The first Jewish woman in what is now the American West, while still nameless, may be described as a secret Jew in flight from the Inquisition, first in her Iberian homeland, and then in colonial Mexico.
In the late 1590’s or early 1600’s, she and her Sephardic co-religionists sought refuge in the northern wilds of New Spain—now the American Southwest. Other secret Jews followed, leaving embedded in early Texas and New Mexico pockets of Jewish life that remained hidden long after the Spanish reign ended in 1821.
During the Mexican period (1821-1848), Jews, an occasional woman among them, trickled onto the Western frontier from the United States. Already disliked as intrusive gringos, they were loathe to admit they were also Jews.
It was not until the Americans seized control in 1848 and threw the West open to all comers, that Jews surged westward by the hundreds, then thousands. During the tempestuous early years, Jewish women, while scarce, were on hand, and in greater numbers than is generally supposed.
As early as fall 1850, a San Francisco-based reporter noted: “Mesdames Keesing, Berg and Simon decorated the Masonic Hall on Kearny Street for High Holy Days services,” and “much pleasure was felt at the cheering presence of many dark-eyed daughters of Judah.”
Another firsthand report, this one from Abraham Abrahamsohn, a certified mohel, corroborates the impression. He claimed that he earned a handsome living in California in 1852 performing circumcisions. Recalled Abrahamsohn: “The Jews in (gold-rush) San Francisco rivaled in increase their ancestors in Egypt.”
By 1885, an estimated 6,000 Jews had reached California. Half had settled in the instant metropolis of San Francisco. The other 3,000 had lighted in pueblos and outposts from San Diego to Eureka. Men still greatly outnumbered women, but Jewish families were visible everywhere.
As gold waned in California in the late 1850s, mineral strikes elsewhere in the West attracted seekers—Jews among them. By 1880, some 25,000 to 35,000 Jewish men and women—American, German, English, Polish, Russian— were living in burgeoning cities, supply towns and mining camps from the Rockies to the Pacific.
Granted equal standing in their polyglot frontier communities, they energetically applied the entrepreneurial and homebuilding skills they had brought with them. Free to do whatever needed doing, these early pioneers speedily branched out into new pursuits unique to the developing West—mining, agriculture, land development, road and railroad building, public office. Aware that their personal well-being depended on the economic and social growth of their community, and eager to exercise their rights and responsibilities as first-class citizens, many Jewish settlers—men and women—became avid pioneer town builders.
Between 1881 and 1912, a still larger Jewish influx helped swell the Western Jewish pioneer core to nearly 100,000. These later pioneers were refugees fleeing violent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and later, overcrowding, unemployment, and disease in the East Coast cities.
Unlike earlier pioneers, who tended to be footloose until they had a toehold, the Eastern Europeans usually emigrated in families. They also arrived in greater numbers, were poorer and more insular. During this period frontier opportunities were diminishing; immigration was increasing; and the Western welcome was wearing thin, especially for foreigners. Even well-established Jews were experiencing some social exclusion. In response to these conditions, most later pioneers gravitated to urban centers seeking jobs, not bonanzas.
Like most women who helped settle the West, the majority of Jewish women arrived as dependents—wives, daughters, sisters, nieces—moving West as often by force or duty as by choice.
Fanny Hyman arrived in Portland in 1858 in the hands of Nathan Cohen, who had held her captive for four months until she agreed to marry him. Upon arrival, she sought the protection of her uncles and got a divorce. The parents of 18-year-old Adele Maas of Wiesbaden, Germany, married her off to Israel Katz, a Port Townsend, Washington, merchant twice her age. But it was Russian-born Anna Rich Marks who persuaded her mild-mannered English husband to accompany her to the Utah Territory, where she earned a reputation for having a fast draw, a nasty tongue, and a shrewd entrepreneurial mind.
Helpless pawn or self-determining protagonist—they ran the gamut—these pioneer Jewish women, like their gentile counterparts, continued to rely on a male relative or his surrogate for a livelihood, protection and respectability. Even those who fended for themselves, with rare exceptions, maintained the illusion of reliance on a nearby male. Victorian propriety was not their sole incentive.
Life in the vast and remote early West was genuinely harsh and perilous, especially for women. Whether early or later arrivals, city or frontier dwellers, all faced certain inescapable hardships.
Wrenched out of older American and European centers—often homogeneous shtetls (townlets) and ghettos—they made arduous treks, seemingly to the end of the earth. At their destinations, their survival depended upon a speedy adjustment to a radically different climate and terrain, unfamiliar food and customs, and a bewilderingly open and diverse society.
Harder to withstand than the demands of daily life were the catastrophes that regularly rained down on everyone: fires, floods, epidemics, outlaw attacks. No less devastating were the economic vicissitudes. Minerals ran out; extended droughts ruined agricultural districts; entrepreneurial and government policymakers favored a rival town for their facilities.
Many settlers had to start afresh in two or three locations before they rooted. Esther Levy spent 25 years moving around the frontier with her husband Aaron. She kept house in Frenchy Gulch and San Francisco, California; Sitka, Alaska; and Genesee, Idaho, before the family finally settled in Seattle in the 1890s.
Still, all was not travail for these women. Within a few years or a few decades, most pioneer Jewish families achieved middle class—in some cases elite—standing in communities they had helped build. But a sundrenched single-family home or even a gated estate were not the new region’s only reward.
By the 1860s and 1870s women in the less tradition-bound West began to accrue more social and political rights than their sisters had in older America and Europe. Public schools—one-room to universities—from inception were coeducational.
Women suffragists also found Western legislators more responsive to their cause. Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah were the only states to pass women’s suffrage laws in the 19th century. By 1914, Washington, California, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Arizona had followed suit, before any of the nation’s first 30 states enacted similar legislation.
Yet not all Jewish women benefited equally from opportunities. Affecting their ability to respond were a string of givens: national origin, socio-economic background, religious leanings. Add to the above disparities in intelligence, education, physical and emotional strength, and temperament, and it is hardly surprising that the Western experience hampered one woman and sped another.
In every stage of the pioneer period, some women were beset with miseries as great as any they or their mothers had suffered in their home communities. Grinding poverty, overwork, physical abuse, abandonment—intensified by hardships unique to the West—drove some to madness or suicide.
In the early 1890s, San Franciscan Bessie Wolf, daughter of a Polish glazier, married Russian-born merchant Jacob Isaacson. Bessie bore six children in approximately 10 years. With her husband off peddling goods in Arizona mining camps much of the time, she was left to manage as best she could. A few days after the birth of her sixth child, Bessie, poor and despondent, threw herself into San Francisco Bay. She was rescued by police and then released. Several days later she swallowed carbolic acid and died.
Many more pioneer women grew stronger with every test, progressing from struggling newcomers to esteemed townswomen in a decade or two. Memorable among these was American-born Anna Zucker Nathan, who rode in a wagon with her husband—their baby in her arms—from Leavenworth, Kansas to California Gulch, two miles high in the Rockies, site of the first major gold strike in Colorado.
In 1865, with gold on the wane in California Gulch, Anna and Simon Nathan—by then the parents of five children—trekked over a rugged mountain range to Old Fort Pueblo in the Pueblo Valley, where they ranched and ran a small store. There, the Nathans’ baby daughter was kidnapped by Indians and returned only after they ransomed her. When the men were out on a round-up, Anna took pains to conceal from the Indians that she was alone and unprotected. At milking time, she crawled to the barn and returned on her hands and knees, pulling the pails behind her.
As Pueblo began to take shape as a town, Anna accumulated communal firsts. She brought the first tin bathtub to town; also the first piano—for her daughter, a member of the first high school graduation class. She and her husband organized Temple Emanuel, the first Jewish congregation in Pueblo.
Some pioneer Jewish women started boardinghouses, restaurants, hotels, and stores. In 1876, Anna Freudenthal Solomon and her husband Isadore Elkan settled on a sparsely inhabited, mosquito-ridden site near the San Simon River in the Southeastern Arizona Territory. There, I.E. manufactured charcoal, and Anna—while housekeeping and tending three children—started a general store. She later reminisced:
“We had no furnishings, no cook stove, and not anything else that belongs to the comfort of the human race. . . . My baby was sick and I had the chills and fever for two years, but that did not hinder us from doing a great deal of business.”
After three more offspring were born in what became known as Solomonville, Anna undertook still another enterprise, the Solomon Hotel, which quickly became the best-known hostelry between Tucson and El Paso.
Some of these businesses grew into commercial empires. More widely known now than in Mary Ann Magnin’s heyday is the chain of fine apparel stores—I. Magnin—that grew out of the modest carriage trade shop she and her husband Isaac started in San Francisco in 1871. From its inception, the store’s driving force was Mary Ann, who, besides being the mother of eight, was a brilliant merchandiser who prided herself on bringing European finery to the woolly West.
More legendized’ than memorialized were a few wayward types. In 1880, Josephine Sarah Marcus—Josie—ran away from her proper San Francisco family. In Tombstone, Arizona Territory, her relationship with her lover having gone sour, Josie hooked up with Wyatt Earp, the town marshal. After the notorious shoot-out at O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, Josie and Wyatt left town. They spent nearly 50 years together, roaming the West with other high-living drifters—gamblers, prospectors, and promotors.
Ida Levy operated a brothel in the early 1900s in the mining town of Butte, Montana. Her in-the-black business practices—and her excellent Jewish cooking—were remembered by many. As was her practice of ceasing operations from sundown to sundown every Yom Kippur.
In Butte during the same years, a woman who called herself Jew Jess—a prostitute, drug addict and pickpocket— was also racking up a record. She was repeatedly hauled into court for rolling customers. On one occasion, after talking herself out of a sentence, Jess gratefully embraced the judge, then vanished. His Honor soon noted that his watch and tie clasp had vanished, too.
Jewish women willing to deliver babies, nurse the sick, and see to the destitute were rewarded with folk-heroine soubriquets: “Angel of the Camp”; “Mother Mercy”; “Queen of Charities.”
Therese Marx Ferrin, an early Tucson settler, was trained in Germany in herbal and natural remedies. She treated the ailing on her own and went on rounds with pioneer physician Dr. John Handy. Midwife Mary Kobey, wife of an Orthodox rabbi, devoted her days to assisting the poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrant women in Denver’s West Colfax of the 1880’s and 1890’s. She delivered their babies and often stayed on to care for the family until the mother was back on her feet.
The most widely recognized of these “Angels” was Frances Wisebart Jacobs. When her family moved to Denver from Colorado City in 1876, she made the sick and the poor of that exploding city her primary concern. A stirring speaker and a gifted leader, Jacobs devoted much of her time to organizing pioneer health care and social services. The Frances Jacobs Memorial Hospital, renamed the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives, and the Charity Organization Society, forerunner of Denver’s Community Chest, were among them.
But she spent even more time personally ministering to the needy: bringing them food, clothing and medicine; changing their bedsheets; counseling the disheartened and chiding the errant.
For her pioneer work in health and social services in Colorado, Jacobs was selected to be one of 16 pioneers—and the only woman—depicted in stained glass in the rotunda of the state capitol in Denver.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, young Western Jewish women were assuming social, civic and occupational responsibilities undreamt of by their female forbears. They became civic activists in droves. Some worked in interdenominational kindergartens, women’s and children’s clinics, old-age homes. Second-generation wives of successful Jewish business and professional men—such as Rosalie Meyer Stern, San Francisco; Seraphine Pisko, Denver; Emily Schwabacher, Seattle—played stellar roles in developing their city’s cultural and philanthropic life.
Others concentrated on strengthening Jewish programs and facilities operated by increasingly vital synagogue and temple sisterhoods. Western chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1893, also provided a rallying ground for young, well-educated and progress-minded women.
Western Jewish women had also begun seeking paid employment and higher education. Some in each community spent their years between graduation and marriage as school teachers; others—mostly single women and widows—made education a lifelong vocation. Jeannette Lazard, Mina Norton, and Mina Mooser taught in Los Angeles; Claire Ferrin, in Tucson; Elsie Myers (a Vassar graduate), in Cheyenne.
Still others made bold leaps into innovative male-dominated careers.
• Rachel “Ray” Frank, born in San Francisco in 1864, became a Jewish educator, a journalist, and a widely-sought lecturer advertised as the “female rabbi” and “modern-day Deborah.”
• Bella Rosenbaum of Seattle was the first woman to practice law in Washington State (1901).
• Blanche Colman, a native of Deadwood, was the first woman to practice law in South Dakota (1911).
• Dr. Adele Solomons Jaffa of San Francisco graduated medical school in 1893 and became a trailblazing child psychiatrist.
• Jessica Peixotto was the second woman to receive a Ph.D. (1900) and the first woman to be granted a full professorship (1918) from the University of California. Her field was Social Economics.
• Journalist Belle Fligelman of Helena campaigned with suffragist leader Jeannette Rankin to make Montana the 11th state to grant women the vote (1914). When Rankin became the first woman elected to the United States Congress (1917), Belle went to Washington D.C. as her aide.
• Second-generation Westerner Florence Prag Kahn was the first Jewish woman elected to the United States Congress. She served as aide to her husband, Rep. Julius Kahn of San Francisco, from 1898 until his death in 1924. She was appointed to fill his seat, then was reelected six times.
Was the early West liberating for Jewish women? The scope of a history that spans more than 300 years, covers the western third of the United States and involves thousands of women, negates a single, all-encompassing answer. Reflecting on the individuals and groups presented here causes new questions to proliferate.
• Quantitative questions: In actual numbers, how many Jewish women pioneered in the West? What were their residential, marital, and reproductive patterns?
• Comparative questions: How did their advance compare with that of non-Jewish women in the West? With Jewish women elsewhere? Did their female descendants continue to pioneer or did they retreat to less challenging spheres?
• Ethnic questions: What can these women teach us about Jewish life in an open society? Did they contribute to the maintenance and modernization of Judaism west of the Rockies?
Given the relevance of these questions to the contemporary Jewish life, it is likely that these issues will be studied at length. For now we have this growing record, studded with little-known Jewish personalities and historic and everyday events—all propelled by the Zeitgeist of hope for more social and political rights, material gain, healthful and pleasurable living.
We can drop this reclaimed past on a shelf in the Old Curiosity Shop—or we can use it to fuel our own quests. As true for us as for our female pioneer predecessors, much depends on each woman’s readiness to make use of the opportunities at hand.
Harriet Rochlin is the author of the widely-acclaimed Pioneer Jews: A New Life In the Far West, an illustrated social history and the first region-wide study on Jews in the West (Houghton Mifflin 1984). Her novel, So Far Away (Jove, 1981) is a fictional treatment of Jewish life in the early West with a woman as protagonist. It is currently being distributed by Biblio Press (POB 22, Fresh Meadows, NY, 11365). Rochlin was one of 50 presenters at the “Women’s West 1984” conference (held in Park City, Utah), which focused on the Western experience as a liberating force in women’s lives.