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LEIDESDORFF, WILLIAM:

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One of the earliest settlers in California; born (at Szathmar, Hungary ?) about 1802; died at San Francisco May 18, 1848. He was the son of Mordecai Leidesdorff; his cousin Yitl (Henrietta) married Akiba Eger, and their daughter married Moses Sofer (Schreiber). William Leidesdorff left his home when about fifteen years of age, and his family never heard from him again. 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. He passed as a native of Jamaica, 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." On arriving at Yerba Buena he began the establishment of extensive commercial relations with "the States." When the American flag was raised over San Francisco (July, 1846) he became vice-consul. He bore a high reputation for integrity and enterprise. He is said to have been "liberal, hospitable, cordial, confiding even to a fault." Leidesdorff became the wealthiest man in San Francisco. During the eight years of his residence there he organized the first American public school, served as alcalde, as a member of the Ayuntamiento, as one of the six aldermen, or town-councilors, and as city treasurer. On the day of his burial the town was in mourning, the flags were at half-mast, business was suspended, and the schools were closed. His remains were interred in the Roman Catholic graveyard behind the church of the Mission Dolores. Leidesdorff street was named for him.

The Leidesdorff Estate.

It is reasonably certain that William Leidesdorff of San Francisco and Wolf Leidesdorfer of Szathmar, Hungary, were one person. But legally that fact has never been established. The California pioneer died intestate, and the court appointed Captain John L. Folsom temporary 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, then worth a million and a half, and suggested that proceedings be commenced for its recovery ("Journal of the Senate of California," 1854). 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.

Bibliography:
  • California Reports, 1854;
  • Journal of the Senate of California, 1854: Soule, Annals of San Francisco;
  • Hittell, History of California, vols. ii. and iv.;
  • Sweasy, Early Days and Men of California.
A. J. V.
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