One of the gems of Folsom is its History Museum. Its impressive permanent display brings life in Clarksville (the original name of El Dorado Hills), Folsom and Mormon Island into focus, as well as the lives of the Maidu Indians who lived here by the American River for thousands of years.
This month, however, the “rotating” display in the side gallery — the old Wells Fargo Assay Building — is especially worthy of note. This display brings to the forefront the chaotic, tumultuous early years of California: the era when the Golden State was a part of Mexico, then an independent republic and ultimately the 31st state in the Union.
“Folsom’s First Millionaire: the Life of William Alexander Leidesdorff” presents the visitor with a view of California few have heard about — a place where peoples from many ethnicities and cultures found themselves in this new land; each dedicated to making a fortune.
Leidesdorff was of mixed race ancestry. Born in 1810 in the Virgin Islands, his father was a Dutch plantation manager in the West Indies, his mother was a mixed heritage Creole of African, Indian and Spanish descent. Yet, this enterprising young man did not let his ethnicity become a barrier to his success. He traveled to New Orleans and became a master of trading vessels, building an increasing fortune as he traveled west during the Age of Sail.
The exhibit at the Folsom History Museum goes into what life would have been like for a black sailor during this era. It also shows the visitor an image of old California and its leaders. The names play like a map of San Francisco: Sutter, Castro, Folsom, Sloat, Vallejo.
Prior to the Bear Flag Rebellion that led to California’s independence and future statehood, Leidesdorff purchased from the Mexican government a tract of land next to that of John A. Sutter’s Rancho of New Helvetia (New Switzerland). This he called “Rancho de los Americanos” – and this land encompasses much of what we now call the Highway 50 corridor, including present day Folsom.
Leidesdorff was a natural leader of men. He had a sterling reputation for integrity. In 1845 he served as the U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico in the Port of San Francisco. He held dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico.
As a wise entrepreneur with an excellent reputation, his fortunes dramatically rose. He became one of the wealthiest men in California, and at a relatively young age.
He also died at a young age, succumbing to brain fever at 38 in 1848. Flags were flown at half mast in San Francisco, and Leidesdorff was buried with honor at Mission Delores.
The exhibit details the squabbles that broke out over Leidesdorff’s estate, ultimately resulting in the establishment of Granite City by Captain Joseph Libby Folsom – who himself would die young at the age of 38. Granite City would be renamed “Folsom.”
In addition to the fascinating documentation of this era in history, the museum also has on display an iron casket from the 1850s, courtesy of Pettigrew and Sons Casket Company. This mesmerizing, macabre display brings into full force the reality of how Americans mourned their dead, and it is a fitting part of a display on the life and early death of one of California’s founding fathers.
“Folsom’s First Millionaire: the Life of William Alexander Leidesdorff” runs through May 15 at the Folsom History Museum, 823 Sutter St. Visit folsomhistorymuseum.org for hours and admission fees.
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