Commentary Magazine

Peddlers in Eldorado

“The restless spirit of the Jewish wanderer,” said Dr. Jacob Voorsanger, pioneer rabbi of San Francisco, speaking of the '49 Gold Rush, “drove many of the race of Israel to the mining camps of Eldorado.” Once there, however, it did not take “the Jewish wanderer” long to find out that there were more nuggets in the peddler's pack than could be pried out of the mountainside. Goods were in desperate demand, prices were sky-high, pay was in gold dust. The Jew could get goods and credit, too, from friends and relatives in business back East: his choice of the peddling profession was inevitable.

“In traveling to the mines from one end to the other,” wrote the Scottish traveler J. B. Borthwick in his Three Years in California, “I never saw a Jew lift a pick or shovel.” Borthwick may have found it hard to distinguish the Jews from the other bearded miners. Names were no help (William Prince and Peter Lassen, miners, were both Jewish). Still, it is hard to understand how Borthwick missed the legendary “Split-Ear” Solomon—“a man who never knew the pallid face of fear,” according to his obituary; or the equally well-known Louis Sloss, whom the San Francisco Chronicle referred to in later years as the “most honest man who ever handled mining shares.” Other Jewish miners in California were Lewis Gerstle; Oscar Myers of Murphy's camp in Calaveras County; Peter Lassen, after whom Lassen County was named; Isadore Meyerowitz, the most “restless Spirit” of them all, whose prospecting jaunts took him to Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, where he died. And above all, there was Bernard Marks, who reversed the usual trend by switching from pack to pick, so to speak, and that out of sheer romanticism—“I really began to be ashamed of my former occupation, longing, quixotically, of course, for the time when with calloused hands, calico shirt, cowhide boots and pick on shoulder, I could conscientiously call myself a miner.”

There were others. But Borthwick was right in the main. Jews in Eldorado, with few exceptions, did not work the mines, but rather served the men who did, sparing them the burdensome trips to Sacramento for supplies, with no small risk that their claims would be jumped in their absence. The peddler's work, in fact, was harder than the miner's. The load the peddler carried on his back or dragged behind him in a Mormon-type handcart staggers the imagination. If the roadless passes, some more than 9,000 feet above sea-level, were rugged, the desert trails were worse; cactus spines tore at the traveler's legs, the alkaline water set his stomach to churning, the sun baked his skin to leather.

Clearly, this was no business for men who shrank from hard work or danger. The Gold Rush peddler could take a masculine pride in his occupation. The contents of his pack reflected the rough world that was his territory—it contained work clothing, bowie knives, shovels, revolvers, slouch hats, and boots—in contrast to the Easterner's stock-in-trade: the feminine fripperies, ribbons and bows, bonnets, pomades, laces, toilet waters.1 Moreover, the (Western) peddler was not operating on the periphery of the mercantile establishment: he was that establishment in toto. Where there were no factories to serve local needs (nor homespun industry), no rails, no roads, he supplied both goods and transportation. Such general stores as sprung up for emergency needs were ramshackle affairs, too meagerly stocked to compete with the peddler. (As a consequence, he faced none of the fines, fees, and restrictive legislation that harassed his operations in the East.) In point of fact, it is not always possible to draw the line in the mining camps between peddler and petty merchant. The shopkeeper, too, was of necessity something of a nomad. “Ich heute San Francisco verlassen,” wrote Alexander Meyer to his family back East in 1850, “und get nach die mines mit mein bisjen wagon, und dort ein retail store enfangen.” (“Today I leave San Francisco and go to the mines with my little wagon, there to start a retail store.”) The extent of his stock that could be contained in a little wagon may be imagined, but even the store did not stay put. The boom-and-bust economy of the mines, their shifting populations, from strike to fresh strike, were hardly conducive to settled shopkeeping. The days when it was possible to pry a nugget out of the hillside with a bowie knife were of short duration, and the storekeeper's bonanza period was similarly short-lived. A mining camp, striking it rich, might burst overnight into a full-blown town, complete with brick buildings, shops, mills, saloons, gambling halls, bordellos, an opera house—and maybe a Baptist church—but the introduction of machinery soon stripped the mines of their ore and the town's reason for being went with it. Overnight the place would become a ghost town, its population, and the merchant's customers, departed for parts unknown. And even in the heyday, endemic floods and fires might wipe the merchant out, store and stock, forcing him on the road again.

Against such catastrophes, peddling offered a kind of insurance. The ruined merchant had only to fill a pack with goods and follow the swarming miners to the fresh strikes—Washoe, Clear Creek, Alder Gulch, the Black Hills, the Couer d'Alenes. In these new regions, far removed from any coastal settlements, and therefore by the logistics of time and place from any of the amenities of civilization, the peddler's services were more than ever needed. The luckiest miner in the Shining Mountains, sitting on top of gold, lived nevertheless in total squalor—his home, like as not, a towbag tent or a hole in the mountainside; his bed a heap of dirty straw; his clothes in tatters, and himself unkempt, unshaven, and everlastingly hungry. The offering up for sale of a pair of used boots (by auction) occasioned wild hullabaloo. An article in Harper's magazine of the period describes the whooping and hollering, the firing of pistols, the passing of Taos Lightning from mouth to mouth to inspire the bidding.

With straw brooms selling at five dollars apiece, and a bowie knife worth its weight in gold, the peddler's profits were great. So, by the same token, were his risks. Indians, their lands invaded, were everywhere on the warpath; desperados, after the Civil War, infested every mountain pass. The trails were marked by the graves of the peddlers who blazed them—Louis Nathan, Henry Levy, Isaac Goldstein, scalped by Indians; Sam Rosenthal, Aaron Moss, to say nothing of the scores of anonymous victims, murdered by highwaymen. Scurvy, mountain fever, and cholera took an even larger toll.


Who were these adventurers? What sent them West? A large number were immigrants from East Europe, young Jews of the baal-agola (wagoner) type whose hardihood had already been tested in an environment dominated by rough Polish peasants or murderous Cossacks. Others, mostly from Germany, were natural rebels and soldiers-of-fortune, like August Helbing, who fled Germany in 1848 in the company of Carl Schurz; or Nathan Grossmayer, who was wounded in the Paris street-fighting in '48; or Louis Schlessinger, who had served under Kossuth and later with Walker in Nicaragua. Almost without exception they were in their twenties, and one, Otto Mears, had headed West, orphaned and alone, before he was bar mitzvah.

Isolated as they were from the Jewish community, and youthful rebels all, some assimilation was inevitable. Those few Jewish peddlers in the West who tried to keep the faith found the way of the Torah rockier and more thorny than the trail from Sacramento to Carson City. Isadore Schnayder, when long-awaited pictures of his family arrived on the Sabbath, would not cut the string until nightfall. Abraham Rackovsky sent to Denver for kosher meat, but it spoiled in transit: he turned vegetarian. By and large, however, the mining-camp peddlers and merchants found strict Orthodoxy too much to carry on backs already overburdened. Some took Indian brides, like Lassen, who drowned in Honey Lake in a vain effort to save his squaw. Others were lucky enough, in time, to find Christian girls to marry—to which circumstance we owe Barry Goldwater, grandson of Big Mike Goldwasser, peddler and saloonkeeper. What is remarkable about such intermarriages is the willingness of a Gentile girl in those days and in that place to choose a Jewish husband. The peddlers themselves explained it in this way: “The improvident Christian will not go out to peddle, to climb steep mountains, to venture into Indian country, in order to keep his wife and family in comfort.”

More than youthful adaptability and isolation from one's kind is necessary to explain the alacrity with which the Western peddlers turned from the Torah. The egalitarian air of the mining camps—this was the tonic that made the salt pork that was the miner's fare palatable. Life in the camps was hard, but the hardships of the Jew were those shared by all, and not imposed on him by reason of his religion, or the order of his arrival in the new country. The Forty-Niners came from all parts of the world, and foreign accents were as common in the mining camps as American ones. Some anti-Semitism, to be sure, had been imported, but it survived only in the vaguest terms.2

Antecedents, moreover, counted for nothing at the mines; usefulness to the community and willingness to share in its hardships counted for everything. The madame of a sporting house rated high on the social scale, and the peddler was hardly less esteemed. In general a person's occupation, however mean, was not scorned, so long as he did not actually steal. “No questions of dignity,” wrote Borthwick, “interfered to prevent a man from employing himself in any way that suited his convenience, providing it was honest. No one considered himself demeaned by his occupation. . . . Whatever their relative positions, men treated each other with a certain amount of deference.”

This is not to say that the West did not have its own brand of snobbishness. Within a year after the Gold Rush, the Society of California Pioneers was formed—the prairie schooner was its Mayflower and Sutter's Mill its Plymouth Rock—which excluded from its ranks not only Negroes and Chinese, but also such belated emigrants as were even then rounding the Horn or laboring across the Plains. To this new elite, the Jew could hardly be denied admittance. (As a matter of fact, it was a Jew who summoned the first meeting of a similar society of pioneers in Colorado.) In California, the Jew had preceded the Forty-Niners. San Francisco had a Jewish community when it was still known by its Spanish name of Yerba Buena. The first Jewish religious services were held in a tent on Kearney Street in 1849, and within a year the community had two synagogues, one Reform, the other Orthodox.

How far West Jews had ventured before the wagon trains is uncertain. The Santa Fe Trail was opened to traders in 1820. Paul Horan, in his The Centuries of Santa Fe, refers to the mixed crews of the wagon trains that took advantage of this commerce—Creoles, Mexicans, Indians, trappers, Mountain Men guides, and Polish merchants. And who were these Polish merchants if not Jews? Philip Philipson of St. Louis spent four years trading in the Rockies a decade before Fremont set eyes on them. As early as 1843, Julius Stern, editor of the first Jewish weekly in the United States, proposed the formation of a separate Jewish state west of the Mississippi, and Rabbi Isaac Lesser, in support of the project, observed that enough Jews had already settled there to make it feasible.

In brief, the early Jews in the West could boast that they were pioneers among pioneers. They, too, had crossed the prairie by covered wagon or taken the equally perilous Yellow Fever Route via the Isthmus of Panama. Consider, for example, the Odyssey of Abraham Rackovsky. He was a Russian Jew from Suwalk, a fugitive from a pogrom. An uncle, Alexander Rittmaster, an escaped prisoner in the Crimean War, had preceded him and established himself temporarily in Central City, Colorado. To join him, Rackovsky took a train to Council Bluff and there, his funds exhausted, attached himself to an oxcart train bound for Cheyenne. Having no wagon of his own, he followed it afoot, earning his meals by gathering buffalo chips for the camp fires and sleeping on the bare ground. He had exactly one dollar left when he reached Cheyenne, and with characteristic flair stepped into a saloon to buy a cigar. There was no change, and at this point in his journey, he may have had an inkling of the Land of Ophir that lay ahead for the Jewish merchant. Penniless and still afoot, he pushed on the hundred miles to Pueblo. There he got a job as a cowboy (the fact that the ranch was owned by a man named Nussbaum may explain how). He worked for eight months herding cattle, by the expiration of which time he may have learned to ride a horse. He had not, however, earned enough to own one, for we find him, on foot again, trudging the final stretch to Central City.

There his uncle had acquired a general store, and he supplied Abraham with goods to peddle at the mines. The load Rackovsky carried on his back has become a legend. The strongest miner, if the story is to be believed, could hardly lift one of the two packs Rackovsky toted uphill and down, balancing the load with two counterweights in front. In addition, he carried two telescope grips, one in each hand. Thus encumbered, he crossed the difficult passes to Gregory, Clear Gulch, and beyond. When the inclines were too steep, he would drag his packs one at a time to the top and then roll them downhill.

Wolfe Londoner, a smaller man, nearly matched Rackovsky in strength and endurance. He was hired to guide a wagon-freight train from Council Bluff to Denver; the wagon master, a surly Mexican, either could not read his credentials or refused to honor them. Londoner, too, had to follow the wagons on foot. Caught taking a nap in one of the wagons, he was driven with whips from the caravan, and forced to journey the remaining six-hundred miles from afar—the last one-hundred miles barefoot, his shoes having worn out.

There were Jewish women, too, riding the prairie schooners—Hester Rosenberg, Fannie Brooks, Cecilia Joel, Helena Goldberg. One of the sad mining-camp legends tells of a poor Jewish lady who, on her way to join her fiancée, was murdered by the Indians. Her lover, Isaac Goldstein, a peddler, refused to believe her dead and roamed Indian country in search of her; he was scalped by Indians in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.


For all its romanticizing, Hollywood has not utterly lied about the West. The terrain invited violence; badmen, gunfighters, bandits, rampaging Indians did abound. The peddler, thrust into the very heart of all this, could hardly escape involvement; nor could he survive without meeting trouble on its own terms. Thus August Helbing held off with drawn pistols a group of his co-religionists who objected to the burial in the Jewish cemetery of a gambler shot in a gun battle; the interment took place as scheduled. 3Sam Aaron, peddler, gambler, saloon-keeper, once chased the notorious gunman MacKinnen out of the saloon with a shotgun. “My boss,” he later said, “gave me hell for not killing Mac, but it is no easy matter to take life, no matter how hard-boiled you are. Something always stops you.” Not all Jewish Western peddlers were so inhibited. In Salt Lake City, a peddler named Levi Abrams was put on trial for the murder of a friendly Indian; the Western attitude toward Indians being what it was, he was released. In 1874, near Pueblo, a man named Perry was killed by one Faraber (Farber?) whose road station was known as the Jew's Rancho. “The Jew, Faraber,” wrote the Pueblo Chieftain, “was considered a dangerous man by those who knew him, and his house had a bad reputation. He had been known to draw a pistol upon several persons on very slight provocation.” Faraber served only four years in the penitentiary for his crime: murder in the West was not in the same category as cattle-rustling or claim-jumping. Finally, at least one Jewish peddler, Sigmund Schlesinger, distinguished himself as an Indian fighter, becoming the hero of the Battle of Arikaree Creek.4

But stressing the “horse-opera” aspects of the peddler's trade distorts the true picture. Otto Mears was, after all, more than a mere Indian trader and interpreter for the U.S. Army in the sporadic Indian wars. He negotiated the treaties under which the Indians ceded large and valuable lands to the infant state of Colorado; he introduced into Colorado the first reaping and mowing machines; he served notably in the Colorado legislature; and in later years was railroad builder and newspaper publisher. Louis Sloss and his partner, Gerstle, deserve at least a footnote in Western history, not for mining gold, but because they formed the important Alaska Commercial Company, which gave the West a substantial fur trade when Astoria was no more than a memory.5 Henry Altman, a pack peddler serving the Union Pacific Railroad, went into the cattle business with Jacob Wasserman, also a peddler, to specialize in the breeding of prize bulls: they contributed greatly to improving the breed of Western cattle, and Altman was one of the founders of the Wyoming Cattle Growers Association. Harry Jastro turned similarly to ranching, becoming known throughout the Southwest as the Cattle King of California. Adolph Sutro, who became San Francisco's most popular mayor, turned from selling cigars to vast engineering projects. He had no training as an engineer, but he devised an improved method of extracting gold from ore in Washoe, and he made possible, against odds and opposition, the construction of the Sutro Tunnel, which led to the fullest exploitation of the fabulous Comstock Lode when it was thought played out, thereby literally changing the course of American history. Meyer Guggenheim was a peddler of shoelaces and shoe-polish in the East, but in the West he founded a great mining empire whose ramifications today are worldwide.


Though the customary peddler's progress was from pack to department store, the freighting business—which linked East to West and all parts of the West with each other before the advent of the transcontinental railroads6—was to a surprising extent in the hands of former Jewish peddlers. But perhaps not so surprising, for what was freighting but a logical extension of the peddler's pack, swollen to such proportions as to contain a piano for the new opera house, or mahogany fixtures and imported chandeliers for the bar and dining room of the Grand Palace Hotel? Jews not only controlled the business, but in person guided the ox-drawn freight wagons that lumbered over the mountains or through the desert, carrying civilization as their cargo in 100-ton lots. Rackovsky and Rittmayer were a famous freighting team, as were the Kohn Brothers, who ran mule trains from Denver to Montana to Utah and Nevada; Hyman Goldberg, who served the railway construction gangs; Joseph Rosenwald, who freighted to Pike's Peak, and others. Even the firm of J. B. Doyle, whose huge warehouse in Denver was the hangout for such notables as Kit Carson and General Kearney, had as its silent partner and active spirit Fred Z. Solomon, who captained the wagons across the continent while the convivial Irishman entertained his worthies in style at home. “We are under new, repeated and continued obligations to the Brothers Solomon,” Doyle acknowledged handsomely, “for sundry cans, bottles, baskets, and boxes of peaches, plums, Sweitzer cheeses, with which they are continually loading our tables.” No more salt pork and corn meal.


This is not the picture of the mining-camp Jew presented by contemporary observers from the East or by visiting journalists, who either ignore his existence or refer to him in the most derogatory terms. Borthwick's comment has already been noted, and J. Ross Browne, writing for Harper's magazine, was no less unkind to the Jewish merchants of Virginia City:

The Jew clothing store presents the most marvelous fertility of invention. . . . Bills are posted all over the doorways, on the pavements, in the windows, and on the various articles of clothing hung up for sale: “NOW OR NEVERI Cheapest clothes in the world!! PANTS GIVEN AWAYIII WALK IN GENTS. . . .” And so on without limit. New clothes and clothes doubtful are offered for sale at these prolific establishments, which are always selling off at cost or suicidal prices, yet never seem to be reduced in stock. I verily believe I saw hanging at the door of one of these shops the identical pair of stockings stolen from me several years ago at Strawberry.

The description has a familiar ring. There can be no doubt that some Jewish businesses in the West were conducted along the “drag 'em in” lines of Hester or Broome Street in New York City. Therein may lie an explanation of the neglect (perhaps out of mistaken kindness) of the pioneer Jew by writers of Western history and folklore. The writers recognized as Jewish only the cheapjack methods, and only the raucous hucksters as Jews. (Mark Twain, surely no anti-Semite, meeting Sutro for the first time, noted neither his Jewishness nor his achievements, but was struck solely by the man's lack of humor—“he did not mind a joke any more than a dead man would.”)

The Jew's neighbors and fellow pioneers in the West were more generous. Place-names in the West are an acknowledgment of the peddler's pathfinding role: Lassen County; Castro County; Solomonville; Helene, Montana (after Helena Goldberg, if the story is to be believed); Mears Pass; Sutro Forest. Parenthetically, Ed Schieffelin gave Tombstone, which he founded, its ominous name. Western Jews (of the first generation) also held political office to a degree unprecedented anywhere else in the world. Solomon Heydenfeldt was chief justice of the California Supreme Court; Simon Bamburger was governor of Utah. Dodge City had three Jewish mayors, one of whom served five terms. Early state legislatures in the West abound with Jewish names.

The peddlers, to be sure, were a select group, more enterprising, more daring than the merchants who stuck close to the few urban centers in the West. But even the meanest hawker who did business in Sidney Town in San Francisco, harassed by criminal gangs from Australia (the Ducks) or from the Bowery (the Hounds), deserved more credit than was given him for courage in those rowdy and dangerous days. Rabbi Voorsanger, in a spirited reply to an anti-Semitic remark made by a member of the California State Legislature, put the case as follows:

They [the Jews] came from all directions; they entered on every ship that touched the harbor, and their numbers increased when the Pacific Mail Line came twice monthly from the East. They came overland, driving their oxteams, like the rest of the adventurers, braving the dangers of desert and floods, the raids of the Indians, and the attacks of desperados, and halted at various points, where they pitched their tents and went to work like brave men. They located in every mining town and, faithful to their wonted pursuits, started the commerce of the New World. They were careful, abstemious in the midst of success, saving in the midst of extravagance, for their ultimate object was to secure a future home for their familes.

Their intimate connections with Eastern traders and mercantile houses enabled them to assist the mining populations in rapidly obtaining the comforts of Eastern civilization, and many a prosperous inland town owes its rise and present solidarity to the pluck and perseverance of the Hebrew merchants, who gave life to the places in which they were located, and fostered every new enterprise by personal encouragement and generous financial aid.

This lavish speech, delivered in the heat of controversy, is close to the sober truth.


1 The word “notions,” describing the contents of the Eastern peddler's pack, is significant, implying female vanity and extravagance. The women might hail the peddler's arrival, but the men, often as not, would resent it.

2 “There is little prejudice towards us Jews in social intercourse,” wrote a Sonora Jew. “In fact, there is no persuasion more esteemed for moral conduct than the Jew.”

3 Intra-Jewish gunplay reached absurd limits in an encounter between a rabbi and a member of his congregation (Portland, Oregon, 1880). Rabbi M. May was accosted in the street by a merchant named Waldman, who had a grievance which he tried to settle Old Country style by delivering a patsch that broke the Rabbi's glasses. The more assimilated Rabbi May borrowed a gun and took a potshot at his assailant. Luckily his aim was poor.

4 Schlesinger was also the subject of a barrack-room ballad:

When the foe charged the breastworks
    with the madness of despair,
And the bravest of souls were tested,
    the little Jew was there.

5 As a lesser contribution to the winning of the West, one might mention the introduction of levis and the ten-gallon hat—both brought in by the Jewish peddler.

6 “The freighting business had grown to such important proportions that there was nearly as much excitement over suddenly acquired toll road fortunes as over the wonderful silver mines.” Mark Twain, Roughing It.

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