Leland Stanford was born on March 9, 1824 in Watervliet Township near Albany, New York. His father, Josiah Stanford, and mother, Elizabeth Phillips Stanford, were both descended from English stock. At the time of Leland's birth, Josiah was tavern keeper at the Bull's Head Tavern on the road from Schenectady to Albany. Leland attended local schools until he was twelve. In 1836 the family moved to Elm Grove, New York where his father rented and operated the Elm Grove Hotel on the Schenectady Turnpike. For the next three years Leland studied at home with private teachers. In 1840 Josiah bought the hotel and a large parcel of land on which he operated a farm. (He retained ownership of the property until 1858 when he moved to Locust Grove near Schenectady.)
In 1841, at the age of seventeen, Leland left home to pursue his studies at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. In 1844 he transferred to the Methodist Cazenovia Seminary near Syracuse, New York. In 1845 the young Stanford left Cazenovia and apprenticed in the law office of Wheaton, Doolittle, and Hadley in Albany, New York. He was admitted to the bar in New York state in 1848 and offered a position in the firm. While in Albany, he met Jane Lathrop and the couple were engaged to be married as soon as Stanford had established himself in his new profession. Instead of taking the position offered in the firm of Wheaton, Doolittle, and Hadley, Stanford moved west to the newly established town of Port Washington, Wisconsin, where he established a law practice. In 1850 he was nominated by the Whig Party for the position of Washington County District Attorney. He was not elected, but that same year he married Jane Lathrop and they set up their residence in Port Washington.
Following the discovery of gold in California, Leland's five brothers went to California to try their luck in the gold fields. On March 16, 1852, a fire destroyed Stanford's law office and his law library in Port Washington. He had been considering moving to California to join his brothers when the fire decided the issue. In June he sailed out of New York bound for California via Nicaragua arriving in San Francisco on July 12, 1852. At the urging of her parents, Jane remained with her family in Albany until Leland had established a suitable home for her in California. Josiah, the first Stanford brother to reach California, quickly gave up digging for gold in the mountains and together with his brother Philip turned to merchandising instead. By the fall of 1852 Leland had joined them and purchased an existing store at Cold Springs in El Dorado County between Coloma and Placerville. N.T. Smith was a partner in the Cold Springs store and Leland's brothers had an interest as well.
The gold at Cold Springs played out soon after Stanford arrived and in the spring of 1853 Stanford and Smith moved their store to Michigan Bluff in Placer County where the "diggins" were richer. Business was brisk and Stanford prospered, but living conditions were primitive. Jane remained in Albany. Stanford was elected Justice of the Peace and served in that capacity until May 1855 when he sold his interest in the store and returned to Albany to be with his wife following the death of her father. Leland and Jane returned to California together in the fall of 1885. Leland took over the ownership of the Sacramento store on K Street and two of his brothers, Josiah and Philip established a new store in San Francisco. Both stores used the "Stanford Brothers" name and they obviously worked closely together. In 1856 Leland moved his store into a new fireproof building on Front Street. In March 1858 Leland took David Meeker on as a partner in the Sacramento store and the name was changed to "Stanford Brothers and Meeker." The partnership dissolved a year later and the name was changed back to Stanford Brothers.
Stanford was involved in numerous community endeavors and was one of the first life members and an original trustee for the Sacramento Public Library. Among the other original seventeen life members were C.P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. Stanford was one of the founders in the formation of the Republican Party in Sacramento in 1856. (Prior to this he had been identified with the Whig Party.) In 1857 he ran for State Treasurer on the new Republican ticket and in 1859 was the Republican nominee for Governor. He lost both elections. Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker were also founding members of the Republican Party in Sacramento, and the four men met often to discuss party affairs. On November 6, 1860, the newly formed Republican Party was able to deliver California for Lincoln and, on September 4, 1861, to elect Leland Stanford as its governor. (Fort Sumter had been attacked on April 12, 1861.)