Monday, October 5, 2009

The Jewish Merchants of Humboldt County

Nan Abrams is the only researcher to have documented and compiled the history of early Jewish settlers on the northern California coast. These enterprising merchants supplied provisions to miners in the mountainous region of Trinity County, west of Redding.

Placer mining (extraction of gold flakes and nuggets from the sand or gravel in stream beds) in Trinity County was joined by hard rock mining of ore in 1889. In 1893 it was reported that using a hydraulic process, gold output of the county remained at a high figure, and as late as 1918, these methods were still employed.1, 2

Here is Nan Abrams' brief chronology of the county's Jewish merchants, from 1852 to the turn of the century.

In the fall of 1849, miners were successfully panning and sluicing gold at Rich Bar, just north of what is now the town of Helena in Trinity County. The difficulty and expense of receiving supplies through the interior from Sacramento or San Francisco prompted Josiah Gregg and L.K. Wood to lead eight men to locate a route to the Pacific, hoping to find a harbor in which to bring supplies by ship. They set out on November 5th of 1849, and on December 13th, after many difficulties and near starvation, the party succeeded in their endeavor.

By spring of 1850 ships were landing at Trinidad and Humboldt bays, and suppliers and other adventurers made their way to the Trinity gold fields using the new trail from the coast. Within a few years, Jewish-owned mercantile shops could be found up and down the streets of the towns they helped create, including Union (later renamed Arcata), Eureka, Rohnerville, Hydesville, Fortuna, Blue Lake and Trinidad.

The earliest record of Jewish merchants is the rental of property in 1852 in Union by Henry Stern to Isaac Manheim, resulting in the formation of the firm of Spencer, Manheim & Stern. Manheim set up several family members in mercantile establishments all over the county, including the towns of Orleans, Hoopa, and Hydesville. Henry and Israel Fleishman were also early residents of Union and operated a mercantile. In 1855 Henry Fleishman traveled to Alameda to wed Miss Helen Goldsmith of New York, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. (Rabbi) Dr. Eckman.

Augustus Jacoby built a famous Arcata landmark listed on the National Register of historic sites: the Jacoby Storehouse. Fires were commonplace and many businesses experienced devastating loss year after year, but Jacoby’s building still stands because he had the resources and foresight to build his storehouse of supplies for the miners from stone quarried from a nearby river. Census records note that he also owned a hotel.

In Eureka in 1853 a merchant named Moses Sichell closed his mercantile business, and along with his 17 year old nephew, was readying to return to San Francisco with their considerable profits. Some men from the local mill robbed them the night before their departure, murdered the nephew and severely injured Sichell. The men were arrested and hanged. This was the first hanging in Eureka and one of the few historical incidents involving Jews on the northern coast mentioned in other histories of the Gold Rush.

In 1854 Leavey & Company was also situated in Eureka. By 1856 Spencer & Kleiser, and Sinsheimer Dry Goods had stores in Union. In 1856 a Masonic Lodge was organized in Union and Augustus Jacoby, J. Manheim, and J(ohn) Fleishman were among its officers. The Fleishman brothers dissolved their partnership in 1857 and by 1858 Israel Fleishman had opened a store with Sinsheimer.

Rohner and Feigenbaum began their mercantile concern in 1859 in a southeast part of the county called Eel River, and established the town of Rohnerville. Other members of the Feigenbaum family operated businesses in Springville (eventually renamed Fortuna), and one of the Feigenbaums opened a store in Eureka in 1865.

In 1860 a merchant named Harmon Fleishman and his wife Lena took up residence in Arcata with their children. That same year the firms of Rohner & Feigenbaum and Isaac Manheim of Eel River agreed to no longer conduct business on the Christian Sabbath.3 Henry Manheim married Emma, August Jacoby’s sister in 1860.

Mrs. A Goldsmith ran her own mercantile business in Arcata and in 1866 left to return to the east coast permanently.

In 1867 Henry Fleishman and his family left Union and the local paper reported:
“H. Fleishman & Family left the County by steamer to live in the east. Mr. Fleishman was one of the early settlers of this county, residing and doing business in Arcata to the time of his departure. In his business relations he commanded universal respect & enjoyed the confidences of all who he dealt. Socially, few families had won & gathered about them more and better friends.”

That same year, Jacob Loewenthal, a man who was to become one of the community’s highest regarded citizens, arrived in Eureka on October 21 and began working as a clerk for B. Feigenbaum. He established his own clothing store at 2nd and F in Eureka in 1874 and was in business for more than 40 years. The original storefronts are still standing in Old Town Eureka.

A new merchant in town, Joseph Greenbaum, purchased Henry Fleishman’s business in Hoopa and Arcata (housed in Jacoby’s Storehouse) in 1866. Five years later Greenbaum purchased a building in Block 6 in Eureka. On this same block, Henry Reilinger established a mercantile business and was soon joined by his wife’s family, the Galingers and the Greenwalds; the latter who became prominent citizens of Arcata.

In 1885, Joseph L Cohen, formerly with I. Culberg of Arcata, partnered with J.S. Thornton to open a mercantile business and hotel at New River, and is considered one of the founders of the town (now known as Denny).

In Eureka in 1886 H. Reilinger built a store, his brother-in-law, Julius Greenwald, opened his dry goods business on the northwest corner of Arcata Plaza, and H. Cohn & Co. Importers & Wholesale Dealers, were located on 2nd St. One year later Lewis C. Cohen opened the Alhambra Cigar store.

In July of 1861 Augustus Jacoby’s wife, Elizabeth died. Her headstone, pictured above, can be found in the Greenwood Cemetery in Arcata. This possibly prompted Jacoby and his daughter Bertha to leave the county and move to New York. A friend visited them there in 1892 and reported on the good health of both, but shortly after that Augustus Jacoby passed away.

1892 was a banner year for Jewish merchants in Eureka. One could find Steinberg’s Bazaar: Crockery, Glassware, Etc., A. Lazarus: Jewelry & Watchmaker, and N. Kalischer & Co. Dry Goods. J. Levy had a dry goods store on the Arcata Plaza and M. Kalisch & Co: Commission Merchants from San Francisco, did business in Eureka as well.

The Jacobs brothers opened The Red Front and Blue Front stores on 2nd and F in 1897. They were able to keep their stores open on Sunday mornings. In 1902 A. Crocker & Bros. Ladies Clothier was on 3rd and F and Mr. L.J. Greenberg was the manager. Jake Lowenthal opened a store on Main St. in Ferndale.

These names represent fifty years of Jewish merchants from the Gold Rush to the turn of the century. There is no evidence of an organized Jewish community, although in the 1920's a group of Jewish families attempted to start a “Hebrew Social Club.” After the initial newspaper report no further documentation is available, and none of the founders mentioned seem to have remained in Humboldt County. These included F.S. Diamond, Marie Diamond, Mrs. M. Sallan, M. Blum, J. Greenberg, and the Shelly, Powell and Benjamin families.

The Jewish residents who arrived later, sometimes buying into businesses started by these early pioneers, built Temple Beth El in Eureka in the 1950's. It was the only synagogue on the west coast between Ukiah and Portland.


1. G. Chester Brown, Field Assistant. Mines and Mineral Resources of Shasta County, Siskiyou County, Trinity County California State Mining Bureau, Ferry Building, San Francisco, California State Printing Office, 1915.

2. Northwest of Weaverville, La Grange, the largest placer mine in the world, operated from 1862 to 1918.

3. Sunday sabbath legislation was proposed in the California Senate and Assembly and bills were passed in 1855 for “the suppression of amusements and business activity on the Christian Sabbath” but repealed in 1883. The Jewish businessmen, for the most part, supported these laws.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A little more on Albert Michelson's work and the family home

"El Jefe" at Twisted Oak Winery wrote:

The technique Michelson invented to measure the speed of light (the interferometer), and for which he won the prize, is now being used to make "very large arrays" of telescopes - which astronomers are using to see even farther into space.

The original house was the two front rooms, and behind those was the kitchen porch. The parents and four children lived in those two rooms for about ten years. A large sitting room, bedroom, and indoor plumbing were added on in the 1870s, along with a side building and barn - from which the original Mercer Cavern tours were conducted. The original kitchen porch became the sitting room and is where we have our tasting room today. If you stand at the right end of the bar, you are standing over the well - at least they had running water in the kitchen!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Albert Abraham Michelson

Albert Abraham Michelson was
the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in sciences. He was born in Strzelno, Prussia (which became Poland) on 19 December 1852 to Samuel Michelson and Rozalia Przylubski. In 1855 the family emigrated to the United States. They made their way to the town of Murphys, located in the heart of the California Gold Country, where Samuel became a merchant to the mining community.

These photos were taken at the family home in Murphys, and the residence is commemorated by a plaque. The house is now a tasting room for Twisted Oak Winery, a few miles away in Vallecito, and I persuaded the girl pouring to show me the original portion of the building. It consisted of the two front rooms, which are now used for storage, and an outdoor kitchen.

Samuel Michelson moved his family to Virginia City, Nevada, presumably to take advantage of the Comstock strike and the influx of miners to that area. Albert was sent to San Francisco to live with his father's sister, Henriette Levy and attend high school.

In 1869 Michelson went to Annapolis Naval Academy and after graduation and two years at sea returned as a science instructor. While there he performed experiments to determine the velocity of light and decided upon a career in physics. He traveled to Europe and studied at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris. In 1882 he took a position at the Case School of Applied Science and collaborated with the chemist Edward Morley in several experiments. These were recognized by the scientific community as the most significant of several kinds of attempts to measure the velocity of the earth through the ether, a substance that scientists believed filled the universe (the experiment determined that ether did not exist),

From 1889 to 1892 Michelson was a professor of physics at Clark University and from 1892 to 1929 was head of the physics department at the University of Chicago. He was among the founders of The American Physical Society and its second president.

He was the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize (1907) and the first person to measure the angular diameter of a star. He focused on surpassing his own measurements of the velocity of light, which he achieved in1926. He died in 1931 as he was writing up his results and is buried in Pasadena.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

A little bit of geography

The term "Mother Lode," sometimes used to describe sites of the original California Gold Rush mining settlements, is a misnomer. The Mother Lode is actually the rich vein of gold ore that runs from Georgetown, near Placerville, to Mormon Bar, southeast of Mariposa. The mines north of this area extended to Sierra City, the southern mines terminated at Coarsegold. The term “Gold Country” is now used commonly to inclusively describe this entire almost 300 mile long area.

The snow melt-off on the western side of the Sierra Nevada range trickles into small creeks and becomes larger streams traversing the Gold Country in a southwesterly direction. These eventually join the Sacramento River north of the Delta, the San Joaquin River to the south, and both rivers empty at the Delta's mouth into Suisun Bay, an estuary of San Francisco Bay.

After the gold seekers made their way to San Francisco, the Sacramento and San Joaquin were the most efficient means of transport for miners and their supplies, and aspiring entrepreneurs and their wares. The waters of the rivers' tributaries yielded the gold found so plentifully during the first few years of the Gold Rush.

Sonora's Jewish Cemetery

On Friday I visited the Sonora Hebrew Cemetery and photographed every headstone. The Judah L. Magnes Museum has an online selection of black and white photographs of the headstones taken in the 1980's. I will post some photos in the next few days - the cemetery is beautiful, surrounded by a stone wall and encircled by mature, tall trees.

The Cohn Mansion

Western States Jewish History is a quarterly periodical founded by Dr. Norton Stern in 1968. An online forty-year index is current to July, 2008 and can be searched by author or subject, although this can be tricky if you don't know the exact title of an article. My solution was to print out the alphabetical listings for California and read each title, and in this manner was able to find information I might otherwise have missed.

Three "sample" volumes are online - and the very first issue of the first volume, published in October of 1968, contains an article about the Cohn Mansion of Folsom.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Pioneer Researcher

The man who laid the groundwork for research on the Jews of the Gold Rush was Dr. Robert E. Levinson. Most of his comprehensive work, now held by the Western Jewish History Center at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California, was accomplished as part of a doctoral thesis in the early 1960's. He combed local newspapers contemporary to the Gold Rush era, investigated county records, interviewed surviving descendents, and took meticulous notes, and while doing field work discovered six previously undocumented Jewish cemeteries in what is now known as the "Gold Country." His work was cut short in 1980 when he was killed in a car crash. He was instrumental in creating the Commission for the Preservation of Jewish Pioneer Cemeteries and Landmarks, and the six cemeteries he found and surveyed are overseen by the Commission.

Some of Dr. Levinson's research was originally published in much abridged form in his 1968 book, "The Jews in the California Gold Rush," which was reissued in 1994. A book published in 1996, "A Traveler's Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush" by Susan Morris, supplies directions to the six cemeteries and transcriptions of the headstones, in addition to a brief history of each community. Thus far I have photographed the Placerville Jewish cemetery, one of the six. The other cemeteries are located in Mokelumne Hill, Jackson, Sonora, Nevada City and Grass Valley.

It was not uncommon for Jewish settlers to be buried in non-Jewish cemeteries, given the hardships of life and the difficulty of travel in those early days. Burial in a non-Jewish cemetery is also a reflection of the unique experience of the Jews in the mining towns - most miners were immigrants, and the Jews were usually not singled out, indeed, they were accepted as equals and lauded as worthy neighbors and citizens. Embraced by the community, they enthusiastically joined fraternal lodges, and sometimes were buried in lodge cemeteries. There are several Jewish headstones in the I.O.O.F Cemetery in Sonora that were documented by Dr. Levinson.

I have also photographed the headstones at what was once a separate, consecrated Jewish cemetery in Folsom, but has been absorbed into the larger sectarian Lakeside Cemetery.


to my blog on the Jews of the Gold Rush. I am just emerging from several months of research on this topic, some of which will be included in an Avotaynu source book for Jewish genealogical research in the United States that will be published next year.

I have been collecting documentation and photographing the headstones of Gold Rush pioneer cemeteries, and will begin to post these, along with historical background on the Jewish presence in the mining towns of the Gold Country.

Thanks for visiting!

Saturday, July 18, 2009