay on high alert for fires sparked by dry lightning. Los Angeles Times

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California officials have recovered $1.1 billion in unemployment insurance funds as part of an ongoing investigation into widespread pandemic-related fraud. Most of the money, from about 780,000 inactivated benefit cards, will be returned to the federal government as claims went through the Emergency Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Gavin Newsom. Los Angeles Times

A person is running near a building with the words

A California Employment Development Department office in Sacramento.

(Associated Press)


Bill Cosby sexually abused teenage Judy Huth at the Playboy Mansion in the mid-1970s, a civil jury ruled Tuesday in Santa Monica. The disgraced comedian, 84, was ordered to pay Huth $500,000. Los Angeles Times

Police have arrested a man charged with hate crimes after several anti-Asian graffiti were found in a Northern California home. San Leandro police say someone vandalized a for sale sign in front of the house. The property’s realtor initially did not want to report the incident, but decided to do so after racist graffiti appeared on the garage. Nicholas Swyers, 25, was arrested early Monday. ABC 7


Chronicle: I dodged COVID for over two years. The last push finally got me. Opinion columnist Robin Abcarian talks about finally catching COVID-19. “Tuesday morning I woke up with a sore throat, a slight fever and the nauseating feeling that my luck had passed. Two red lines on the rapid antigen test confirmed this,” writes Abcarian. “With two vaccines and one reminder under my belt, how sick could I get?” Turns out, worse than she thought. Los Angeles Times

Eight scattered red pills.

Molnupiravir, an effective antiviral against COVID-19.


In California, it barely pays to care for needy seniors at home. As of December, more than 666,000 Californians were authorized recipients of home support services, according to the state Department of Human Services. These numbers are set to increase, but the state is already lagging behind in its ability to provide these services. In 2020, the state auditor found that more than 32 million hours of assessed need were unmet statewide. Why? Low wages can make the job unattractive to potential assistants. Women make up 88.6% of the workforce, with 54.6% of workers being women of color and more than a quarter of them being immigrants. Capital and main


Shortage of Sriracha hot sauce and California drought. Huy Fong Foods has been making its world famous sriracha hot sauce in Irwindale for four decades. However, climate change is affecting the company’s ability to produce hot products. Heat and drought have affected crops of hot peppers from which sriracha is made, and the company has had to suspend production until at least autumn this year. Radio Canada

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 86. San Diego: Sunny, 74. San Francisco: Sunny, 71. San Jose: Sunny, 87. Fresno: Sunny, 104. Sacrament: Sunny, 97.


Today california memory is of Elizabeth Stewart:

“We often camped summers at Hendy Woods State Park when the kids were little. We all loved it: the pebble beaches of the Navarro River, the majestic silence of the old redwoods, the campsites under the trees with their rustic convenience, the raucous cries of Steller’s jays. The kids had the run of the place. While enjoying a coffee one morning, we saw Roddy, about 10 years old, running up the river with excitement. He got up at dawn and went exploring. “Mom! Dad! I saw it running along the bank! Then it crept! An otter!”

If you have a memory or a story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please limit your story to 100 words.)

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