During his short life, William Alexander Leidesdorff accumulated great wealth. Yet, what happened to his wealth after he died is a story in itself.
The Aftermath of Leidesdorff’s Death
In addition to his riches, Leidesdorff left many debts. Many of those were a result of his financing of businesses and other ventures like Fremont’s expeditions.
According to Sue Bailey Thurman, author of Pioneers of Negro Origin in California, at the time of his death, Leidesdorff’ ‘s property was saddled with $50,000 in debts. In today’s money that is almost $2 million.
The discovery of gold in 1848, the same year he died increased Leidesdorff’s property’s value immensely. Soon his estate was worth nearly a million dollars, which would be approximately $37.5 million today’s dollars. But, unfortunately, Leidesdorff was never able to enjoy it.
The value of his estate attracted attention after he died.
Captain Joseph Libby Folsom
One of those interested was a U.S. Army infantry captain named Joseph Libby Folsom.
Folsom saw California as a place of massive potential. “Any person who could come in here now with ready cash, would be certain of doubling his money in a few months. Large fortunes will be made here within the ensuing year…”
Folsom was willing to make risky bets on that potential, and Leidesforff’s property was to be the key.
Folsom knew Leidesdorff when he was the customs collector of the Port of San Francisco. Folsom had purchased some property from Leidesdorff before his death. Now he recognized an opportunity to expand his holdings.
Folsom’s goal was to see if he could acquire Leidesdorff’s estate, notably his rancho on the American River. When he discovered that Leidesdorff had died without heirs, he traveled to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. There, he found William’s mother, Anna. The officer convinced Anna to accept $75,000 for the title to her son’s property. At the time, the sum was worth approximately $3 million in today’s dollars.
Thanks to the increase in land values after the Gold Rush, Folsom soon became a wealthy man, at least on paper. He wound up developing the land on the American River, making plans for a town he called “Granite City.” He he had the town laid out in 1855.
Struggling to Keep the Land
With his newfound wealth, Folsom found that keeping it was as challenging as acquiring it. Like the Californios, who had received land grants before the war with the U.S., Folsom had to fight to keep his land. He had to protect his rancho from squatters, and to borrow money to defend against constant legal challenges.
It could be that all these struggles took a toll on Folsom’s health. In 1855, he died suddenly. He was visiting friends in Mission San José, today’s City of Fremont, named after the man Leidesdorff had gone into debt to finance.
A Belated Victory
Folsom was 38 years old, the same age as William Alexander Leidesdorff when he died a few years earlier. Like Leidesdorff, he was never able to enjoy the fruits of his land in gold country.
Even so, a month after Folsom’s death, he won his legal battles. The U.S. Land Commission confirmed his title to Leidesdorff’s Rancho Río de los Americanos.
To honor the ill-fated Army captain, local officials renamed Granite City “Folsom.” The town still bears his name.
Despite the Land Commission’s ruling, many still question Folsom’s dealings with Leidesdorff’s mother. Was he ethical? Did he take advantage of her? Opinion is divided.
Even so, some historians have come to Folsom’s defense.
Herb Puffer, the owner of Pacific Western Traders in Folsom, California, one of the first Native American art stores in Northern California, devoted decades to researching Captain Folsom’s history. He believed history had been too hard on Folsom.
“$75,000 was a lot of money at that time and a lot of the estate was up in the air,” says Puffer. “No one knew if the Rancho (which included the future town of Folsom) would even be part of the estate settlement…Maybe the accusations surrounding Folsom’s dealings with Leidesdorff’s heirs came from people who were jealous that they didn’t have the courage to take a chance like Folsom.”
Whatever the case may be, struggles over land have always been part of the California frontier.