Folsom's Roots

February has been federally recognized as Black History Month since 1976 to celebrate and remember not only the history but modern day accomplishments of African Americans. While Folsom’s Black history is not always forefront in the town’s narrative, it is important to talk about because there would not be a Folsom as we know it today without Black pioneers and their contributions, big or small.

1966 Wilbert Murray Painting of Leidesdorff in our collection

Most people in Folsom know William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr., a big name in both San Francisco’s and our roots. He was biracial and owned the Rancho Rio De los Americanos, a Mexican land grant that included what is now modern day Folsom. Born in 1810 in the Danish West Indies, Leidesdorff came to California in 1841 and worked as a merchant. After becoming a Mexican citizen in 1844, he was given the aforementioned land grant and served as the United States vice-consul to Mexico, treasurer of San Francisco and served on the board of San Francisco’s first school. Before the Gold Rush, Leidesdorff died of typhus in 1848, leaving the 35,000 acre land grant without an heir which allowed Joseph Folsom able to come in and purchase it from Leidesdorff’s mother, Anna Marie Spark, who lived in St. Croix and had no idea how much the land was really worth.

Map showing Negro Bar where Folsom is today

There is also Negro Bar although information about this area which became Folsom is limited at best. Many researchers, especially recently with the controversy surrounding the name, come to us for its history and while I am able to provide some, it is mostly later, after Black miners had already been pushed out and the town was built up. Gold was first found here by Black miners in 1849, one of the founders was a man named Samuel Smith, whose history is unknown other than he was arrested for the murder of an Irishman in 1860, in which famous Folsom names such as James Meredith, B.N. Bugby and Edward Stockton defended him, saying it was not in his character. He was found guilty and sent to San Quinten and from here disappears from our narrative, which is unfortunate as he was one of the first to find gold in the area and was possibly innocent of his crime.

James "Honey" Cook

Stella Cook

There is also James "Honey" Cook and his daughter Stella, who can be found in our virtual exhibit Community: The Big Lives of Small Town People, which is linked on the front page of our website! If you have not checked out their story, or the exhibit in general, I highly encourage you do so after finishing this blog!

If you have been regularly reading my blogs, I am sure you have guessed by now that my interest lies more with the unknown stories, hence the name of the blog series. I love researching people whose lives may not be widely known, but whose very existence is important to the area just because they lived, sometimes we do not have the names and stories for people throughout Folsom’s history, but they are not any less important, which is why I would like to share with you the following images from our archive.

Virginia O'Brien, daughter of Barney O'Brien, a local handyman. Her story is unknown

Peggy O'Brien, daughter of Barney O'Brien, her story is unknown

Unknown men in a hauling wagon c. 1910
Unknown Driver for Dr. Hesser's family

If you are interested in why we do not have more information regarding Folsom’s Black community, please contact us! We would love to have a conversation with you about it and share resources about inclusion in museums.