Spotlight Columns

‘Pioneer Jews of the Gold Rush’ a treasured gem of history

By From page B2 | April 30, 2014

The Gold Rush of 1849 brought people of virtually every race, nationality and ethnicity to the Golden State.

If you were ambitious and willing to work hard, you came to the Mother Lode.

Among those who came were people of a small, ethnic community. A people historically without a country during that time. A people that was despised and rejected in Europe.

These pioneers were Jews.

Europe was in turmoil. With their livelihood threatened, many fled the lands of their birth to seek a better life in the American West.

Quietly, with scrupulous honesty and hard work, they built up the business communities in San Francisco, Sacramento and the Gold Country.

Pioneer Jews of the Gold Rush: Little Known Jewish Communities of the Mother Lode is a unique exhibit at the Folsom History Museum that documents the lives of these early pioneers.

The exhibit chronicles the Jewish communities in Sacramento, Marysville, Placerville, Folsom, Jackson, Nevada City and Grass Valley, Jackson, Sonora, Mokelumne Hill and Arcata.

Journalists are the first recorders of history. Written accounts in the Sacramento Daily Union from the 1850s document the accomplishments of the “Israelites” and the high regard with which they were held in the local community.

“On a first arrival in our city, it becomes a matter of astonishment to all who see the large number of mercantile houses conducted by Israelites, being much greater in proportion to the commerce than in any other city in America. Every line of business is engaged in by them, with credit to themselves and honor to the community.”

I learned that the first priority for the Jewish pioneers was the establishment of consecrated cemeteries in the mining country. Few synagogue buildings were built in the Gold Country, so meetings and services were held in private homes or rented halls.

The exhibit features photos, documents, textiles and much more from the era.

Those interested in local history will find information about the Cohn family, the Jacobs brothers, the Fiel and Hyman families and many others.

For those with time, the exhibit includes a 45-minute film documentary.

This exhibit offers a glimpse into another era. One in which America was working to become a noble place – a land apart from the strife of other nations. The Jewish community earned a position of great respect here. This attitude is reflected in an article from the Sacramento Daily Union in 1858:

“They (the Jews) are gradually coming into the possession of those long sought privileges and immunities which are destines to be wield with great influence for the race. The vulgar an (sic) unchristianly prejudices with which the relic of God’s ‘chosen people’ were regarded are slowly wearing out from intelligent minds … In this State, whatever objection may be urged against some of them … no portion of our community are more orderly and give less offense to the laws.”

“Pioneer Jews of the Gold Rush: Little Known Jewish Communities of the Mother Lode” is on exhibit through May 18 at the Folsom History Museum, located at 823 Sutter Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for youth, and free for kids younger than 12. Parking is available in front and in the parking garage across the street. Call (916) 985-2707 for more information. 

Send your event for consideration in Susan’s column to [email protected]

Susan Laird


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