Jews on the Western Frontier: An Overview, pt. 1

by Harriet & Fred Rochlin
from Arizona Highways, September 1985

Bristling with heavy artillery: Charles Strauss stands with Charles Strauss Jr. Strauss was mayor of Tucson in 1883.Bristling with heavy artillery: Charles Strauss stands with Charles Strauss Jr. Strauss was mayor of Tucson in 1883.Until recent years, mention of Jews in the early West usually evoked an amused: "Were there any?" According to popular lore, the nation's Jews were rooting in Eastern seaboard cities -- the multitudes in teeming tenements, the elite in bankers' mansions -- when adventurous, self-reliant Yankees galloped off to win the West. The occasional Jew who did stray westward was expected to be as comically out-of-place as an armed and Stetsoned Westerner in a Hester Street synagogue.

Of late, the subject is more likely to inspire questions than wisecracks. Responsible for the change are historians bent on adding previously overlooked women and members of minority groups to the American record. Energized by this democratizing trend, also by personal and group needs, in the last several decades investigators have been excavating rich veins of data on Jews in the West. Resulting works now document an early Jewish presence that was surprisingly old, widespread and influential.

The first to arrive were Iberian Jews who, expelled from their homelands, slipped clandestinely into sixteenth century Mexico. After the Inquisition commenced autos-da-fé in Mexico City, some Jews fled north to infant Spanish settlements in south Texas and New Mexico. A few were pursued and arrested; others rooted and were joined by a phantom file of coreligionists. Their descendants, some still practicing Jewish rites, continued to conceal their Judaic origins after Spanish rule ended in 1821. A new wave of trailblazing Jews surged into the perilous Mexican West with land- and trade-hungry Yankees. Like other non-Catholics, they were denied citizenship and treated with suspicion.

In 1848, Americans completed their take-over of the region and invited in all comers. Hundreds of Jews responded. Finding possibilities and access unlimited, they summoned relatives and friends to join them, first in gold-rush California, then elsewhere on the erupting frontier. The majority were young immigrants of small means and great pioneer fervor. Welcomed as part of the crowd in makeshift, polyglot settlements, they started small stores, saloons and hotels, seemingly at every stage stop. The also mined, hauled freight, farmed, raised stock, banked, and a few were much in demand as pioneer professionals. Eager to exercise rights denied them elsewhere, a number ran for public office and often won. Free to keep their faith or abandon it, most chose the former and helped organize Jewish institutions. Con artists, black hats and eccentrics turned up among them. But the majority, savoring unprecedented equality, toed the line to good conduct.

During the second half of the Americanization period (1881-1912), a short train ride replaced the long wagon trek from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Life became easier for some Westerners and harder for others, especially the newcomers. As the region's resources amassed in fewer hands, free-for-all opportunities waned. From the 1880s on, the incoming Jews, in the main Eastern European in flight from pogroms in their homelands and unemployment and overcrowding in Eastern port-of-entry cities, were met with a shrinking frontier and mounting anti-foreigner sentiments. Most settled in the turbulent Far Western cities. More numerous, poorer, more insular and less welcome than their predecessors, these later pioneers initially considered any job a bonanza. Once they got their bearings, some started enterprises in untapped urban areas and hinterlands. Others pioneered new businesses, notably the garment and film industries.

By 1912, some 100,000 Jews, their roots entwining with those of their communities, were spread out from Washington to Texas and Montana to California. An unassessable number of Far Westerners of partial or secret Judaic descent also added to the unique character of this magnetic pioneer core. Presence established, authorities now aim to assign Jews a role in the settlement of the West. One author categorizes them as Civilizers, another as Mercantilists, and still another as Townbuilders. Both broader and more to the point is the term Participants. Whether barred, restrained, welcomed or snubbed, Jews took part in every phase and in nearly every facet of the region's non-indigenous development. From the advent of the Europeans to the end of the pioneer period, the description applies. But it is most apt during the early years of the Americanization period when Jews joined with a mix of fellow settlers to shape that open and egalitarian society long-remembered as "the West."