Devotion and determination: Jews in the California Gold Rush
September 28, 2015
An often overlooked aspect of California history is the story of Jews in the Gold Rush.
Gold Fever was a worldwide phenomenon and the news of the Gold Rush reached across the world. Jewish communities were not immune from the contagion and Jews in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, and even Australia rallied to the opportunity to seek the golden bounty.
An estimated 10,000 Jews joined the rush to the Gold Country. By the end of the Gold Rush era, Jews represented nearly 8 percent of San Francisco's population – the highest percentage in any American city with the exception of New York.
Some Jewish migrants failed (as did members of all the ethnically diverse parties who joined the rush) and some yielded to the seductive allure of readily available Gold Rush vices such as gambling and alcohol, but the majority of Jews in the Gold Rush succeeded and were recognized for their critical contributions in establishing prosperous mining towns and commercial hubs.
In doing so, they retained their cultural and spiritual identity and developed an energetic and influential component of the Gold Rush world. Eliza Farnham, prominent reformer of the era, praised the Jewish community as "much-abused but elastic and persistent."
It is sometimes difficult to find these praiseworthy accounts, however, as a disturbing veil of Anti-Semitism clouds the historical record. There is no avoiding the reality that Jews as a group were generally described with brutally offensive epithets during the period, but further investigation shows that the viewpoint in individual cases was decidedly different.
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When encountering what the historian Jonathan Sarna called "the Jew next door," attitudes changed. No longer was a Jewish man, woman or child viewed as a stereotypical representative of an entire culture, but as a neighbor, colleague and friend. Robert Levinson, a leading historian of the Jewish experience in the Gold Rush, noted that "One of the most pleasant facts of [Gold Rush] history … was the complete absence of ill will directed against [individual] Jews." This was especially true in gold fields and mining camps, most conspicuously in the primary social and religious centers of Gold Country Jewish life — Nevada and Tuolumne counties.
The impact of Jews in the mining camps was profoundly personal and visible.
While many Jews tried their hands at mining, few Jews made livings directly from gold, either as miners or managers.
Most tried and failed and moved on. Many would have seconded the opinion of Polish Jew Abraham Abrahamsohn who memorably described his unsuccessful 1851 mining attempt near Placerville in this fashion: "Anyone who thinks that roast pigeons are flying around here on golden wings, just waiting to be plucked and eaten, should stay home."
A handful of Jews were involved in gold producing enterprises as company officers. Henry Rothschild of Nevada City served as the secretary of three separate mining companies.
But most Jews were merchants operating groceries, haberdasheries, general stores, and outlets for hardware and mining equipment. Jewish storekeepers were ubiquitous and important economic leaders.
It was these merchants who provided the daily necessities for the towns and cities springing to life in the foothills. Consider 1861 Grass Valley — there were 19 clothing and dry goods stores, 17 were operated by Jews. There were five cigar stores, all run by Jewish merchants.
Four years later, booming Grass Valley boasted 24 apparel shops, 20 were run by Jewish retailers.
In Sonora, Emanuel Linoberg set up shop, or rather shops, in 1851. Linoberg was a Polish Jewish merchant who owned several establishments in the Southern Mother Lode camp, including a large retail store, an entertainment hall, a gold mine, and, with a medical doctor, operated the "Russian Steam Bath," a frontier spa and hospital.
He also dabbled in transportation as the owner of a mule train that delivered goods to his store.
Today, a prominent thoroughfare near the Tuolumne County Courthouse in downtown Sonora is named "Linoberg Street."
The Gold Rush Jewish population transcended commercial influence. Frequently Jews were civic leaders and leading lights of the community.
Linoberg served on Sonora's first town council, Jacob Kohlman was elected as a Nevada City Town Trustee in 1857, and there are many accounts of fire companies, Masonic and Oddfellow Lodges, political party conventions, and charitable and relief organizations being led by Jewish citizens.
Jews formed a robust religious and charitable society in the Gold Country. Jewish ceremonies, both formal and informal, were common and widely acknowledged. Jewish religious observances and charitable activities were woven into the fabric of daily life.
In 1852, Aaron Baruh, a native of Bavaria, settled in Nevada City after two years in New Orleans.
He married Rosalie Wolfe and ran a series of stores, including clothing, grocery and liquor enterprises.
Despite his shops being completely destroyed twice by fires in 1856 and 1858, Baruh persevered and was a respected resident of Nevada City for over 50 years. With their seven children, the Baruhs kept kosher practices, displayed mezuzot, and were often the anchor of Jewish outreach in the community.
The Baruhs were officers in local chapters of Jewish fraternal organizations, such as B'nai B'rith.
Often the first relief agencies in Gold Rush towns were established by Jews.
In late September 1855, Grass Valley Jewish merchants established the Hebrew Benevolent Society and raised money to assist those devastated by a massive fire that leveled the city a few weeks earlier.
Publications highlighted Jewish activities in the goldfields, both spiritual and secular.
Jewish publishers provided news for the general public as well. Henry Meyer Blumenthal was the first owner and publisher of The Union newspaper in Grass Valley.
These business, social, and publishing networks raised awareness of Judaic culture in the mining camps and also provided a conduit to Jews beyond California to learn about Gold Rush society.
Religion was a potent undercurrent in the Gold Rush as touchstone, beacon and compass.
In a world of dozens of ethnic groups and differing personal values, gentiles were curious about Jewish practices and Jews obliged with education, literature and personal contact.
Jewish residents wholeheartedly welcomed important non-Jews to their services and soirees. Aaron Rosenheim detailed the regard shown to the local Jewish leaders in an 1852 letter to Isaac Leeser, influential editor of Philadelphia's The Occident and American Jewish Advocate. Rosenheim chronicled the Yom Kippur service held in Nevada City's Masonic Hall:
"The Masonic fraternity of this place having been made acquainted with our request very generously tendered us the free use of their spacious Hall, the room was approbiately (sic) furnished and the Ceremonies conducted with dignity and ability, the Room was crowded with Visitors, who were anxious to visit our ceremonies. Among thevisitors (sic) were the first Citizens of the place, the Judges of Courts, &c, and all expressed their entire satisfaction at our ancient and holy ceremonies and proceedings which were conducted with profound respect."
Perhaps the 1857 words of Emanuel Linoberg summarized the prevalent feelings of Gold Rush inhabitants best: "There is no persuasion more esteemed for moral conduct than the Jews."
The tale of Jews in the Gold Rush is consequential but largely hidden from our present consciousness. The stories of Aaron and Rosalie Baruh, Emanuel Linoberg, Abraham Abrahamsohn, Aaron Rosenheim, and myriad others, are too often forgotten but resonate as quintessential stories of grit and faith.
Many of the successes of the California Gold Rush, many current institutions, many enduring communities would not exist without the decisive involvement and encouragement of the Jewish community.
As attorney Henry Labatt wrote in May 1861, "No place in America is the Jew so well understood, and so readily appreciated, as in (California); and nowhere does he more deserve the respect and esteem of his fellow citizens. May it always be so."
Note: To learn more about Jewish heritage and culture, the Nevada County Jewish Community Center (NCJCC) of the Congregation B'nai Harim in Grass Valley offers an excellent lecture series.
For a taste of Jewish cuisine, the NCJCC is sponsoring its seventh annual All-You-Can-Eat Deli Nite on Oct. 24, at the Nevada City Elks Club. For more information, visit http://www.ncjcc.org or call 530-477-0922.
Gary Noy is a Grass Valley native, Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Sierra College Press, history lecturer, and the author of several books including "Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues." For more information, visit http://www.garynoy.com.