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Some Highlights of Jewish Life in the American West

by Jim Dunham

WS2847-^Jewish Cemetery-Placerville,CA [1970]THE ROLE of Jewish men and women in America’s great frontier experiment has generally gone unreported, but their contribution was significant.

German-born Joseph Simon (1712-1804) was 28 when he arrived in America in 1740 and set out to trade with the Native peoples on the Susquehanna River. He settled in Hickory Town, which later changed its name to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Simon became the first Jew to walk the paths that led to America’s new Western lands. His granddaughter, the well-known Rebecca Gratz, would become the superintendent of the first Jewish supplemental school in America, in Philadelphia.

Following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark “Voyage of Discovery,” the American frontier really opened up. The first explorers into Indian territory were the men who hoped to trade for valuable furs, especially beaver hides as they made the most desirable hats, which were in demand worldwide. In 1807, Joseph Philipson, a 34-year-old Jew from Philadelphia, opened a Saint Louis, Missouri trading post that bought furs and provided supplies to the mountain men who trapped in the beaver ponds or traded with the Indians. In 1808, Joseph’s brother Jacob arrived to help manage the Philipson and Brother Company store. When fashion gave way to silk hats and beaver prices fell, the brothers turned to purchasing buffalo hides.

The discovery of Gold in California in 1848 opened a floodgate of folks seeking a fortune in the precious metal. They traveled by every means possible: walking, riding, and by ship sailing around the horn and up the Pacific coast. By 1877, California had more communities where Jews were to be found than any state in the union, except possibility New York. The far West accounted for eight percent of all Jews in the United States, and the West not only offered economic opportunity, but social acceptance as well. All types of people were struggling to make it in a hard land, and they tended to support one another.

America was entering the industrial age with a passion and industry, and many Western cities provided work for Jewish workers, especially in the garment business. From the 1850s, Jews were involved in the sewing of clothes in Western towns, and often they sold directly to the public from family-run shops.

Levi Strauss is unquestionably the most famous person related to making clothing, as he is credited for heading West with white canvas duck intending to make tents and discovering that the California miners desperately needed pants instead. He dyed his cloth indigo blue and made trousers with metal rivets reinforcing the seams. His Levi pants became world famous. Jacob Davis, a Russian Jewish tailor, living in Reno, Nevada during the 1870s also became famous for his “work pants for gents.”

brooksIn 1853, 16-year-old Fanny Brooks (pictured at right) and her husband Julius left the port of Hamburg, Germany for a three-week crossing to New York City. She was a graduate of a girl’s school and spoke several languages, and quickly picked up English. She also entertained her fellow shipmates by playing the piano and guitar.

The Brooks joined a wagon train in Nebraska and headed West along with one hundred other families. Fanny and Julius reached Salt Lake City in the fall of 1854 and stayed throughout the severe winter. In the spring of 1855, they continued West and opened a general merchandise store in Marysville, California. Marysville was named for a survivor of the Donner party, Mary Murphy Clovilland, and was founded in 1842 near the confluence of the Feather and Yuba Rivers. The town served the needs of the mining community, and its growing population offered an active social life. In October, 1856, seventy couples met at the Marysville City Hall to hold a dinner dance to benefit the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The first Jewish cemetery was consecrated the year before.

Life was not easy, and Fanny lost more than one baby in childbirth during the four years they lived in Marysville. In 1858, the Brooks moved to the mining camp of Timbuctoo, just north of Marysville. Julius opened a store selling miner’s clothing, picks, shovels, nails, tobacco, and groceries. Fanny and Julius tried several other locations and visited relatives back east before eventually settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. The couple built a millinery store, took in boarders, purchased real estate, and ran a retail and wholesale business. At this time there was estimated to be 180 Jews in Salt Lake City, but they were both accepted and thrived among the largely Mormon community. Julius died in 1891 while traveling overseas; Fanny died a decade later. Both are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Salt Lake City. When the Salt Lake City Synagogue was built in 1890, one photograph was placed in the cornerstone, that of Fanny Brooks, the first Jewish woman to settle in Utah Territory.

BY THE 1870S the Main Streets of Trinidad, Colorado; Prescott, Arizona; Virginia City, Nevada; Albany, Oregon; and Tacoma, Washington all held clusters of Jewish stores selling dry goods and all kinds of provisions. Other shops offered services of barbers, watchmakers, tailors, saloons, and restaurants. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Spiegelberg brothers bought produce, sheep, and cattle from farmers and ranchers and sold them to the U.S. Army and to the Indian Pueblos and reservations.

po0792paAs Western towns grew in size, the needs of the communities also grew, and many Jews stepped up to serve in leadership roles. Jewish business men were active in Masonic Lodges, service groups, and politics. In Prescott, Arizona, Morris Goldwater (pictured at left) organized the local bank, financed the railroad to Phoenix, and served as mayor for twenty-two years.

In Portland, Joseph Simon, the son of a retired merchant, became the state’s Republican boss in the early 1880s and was eventually chosen to be a United States Senator. Simon preferred Oregon over Washington D.C. and after one term returned to serve as mayor of Portland.

By the 1890s, Yiddish theatrical groups were formed in San Francisco and dramas and debates were presented to the community. Yiddish newspapers also were published in San Francisco, Portland, and elsewhere in the West. Los Angeles soon had a Jewish population to rival San Francisco, and there Yiddish culture prospered. Denver, Colorado was another city with a large Jewish population where, in 1899, B’nai B’rith opened the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives.

PICT0008-1-300x249Perhaps the most odd story is that of Solomon Bibo (pictured at right) who married an Acoma Pueblo Indian woman and became the governor of their New Mexico Pueblo village — the only non-Indian ever to lead a Pueblo.

JOSEPHINE SARAH MARCUS was born in New York City in 1861 to a Prussian Jewish family. Her father worked as a baker. The family moved to San Francisco, where she attended dance school as a young girl. When her father had difficulty finding work, the family moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law in a working-class tenement building. Although only a teenager, Josie ran away from home and joined the Pauline Markham Theater troupe, which was headed to Arizona to perform Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. Josie met and became involved with John Behan, a peace officer and later Cochise County Sheriff. He took her to Tombstone, where she met Wyatt Earp. Years after the events of the infamous O.K. Corral Gunfight between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against Ike Clanton’s Cowboy gang, Wyatt went to California to visit family and renew a relationship with Josephine.

Josephine-Sarah-Marcus-c1881-220x300Josephine (at right), whom Wyatt always called “Sadie,” said that they were married in 1887, and they were together until Wyatt’s death in 1929. Their adventures took them to the gold fields of Nome, Alaska and to the faro games, horse races, and boxing matches of northern California. Wyatt died just shy of 81, and Josephine had him buried in the Marcus family plot in the Jewish Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California. When Josie died fifteen years later, she was buried next to him. Her parents and brother are buried nearby. Their romance that lasted nearly half a century is one of the great stories of the West.

Jim Dunham is director of special projects and historian for the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. He is an accomplished fancy gun handler and has taught gun tricks to Hollywood actors and stunt artists. He also presents a program of history and culture of the Plains Indians.