Captain Folsom: Soldier of Misfortune

By Debi Drake-Maurer

Fame, rather than fortune, first lured thirty-year-old New Hampshire native Captain Joseph Libbey Folsom to California in 1847. The promise of a good fight between the United States and Mexico over the vast lands west of the Sierra Nevada mountains appealed to the career military man. A combination of his own ambition and the persuasion of political connections landed Folsom, a veteran of the Seminole Indian War in Florida and an ace tactics instructor at West Point, a spot on the prestigious Stevenson New York Regiment heading for California.
Folsom arrived in Yerba Buena (early San Francisco) with his cohorts, spoiling for a chance to make his mark in the Mexican War. Within a year, the U.S. had wrested control of the fertile lands from Mexico. In addition to Folsom's rank as Captain, Staff-Assistant Quartermaster, he acted as Customs Collector and Harbor Master of the Port of San Francisco in 1848.

Folsom was an astute businessman for his time who struggled with living on Army wages during a period of outrageous fortunes and inflation. In an October 8, 1848 report to General Thomas S. Jesup in Washington D.C., Quartermaster General, Folsom notes,”I think California affords means for the investment of capital such as few other countries offer. 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, and I am told that there are some hundreds of persons who have already made on an average, $25,000 each. . . . When I came to this place (San Francisco) I expended a few hundred dollars in waste lots, covered with bushes and sand hills. . . What cost me less than $800, I suppose I could now sell for $8000. It is this consideration which makes me willing to return to a country where my salary is insufficient for my support."

The lots Folsom purchased were owned by William Leidesdorff, who controlled vast amounts of California land. Less than a month after buying the lots, the entire Leidesdorff estate beckoned to Folsom when Leidesdorff died unexpectedly at age 38 in San Francisco.

Knowing of Leidesdorff's Danish West Indies heritage, Folsom raised enough capital in New York that summer to acquire the estate, and he traveled to the islands to locate the heirs.

Folsom made two or three trips to the West Indies, apparently mixing business with pleasure. In a letter from Mrs. Gilbert, wife of the U.S. Commissioner to the West Indies, she tells Folsom that he's made quite a splash with the high toned ladies. Many would have liked to have 'set their cap' for him, she said.

There is some debate as to the methods Folsom used in acquiring the rights to the estate. Some records claim that Leidesdorff's mother, Mrs. Anna Spark, was a Danish West Indies native woman who did not understand the value of her late son's California holdings. She sold her inheritance, which included land in San Francisco and the 35,500 acre Rancho Rio de los Americanos near Sacramento, to Folsom for the sum of $75,000.

Herb Puffer, owner of Pacific Western Traders who's devoted decades to researching Captain Folsom's history, speculates that maybe Folsom didn't take advantage of Leidesdorff's heirs.

"$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. Other prominent San Francisco businessmen noted that they wouldn't have risked their capital like Folsom did. 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."

Although increasing land values in California did make Folsom a millionaire, he was forced to constantly borrow money in order to fend off legal challenges to his purchase of the Leidesdorff estate. There was also a huge problem with squatters trying to take over Folsom's holdings in San Francisco, so he had to hire his own security guards to protect the land. Folsom ended up borrowing on short-term, high interest notes.

Folsom remains an enigmatic figure in history in terms of his personal life. Even though records indicate he was deeply in debt, he built an elaborate cottage residence in San Francisco. It boasted of bathrooms with gas and water pipes throughout and a large conservatory. The grounds included a two-story stable with carriage house, an inexhaustible Artesian well and a valuable garden containing 300 grape vines and various trees and plants.

In spite of his clear title to the Leidesdorff estate being tied up in court, Folsom pursued his dream of developing the 35,500 acres along the American River. In 1854, he chose a townsite near the river, which he named Granite City. Folsom then hired Theodore Judah to survey and lay out the town in 1855. The original streets still bear the names of Folsom's family, friends and people from California's history, says Puffer.

"Figueroa was a California governor back in the 1830s. Persifer (Smith) and John E. Wool were U.S. generals. Native American heritage is represented by Natoma, believed to be derived from noto mom, the Nisenan Maidu word for the river at this point, ‘east water.’ Decatur was Folsom's nephew and Forrest was his sister's married name," says Puffer. He's managed to connect every street to something or someone relevant to Folsom's life except one: Sibley.

Folsom also recognized the historical importance of what he and others were doing in California. He took the initiative and sent for safekeeping to the National Institute (now the Smithsonian in Washington, DC) what is claimed to be the first flake of gold taken from John Sutter's sawmill along the South Fork of the American River. Visitors today can still view this gold piece along with Folsom's letter from August 23, 1848 and a photograph of James Marshall, the man who picked up the gold and changed the world. Folsom was one of the founders of The Society of California Pioneers.

The stress of fighting the paper battle over his land began to take its toll on Folsom's health. Reports say that he suffered from neuralgia (severe pain along the path of a nerve). The condition often left Folsom gasping for breath and caused insomnia. For reasons not known, Folsom died suddenly on July 19, 1855 while visiting friends at Mission San Jose (now Fremont.) Like Leidesdorff, Folsom was a 38-year-old bachelor when he died.

Although his millions came and went once claims against his estate were settled, Captain Joseph Folsom's name is forever etched into California's history. Executors of his estate renamed "Granite City"in his honor. By January, 1856, every lot had been sold and "Folsom" was home to three new hotels. Even when the gold rush fever died, the town continued to prosper, just as its founder envisioned.

A special thank you goes out to Herb Puffer for sharing his original research.

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