Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jacob Hyman - Pioneer Jewish Merchant

Jacob Hyman (1830-1902)

Born 1830 in one of the German states near the Rhine, Jacob Hyman was one of the pillars of the early business community of Folsom.

Jacob sailed from Europe sometime around 1851 and landed in New Orleans, the second largest port of entry to the United States for emigrants during that period. Several decades earlier a vibrant Jewish community had been established in Louisiana by Jews from France, perhaps a result of the political disquiet following the French Revolution, and of the industrial revolution that began in England at the close of the 18th century, when she still ruled the seas and English entrepreneurs made fortunes from the mechanization of the textile industry.

Jacob found employment with a local farmer and then moved to Mississippi, where he lived until 1854. As news of continued finds in the California Gold Rush spread, Jacob boarded a steamer that traveled to the Isthmus of Panama. Here he disembarked, and according to his descendants, made his way on foot across the country to the western port where ships took on passengers bound for San Francisco. In Panama City he took passage on the steamer, “John L. Stephens” and landed in San Francisco on July 1, 1854. The announcement of the same steamer's arrival in San Francisco three months later reported:

October 1, 1854

The John L. Stephens left Panama with 700 passengers.
Arrived San Francisco Running time, 12 days 17 hours.

In her last voyage she carried 1360 passengers and had no sickness or a death on board. The Isthmus is perfectly free from sickness of any kind. The roads are in fine order. The mule ride from Panama is accomplished with ease and the passengers and mail crossed the Isthmus in ten hours. The Isthmus Guard has accomplished wonders in freeing the country from robbers and rascals, and passengers travel "without risk to life or purse."

This was creative advertising. Along the route, Jacob contracted malaria, the great hazard of travelers on this overland passage, and the effects of which plagued him for the rest of his life. Although he was raised to keep kosher, apparently he subsisted on monkey meat to survive.

In the 1851 English census, shortly before Jacob's departure from Europe, a Jacob Hyman appears listed as a jeweler. In 1860 at Michigan Bluffs, Placer County, the region of the Northern Mines, a Jacob Hyman is enumerated similarly. It is quite possible that both listings are Jacob, as his great grandson affirmed that during his life as a merchant in Folsom, Jacob bought and assayed gold and acted as a pawnbroker. It was most probably shortly after this time that Jacob made his way to Mormon Island (a town formerly adjacent to present-day Folsom, but which was inundated in 1955 to create Folsom Lake) and clerked for a year in the store of a Mr. Levy. Jacob bought Levy's store and operated there for four more years.

In 1865, Jacob married Isabella “Belle” Stamper. Family lore is that their union was arranged by Belle's father, Wolf Stamper, a rabbi in New York. It is more likely that her brothers Joseph and Samuel, who worked with Jacob in "Granite City" (the original name of Folsom) suggested to Jacob that Belle would make him a good wife.

This same William “Wolf” Stamper established a congregation in lower Manhattan in 1849, but in 1865 after his daughter's marriage, moved with his wife and children to the Sacramento area. During the late 1860s Wolf was rabbi of the Sacramento synagogue, B'nai Israel, and assumed the duties of a moyel; a newspaper account of 1868 indicates he performed a bris in Sutters Creek, a mining community in the Gold Country. He later settled his family in the town of Woodland, southwest of Sacramento, which had a small Jewish community and a consecrated Jewish cemetery.

Another great-grandchild was told that Jacob Hyman went to New York to meet his bride. Perhaps it was on this trip that Jacob obtained a small torah, with a yod that had a ruby set into the hand. This torah remained in the family until the late 1990's, when it was stolen. The story passed down was that this was the first torah in California, but perhaps it was the first in Sacramento; the Jewish community in Oroville had a yod that was created 1859-1860 (presently in the collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum with the inscription: Dedicated by H. Myers to the Oroville Hebrew Congregation 5620), and I assume that because the congregation had a yod that early, they probably had a torah as well.

As soon as the Civil War hostilities ceased, Belle traveled west by rail to St. Louis, up-river to St. Joseph, and by stagecoach to California. The Sacramento Union reported the marriage with the inclusion of the statement, “Isabella Stamper, daughter of Rev. William Stamper of New York City.”

In 1865, Jacob Hyman opened a business with Solomon Zekind. A year later, Jacob dissolved this partnership and the Folsom Telegraph reported that he was “now going it on his own hook. Mr. Hyman is well known to our citizens and has built up for himself a large and thriving business and always maintained the reputation of a fair and honest merchant. Give him a call.”

Jacob and Belle had four children, two daughters, Rose and Laura, and two sons, Isaac and Walter.

Walter Hyman was apparently a colorful character, and his grandson Richard recounted a family tale that when Walter Hyman was twenty, he found a gold vein of ore and sold it for a considerable sum. He installed himself in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and lived there for a year until his cash ran out. Walter strung the first power lines in Folsom, and many years later this company was sold to what became PG&E.

A few months before the birth of Jacob and Belle's first daughter in 1868, Hyman & Co. advertised that they were preparing to move into a new store. A year after the announcement, they were burglarized, the largest robbery that had ever occurred in Folsom. The Folsom Telegraph reported that the burglars "evidently muffled all noise with cotton batting and blankets as Joseph and Samuel Stamper slept in a building a few feet from the window broken into with crow bars."

By 1871, Jacob claimed he was ready to retire and a public auction was held to sell off the last of his stock. Apparently he had been in partnership with Joseph Stamper, his wife's brother, as the Telegraph reported the dissolution. Two years later Jacob and a new business associate were reported to “have opened a branch clothing and dry goods store at Woodland.” This is the same town to which Jacob's father-in-law retired.

In February 1881, Jacob purchased three lots in Folsom for $300. By April, Jacob had contracted with Carle & Croly of Sacramento to build a family residence, and in August the home was completed.

Contrary to his published announcement, Jacob continued to operate mercantiles under various names:

The Mammoth Clothing and Dry Goods Store
J. Hyman & Co. Mammoth Clothing and Dry Goods Emporium
The Mammoth Emporium, J. Hyman & Co.
Young America Dry Goods & Clothing Emporium
Jake Hyman's Emporium of Fashion

In 1896 Jacob finally retired. “Jake Hyman is retiring due to growing old; has disposed of his business to his son, Isaac, and daughter, Laura.” Isaac and Laura continued to run the store until its closing in 1940. Laura lived to a very old age in San Francisco, and when illness forced her move to a hospital, the family closed her apartment and discovered a loaded pistol sewn to her mattress.

On September 24, 1902, Jacob Hyman was “stricken with a paralytic stroke after attending a Republican Party rally,” and passed away in his home. He is buried in the section of Lakeside Cemetery that was originally the Folsom Jewish burial ground. After Jacob died, Belle lived with her daughter, and passed away on October 21, 1918.

The 1890 edition of the History of Sacramento County commended Jacob:

He has made good use of the little capital he brought with him to this State, by industry and perserverance. He is public-spirited, a Republican since he voted for Lincoln in 1860, a member of the Republican County Central Committee, and has always taken a great interest in public education. He has been a member of the Masonic order since 1860, of the Odd Fellows since 1872, a charter member of 1878 of the A.O.U.W., and has held offices in some of the lodges.”

Photos courtesy Rothschild family


  1. Interesting post... good history of how this man went from Europe to NYC to Sacramento. Thanks!