Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Gold Rush Days

Among the 49’ers of the California gold rush there were naturally Jews—some of them plain, hard-working citizens whose names are lost to fame, others as colorful personalities as appear in the annals of Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Here Israel. T. Naarnani tells us a bit about both kinds. Dr. Naamani is director of the Jewish Educational Society of San Francisco, and he has been using his opportunities to study the source documents of the period. The material presented here, it need hardly be said, is only a fraction of what is available. 

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When gold was discovered in California in 1848, adventurous men from every corner of the world came swarming in, and almost overnight transformed the land of somnolent missions and indolent presidios into rowdy mining camps and bustling boom towns. Among the first to reach the bonanza region were more than a few Jews. Like all the others who had set out for the latest and most dramatic frontier, they experienced many hardships in getting to their destination: they had come by foot or by prairie schooner over the great plains, by ship from Panama or around Cape Horn. Louis Rose, a pioneer in San Diego and its city treasurer and postmaster at various times; Emanuel Linoberg, who came from Poland and wound up in Sonora as member of the town council; Morris Schloss, friend of the Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta and later, by a typical frontier reversal of role, a member of the San Francisco Vigilantes—one can name hundreds who entered the region with the first waves of gold-seekers.

Indeed, when the High Holidays were celebrated in 1849, there were already more than a hundred Jews in San Francisco alone, while many others were scattered among the towns that had sprung up around the mining regions. They met little intolerance or prejudice in those free and easy days. The miners would “give with an open hand for any church that was started, whether they ever expected to go inside of it or not,” one old-timer recalled, “and no matter what the denomination. It was all the same to them whether it was the Catholic Church or the Methodist or the Jewish Synagogue. ‘sure,’ they’d say, ‘give em a house to pray in.’”

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August Helbing came to California by ship. He was a German Jew, born in Munich in 1824; his father had been court jeweler to King Ludwig I. August had received a good education and was graduated from industrial school with honors. In 1848 he had become an active member of the revolutionary movement; and when the uprising was suppressed, he and a friend, Moritz Meyer, fled to America. They landed at New Orleans, but the news of gold in California soon set them traveling again.

In Panama they found a speculator who sold them passage on a ship for $450, an astronomical figure for those days. The following morning the train brought a load of passengers from New York, and among them a man who held a ticket—bought in New York—that called for Helbing’s stateroom. The ship’s purser ordered Helbing to give up the room, but he refused. Then the captain put in an appearance and began to threaten him. “At this,” Helbing told a reporter many years later, “I took a brace of pistols and told them I would kill the first man attempting to enter my room. I had paid for it and had a right to its possession . . . . The captain was not eager for bloodshed; he placed the passenger somewhere else, and my friend and I remained where we were.”

That night Helbing went out on deck for a walk. In a corner he noticed a man and woman trying to shelter a child from the drizzling rain. Helbing spoke to them and was surprised to find that they were Jews. They had paid for their passage, yet once aboard ship they had discovered that they’d been tricked. “I went to my friend,” Helbing recounts, “and stated the case. He was satisfied to give up his berth. A few minutes later the little family was in our stateroom and we were on the deck rolled up in blankets. The lady was very thankful to us. She was Mrs. Hugh Simon, the first Jewish lady to reach California in the gold rush days.”

Helbing omits to explain that the ship was traveling in the dead of winter and that he and his friend remained on the open deck for the twenty-one days of the voyage. “I was young then,” he simply says, “and as strong as a lion. I had taken two prizes as an athlete in Munich and had gone to America in a spirit of adventure.” August Helbing was one of those who stayed in San Francisco after the gold rush days were over and built up a flourishing business in dry goods.

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Marcus Katz, later to become San Bernardino county treasurer and inspector for the United States District Commissary, hearing news of the discovery of gold, immediately took passage on a steamer bound for Chargres in Central America. It was a small steamer, but one thousand two hundred passengers were crammed aboard. The fare was five hundred dollars, which included sleeping accommodations, but only for those lucky enough to find them. After the ship docked at Chargres, the passengers transferred to native canoes and paddled their way to Garguina. From there they trudged the rest of the way to Panama on foot.

At Panama, Katz tried to get a steamer berth on a ship to California, but none was available. By this time, the gold rush was at its height and steamer tickets were being sold at auction and bringing as much as two thousand dollars each. Finally, Katz managed to find a place on a French sailing vessel bound for San Francisco. He spent four months at sea on this ship before he reached his destination. But he didn’t stay in San Francisco for long. In 1851 he moved to San Bernardino, pitching his camp on a ridge near a ranch owned by one Lugo.

Somewhat fancifully, Katz describes the livestock grazing on Lugo’s pastures as consisting of “mustang horses, horned cattle, sheep and goats and unclaimed stock, brown and grizzly bears, mountain lions, wild cats, coyotes, and foxes.” The settlers often raised their own grain and vegetables, horses and cattle, but Katz also notes another kind of “raising.” “Sometimes,” he writes, “they stole these from their neighbor, Lugo—this, however, was not a criminal offense. On the contrary, the party who stole but a few cattle or horses was considered a very social neighbor. The party who stole a band of horses or cattle was followed and if overtaken, lynched. Otherwise he was considered a hero, and if he got successfully away with his prize he was entitled to a membership in the Four Hundred.”

Katz, too, had managed to do some trading after his arrival in San Bernardino, buying flour and wheat and selling them to the prospectors. “The eight-cornered fifty dollar gold pieces called ‘slugs’ were then plentifully in circulation. I began to feel a little ‘sluggish’ myself, but”—he adds—“I was soon relieved of that feeling.”

This Jewish pioneer also records the fact that the first newspaper published in San Bernardino was the Scorpion, edited by an anonymous trio named “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Subscription terms were “one bale of hay, two dozen eggs, one thousand snakes and a sack of onions,” and it was impressed upon future subscribers that “the Bank of England was the only authorized agent to collect subscriptions.” No sooner had the Scorpion begun to gain in popularity than an opposition paper entered the field: The Illustrated Hog-Eye, edited by “Harry, Dick, and Tom.” Subscription rates for the “rival” paper were, Katz tells us, “a cow and a half; Rothschild the only authorized agent to make collections.” He ends his account by asserting that “no small abuse was exchanged between these papers.” The owners of both publications were Henry Tungridge, Griff Williams, and Marcus Katz.

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Split-Ear” Solomon was one of those who trudged their way to California across the plains. He had been a shoemaker in Boston, and, unlike most Jews in that trade, was “making a good living.” But his wife was a brawling, shrewish woman, so when the cry of gold reached his ears, he left both spouse and shoes and started out for California. In St. Louis he joined one of the numerous California “parties.” After weeks and months of grueling travel, the company was attacked by a band of Indians. Miraculously, Solomon succeeded in getting away unobserved and escaped. For a day or two he wandered about in the wilderness, until, only some ten miles from a camp, he fainted from exhaustion. A big Irishman, Ed Farley, found and revived him, and from that time on, the two became inseparable. The Irishman nicknamed his Jewish friend “Split-Ear” because of a tiny split or scar in Solomon’s left ear lobe. Farley would tease his companion, maintaining that Solomon’s wife had tried to bite off his ear.

Once, it is told, “Split-Ear” and Farley discovered a veritable bonanza in Nevada and rushed to town to register their claim. Farley was to proceed straight to the recorder’s office while Solomon would buy some provisions and then find a place to sleep. On his way to the claim office, the big Irishman made a detour through one of the saloons and before long was “likkered up” and boasting of the discovery to a newly-acquired friend. The barroom companion succeeded in extracting a description of the exact location of the find from the loquacious Farley and then hurried off to register the claim for himself.

Several months later “Split-Ear” and Farley struck pay dirt again. This time Farley got spruced up after they had filed their location notices. Walking out of the saloon wide and lofty, Farley met a stranger who claimed to be a boyhood friend only a few weeks from Ireland. He took big Ed in tow, brought him up to his room, and regaled him with the “latest news” from “Dublin town.” When they finally parted company, Farley had sold his share of the mine to his “friend” for one thousand five hundred dollars cash. A few days later, Solomon sold his share to a mining company for an alleged forty thousand dollars! But, the story went, he gave half of his fortune to his somewhat unsophisticated companion. Not long afterward, Farley lost his life protecting some innocent Mexicans against the attack of a band of prospectors.

Later in his career, “Split-Ear” became a justice of the peace in one of the mining towns of Nevada. An apocryphal story is told of him—similar to that told of a number of other gold rush “Solomons.” One day, two litigants and their witnesses burst into his house. Solomon was seriously ill and had to remain in bed during the hearing. The plaintiff, a tall and muscular miner, accused the defendant of stealing from the supply of gold-dust that he had deposited in the latter’s safe. After questioning the witnesses, the judge decided the case in favor of the miner. The defendant, Solomon ruled, was to return the stolen gold dust and pay the court a fine of $50 and costs. At this point the miner entered an unusual last minute plea. “Y’r Honor, Jedge,” he said, “it ain’t his dust I want. If ye’ll jes’ let me whup ‘im up a bit, under the kiver of the law, I’ll fergit the dust and even pay the fine and costs.” Solomon regarded the miner wistfully for a long moment and then said: “If the parties to the dispute wish to compromise, the Court has nothing against it.” The miner then pounced upon the defendant and gave him a thorough beating, while Solomon, in the excitement, forgot the dignity of his office and jumped out of his sick bed to see that no one interfered with the true course of justice. Well satisfied, the miner paid the fine and costs himself.

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Perhaps the most eccentric and best-loved Character in the devil-may-care town that was San Francisco in the third quarter of the g9th century was Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He was a ruler who wrote his own decrees and proclamations, issued money, levied taxes, exacted dues, ate without cost at restaurants, had free access to theaters, rode without charge in public conveyances, was greeted with sustained applause on a “state” visit to the California legislature, and was voted a suit of clothes by the city council of the capital of his realm, San Francisco. This royal forty-niner, this benign and gracious monarch, was the son of Orthodox Jewish parents.

Joshua Abraham Norton arrived in San Francisco on November 23, 1849. His parents were English Jews, the father a trader in London. Joshua was born in 1819 and a year later the family emigrated to South Africa, where the elder Norton achieved prominence as a pioneer farmer and one of the founders of Port Elizabeth. From 1838 to 1848 the father was in business in Cape Town and became a leader of the Jewish community of that city. But there was friction between the adventurous Joshua and his pious parents. A friend of the family told years later of hearing young Joshua make facetious remarks about the lengthy Jewish prayers, for which he was violently scolded by his father.

The gold fever seized young Norton early in 1849. Both his parents had died by then and he was free to take the long voyage around the Horn California-bound.

The early pioneers in San Francisco describe Joshua as a shrewd, resourceful, and prosperous-man of great personal and financial integrity. He had many business pursuits, dealing in all the commodities that came his way. Business then was carried on as a constant gamble, full of unpredictable skyrocketings and dizzy downward plunges; one day an item sold for fifty cents the next for fifty dollars. It was the great opportunity for a clever trader, with fortunes made or lost on a hunch or a guess. By 1853 it was estimated that Norton was worth between two hundred fifty and five hundred thousand dollars. At that time he decided to get a “corner” on rice. He and a partner purchased all the rice available in San Francisco and in transit to the city, paying excessive prices to consummate the monopoly. But large cargoes of rice kept on arriving, and prices continued to drop disastrously. For two years Norton tried valiantly to meet his obligations, but finally a catastrophic fire consumed whatever assets he had left. By 1856 he gave up and disappeared, bankrupt and broken in spirit.

On September 17, 1859, there appeared in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin the following proclamation:

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby vested in me, do hereby order and direct the different states of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both home and abroad, in our stability and integrity. [Signed] Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”

The coup d’état was bloodless. A shrewd editor of the Bulletin put the paper at the new ruler’s disposal: other papers in the city soon followed his example. Rough, bighearted, cosmopolitan San Francisco surrendered completely to the new monarch’s charm. His costume—described by Lee Friedman in his book Jewish Pioneers and Patriots—was “a glory to behold. He dressed his part in a coat of navy blue, cut in military style, with prominent brass buttons and huge gold-plated epaulettes . . . . Ordinarily he wore a small blue cap trimmed with gold braid, but upon formal occasions he appeared in a beaver decorated with a rosette and bright plumes. A flower in his lapel and a multi-colored handkerchief dangling from his breast pocket, completed his outfit. Commonly he carried a gold headed cane which was superseded, when business of importance demanded, by a massive sword, the gift of an admiring blacksmith.”

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It was evident from the start that Norton’s first concern was the welfare of his subjects. His familiarity with history, his understanding of economics and current events, his lucidity of expression, both oral and written, were astonishing. His proclamations and decrees were timely, and quite often made sense. One proclamation, which met with much favor on the part of his subjects, perhaps is as relevant today as it was when first promulgated:

“Norton I, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm, does hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties . . . .”

Emperor Maximilian’s political manipulations in Mexico aroused Norton’s anger and, in order to save that poor country from utter chaos, he extended his rule across the border, assuming the additional burden of “Protector of Mexico.” On the whole, however, his diplomatic relations with foreign powers were very cordial. He even initiated preliminary negotiations with the illustrious ruler of Great Britain, Queen Victoria—his object, matrimony. And his affection for his English cousins across the sea prompted him to reprimand the ruler of Afghanistan, at that time at odds with Great Britain: “Norton I informs the Ameer that he is dictator of the peace of Europe; that he will make it Mighty Warm for him if he precipitates a war.”

To Norton also belongs the credit for terminating the Civil War between North and South, for negotiating peace between France and Prussia, and for averting economic disasters both home and abroad.

The Emperor showed no partiality to any creed or race. On Saturday he usually attended services at a synagogue, while on Sundays he visited the Protestant or Catholic churches. He was extremely reticent when questioned about his own ancestry. Nathan Peiser, a Jew and a friend of Joshua from his Cape Town days, told the press in 1880, shortly after Norton’s death, that when he came to San Francisco in 1866 he was amazed to find Norton in such an exalted position. When he approached the Emperor, the latter didn’t recognize him at first, but when Peiser recalled their early friendship, Joshua invited him to his lodging place. Peiser, naturally enough, was anxious to hear Norton’s story. When they arrived at his rooms, the Emperor carefully closed all windows and doors and then gave Nathan a remarkable “explanation.” In reality, Norton said, he was the crown prince of France. When a small boy, he had been sent to South Africa to escape a feared assassination. There he was adopted by the Nortons. Peiser couldn’t contain himself and blurted out: “I think you are crazy.” “Yes,” sighed Norton, “so do a great many others.”

Norton died in 1880. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral. Newspaper headlines and editorials expressed the universal grief of his subjects. The Call wrote: “No citizen in San Francisco could have been taken away who would be more generally missed.”

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In looking through the first editions of the daily newspapers in the larger cities, the weekly “gazettes” in the mining towns, the city directories, the almanacs, etc., one comes across many advertisements by Jews announcing “rock bottom prices,” “large assortments of gentlemen’s clothing,” etc. In common with all those who had come to California, the Jews, too, had been excited by grandiose dreams of acquiring sudden, and colossal, wealth. But the glow of gold didn’t blur their vision; many of them realized that the flow of precious metal would soon slow down to a trickle. They knew, on the other hand, that the great potentialities of the fertile and unexploited country would eventually attract multitudes of immigrants. They turned, therefore, to the pursuits they knew best.

A British artist, J. B. Borthwick, who traveled through California in the early 50’s was not altogether flattering in his description of the Jews he met in the mining communities, especially in a place called Hangtown. “The clothing industry,” he wrote, “was almost entirely in the hands of the Jews . . . . In traveling through the mines from one end to the other, I never saw a Jew lift a pick or a shovel . . . [and] in a country where no man . . .was in the least ashamed to roll up his sleeves and dig in the mines for gold, or engage in any other kind of manual labor, it was a very remarkable fact that the Jews were the only people among whom it was not observable.” Practically every man, he continued, “after a short residence in California became changed to a certain extent in his outward appearance . . . . But to this rule also the Jews formed a very striking exception. In their appearance there was nothing at all suggestive of California.”

Borthwick’s description “stretches the fact,” to use Mark Twain’s euphemism. At approximately the time of his visit to Hangtown (later renamed Placerville) quite a number of Jews, among them Lewis Gerstle, the future founder and president of the gigantic Alaska Commercial Company, were wielding both pick and shovel in futile attempts to strike gold. And even the discerning eye of the British artist was apparently not sharp enough to pick out all the Jews from among the miners. He would scarcely have recognized a Jew in Isidore Meyrwitz, who, together with Peter Lassen (after whom Lassen County is named), discovered Indian Valley in 1850, and who later drowned in Honey Lake in a desperate attempt to save his Indian wife. And there were many others who escaped his notice.

Nor did the glow of gold blur the Jews’ religious consciousness and solidarity. Before driving the last stake of their makeshift tents, many of them got together to organize services. In the autumn of 1849, not one but two separate High Holiday services (“Minhag Ashkenaz” and “Minhag Sfard”) were held in San Francisco, one in a tent and the other in a room above a store where gold-dust was assayed. Out of these early services were to come the present Emanu-El and Sherith Israel congregations. Dr. Jacob Voorsanger, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El at the turn of the century, tells a characteristic story. Joel Noah, brother of Mordecai Manuel Noah of “Ararat” fame, had organized a religious service in 849 on the day of atonement, but on returning home to break the fast he met a number of Jews who had just arrived in the city. They informed him that they were on their way to “Kol Nidre” services. Convinced he’d made a mistake in his calculations, Noah accompanied the newcomers to their services, and fasted a second day.

In the 1850’s “mining congregations” mushroomed all over the gold-digging area. Some are still in existence, but most disappeared long ago. Religious services were held in Jesu Maria, Marysville, Fiddletown, Nevada City, Jackson, Coloma, Oroville, Shasta, Grass Valley, Folsom, Sonora, San Diego, Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Most of these communities also had Jewish burial plots—a prime necessity in those days—and even when the gold rush had ended and the boom towns were deserted the remaining Jewish families continued to take good care of them.

The first Jewish burial ground in San Francisco was purchased in 1850. It was located where the present Vallejo and Gough streets intersect. Once, it seems, a Jewish gambler was shot and killed, and August Helbing, whose valor and charity we have noted earlier in this account, made preparations for his burial in this cemetery. But a man named Lewis, an English Jew, objected to the interment of a murdered and sinful person in consecrated ground. Helbing, however, did not listen to these objections and proceeded with the arrangements. Lewis then sent word that if Helbing attempted to enter the cemetery he would be thrown out. Despite these threats, Helbing secured a hearse, packed a few pistols in his belt, and started his trip to the burial grounds. Lewis, accompanied by a group of friends, met Helbing at the gates of the cemetery, but the pistols and the determined look on Helbing’s face were enough to change their minds for them. The corpse was buried without interference.

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In its issue of March 15, 1851, the San I Francisco Evening Picayune, writing about the founding of a synagogue, observed: “We are highly gratified to notice that the large and respectable class of our fellow citizens . . . are taking spirited measures toward the construction of an edifice suited to the convenience of their solemn religious services, the most ancient and revered known among the worshippers of the ‘one living and true God.’ We are glad for them that they have chosen to cast their lot with us under a government that gives them the fullest protection in the exercise of their faith . . . and which affords them equal opportunities with all other citizens to develop to any extent of their aspirations, their political, social, religious, and civil interest.”

But one San Francisco judge was not motivated by similar lofty sentiments. A jury in an important case was on the point of returning a verdict when it was discovered that Julius Levy, one of the jurors, was absent. A messenger was dispatched and found him at one of the synagogues. When approached, Levy refused to go to court because it was Yom Kippur. The presiding judge then ordered the sheriff to compel him to come. But Levy was no longer to be found, and the judge ordered a fine of five hundred dollars for contempt of court. A motion to remit the fine was quashed on the ground that, since a Christian was compelled to render a verdict on Sunday, no one, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances, could claim special privileges. Later, however, the judge did remit the fine.

In reporting the case, the Evening Bulletin said: “The fact that today is an occasion of solemn fasting and prayer, during which the Jewish people are compelled to abstain from all temporal business, it seems to us ought to be considered by the judge as a valid excuse in a free country like California. For four thousand years the Jews have observed this day, in every part of the world—barbarous, civilized, or enlightened. Surely, California is not the land to set the example of forcing them to violate the consciences.”

In many communities the founding of benevolent societies preceded even that of organizing religious services. New Jewish arrivals were welcomed and helped to secure lodging and to get placed economically. Those newcomers who observed the dietary laws were provided with kosher food.

In the early days of San Francisco there were scarcely any children in the city. One illustrative story comes from as late as 1869: In a theater, a baby in his mother’s arms began to cry. Hearing the infant’s screams, a man in the orchestra pit jumped to his feet and shouted, “Stop those fiddlers, and let the baby cry. I haven’t heard such a sound in ten years!” The orchestra stopped and the infant then gave an appreciative audience a howling performance.

According to the Chronicles of Emanuel, there were perhaps a dozen Jewish children in San Francisco when the congregation was organized in 1850, but by 1851 the number had grown enough to warrant an educational program. Louis Cohn, a native of New York, and at that time engaged in merchandising, organized a class of some twenty youngsters, and on Sunday mornings he and the hazan of the congregation taught them Hebrew and religion. In 1854 a group of Jews, representing the entire community met and organized a Hebrew school that held classes daily in the afternoon and on Saturday and Sunday morning. Rabbi Julius Eckman was put in charge of the new institution.

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Ten years after the first mad rush for gold, the rich mines had been exhausted, and where bristling communities once thrived there now stood only ghost towns to serve as reminders of the fabulous days. Already, the more footloose among the 49’ers had struck out for new destinations. But the influx of ambitious, energetic men had left a permanent mark on California: an era of agriculture, commerce, and industry had been launched. To this new development, the Jews have contributed not a little.

Indeed, the list of those who remained in California after the gold rush and plunged into the work of building up the new territory is long and varied. Lewis Gerstle and Louis Sloss, founders of a successful furtrading business in Alaska; Adolph Sutro, mayor of San Francisco and builder of a tunnel which bears his name in Nevada’s silver-mine region; Solomon Heydenfeldt, chief justice of the state’s supreme court—these are but a few of the latter-day pioneers who have helped to make California what it is. But that is another story.

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