Jews and the San Francisco Gold Rush

By | May 20, 2013

In the early 1850s, Adolph Sutro, a cocky young man with a thick walrus moustache, headed west to make his fortune. Originally from Prussia, Sutro had managed his family’s textile factory and immigrated to America in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, which had stirred up fears of renewed anti-Semitism. A born adventurer obsessed with books, machines and outer space, Sutro was unimpressed with Baltimore, where his mother and numerous siblings had settled. Lured by news that gold had been discovered in the American River in California in 1848, Sutro boarded a steamer to Central America, trekked through the jungle to the Pacific, and caught another a ship up the coast. He disembarked in San Francisco, alone and penniless, in 1850.

Around the same time, another Prussian-born Jew—Abraham Abrahamsohn—made his way to New York. He arrived with three shillings in his pocket and his heart beating “in the most joyous jubilation,” as he recalled in 1856, while dictating what would become An Interesting Account of the Travels of Abraham Abrahamsohn in America. “Everywhere the astonished eye saw people who, coming from [California], showed large chunks of gold or carried them braggingly around their necks, and who lived in grand style.” He determined to join their ranks and undertook the long, arduous journey to San Francisco shortly after Sutro.

Sutro and Abrahamsohn belonged to a generation of self-selecting Jewish adventurers who found themselves in a makeshift, fast-growing city (its population grew from 1,000 in early 1848 to 30,000 by 1850) that served as the jumping off point for gold miners. There the two men joined a hodgepodge of Jews from all over the world, who had come to the American West for the same purpose. “They knew they were coming to a place where there were no synagogues—and no rabbis,” says Warren Hellman, great-grandson of the California banker Isaias Hellman. Like their fellow free-spirited non-Jewish 49ers, gold, not God, was foremost on their minds.
In the fall of 1849, some three dozen or so Jews—almost all of them men—gathered from all over “gold country” for High Holiday services in Lewis Franklin’s wood-frame store on Jackson Street. Soon after, two synagogues sprung up: Temple Emanu-El, which was frequented primarily by Bavarian Jews with a reformist bent, and the more traditional Temple Sherith Israel, which catered mainly to English and Polish Jews. It wasn’t until 1854 that Emanu-El hired the region’s first rabbi, a strict scholar named Julius Eckman, who had found his way from Poland to London, Berlin, Mobile and New Orleans before arriving, uninvited and unannounced, in San Francisco.

Eckman lasted less than a year at Emanu-El, in large part because he was unwilling to adapt to California’s liberal environment. “A major reason for his failure was that he was at best a half-hearted reformer,” writes Fred Rosenbaum, a New York native who has spent much of his life in the Bay Area, in his 2009 book, Cosmopolitans: A Social History of the Jews of San Francisco. In particular, he notes, Eckman resisted a popular push for gender equality in the synagogue, once going so far as to call women’s emancipation “ridiculous foolery.” He also undertook a campaign against excess, focusing in particular on alcohol, an unpopular stance in the rough-and-ready West. After parting ways with the synagogue, Eckman established a Hebrew school that would become quite successful and, in 1857, he founded The Weekly Gleaner, which Rosenbaum calls “the most influential Jewish newspaper in the western states.”

One of Eckman’s students was Mary Goldsmith, who arrived in 1952 at age six at the city’s Montgomery Street Pier after a treacherous journey that included a brief hike through the wilds of Nicaragua. The daughter of a shochet, she enjoyed Hebrew school. “How anxiously we looked forward to our Sabbath afternoon services!” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. Goldsmith was a regular at High Holiday services, though she acknowledged that young San Franciscans tended to exploit the gatherings for social ends. “I fear I was more outside in the lobby than inside listening to the service.” Like many other Jews who settled in the West, her passion for Judaism gradually faded. In time, she carved out an impressive career for herself as a teacher and advocate for women’s rights.

Eckman became increasingly dismayed by the predominant culture of religious levity. “The late excitement has put all religious affairs into the shade,” he wrote to his friend Solomon Carvalho in 1855. “All is dormant; we can get no ear for lectures and no persons for attendance.” In particular, Eckman was shocked by the heretical wedding customs that were growing in popularity. “There is a strange mode gaining countenance here of celebrating wedding banquets…Jewish weddings-feast in beer houses?”

While life in the rugged West didn’t promote a culture of religious piety, it did serve as a backdrop for Jewish prosperity. “Our western pioneer entered into a totally free economic system that let Jews succeed,” says popular storyteller David Epstein in his short volume, Why the Jews Were So Successful in the West. As a new city, San Francisco was teeming with opportunities, and because a citizen’s standing was based more on performance than pedigree, Jews became part of the meritocracy. Moreover, as Epstein tells it, the Gold Rush would have been a “disaster” without the Jews, who provided goods and services to the many thousands of untrained newcomers who rushed towards the mines.

The newly arrived Abrahamsohn first tried his hand at selling clothing, but lost all of his merchandise and belongings in one of the many fires that terrorized the young metropolis. In the wake of the disaster, he had little choice but to make for the mines. “I knew well that gold digging was not such an easy thing, and I must now do what the quarrymen do in Germany with the sweat of their brow,” he said. “But necessity forced me to bite into this sour apple, so I found nine companions and traveled with them to the wonderful shimmering blue mountains to the gold mines.” Abrahamsohn found mining backbreaking, however, and soon abandoned it. Desperate, he began offering tailoring services door-to-door in Sacramento City. “My God,” he remembered. “Here I left my homeland more than two years ago, I am in America—in California, full of gold, and I should do something like this?”

Abrahamsohn next earned his living as a traveling mohel—he claimed to have practiced in Europe prior to his arrival in America—and used the proceeds to open a saloon in San Francisco. Alas, this enterprise, too, was claimed by flames in April of 1852. “I had nothing but my clothes and $150,” he said. In despair, he took to gambling. “I lived through Hell, unhappy with my better self, and though I had the best intentions during the day, in the evening witchcraft drew me to those accursed houses,” he recalled. In May of 1852, Abrahamsohn gave up on the American dream and boarded a boat for Australia, along with around 200 others, “mostly unlucky Californians, men who had searched in vain for luck.” He later cautioned other fortune hunters that, “he who thinks roasted doves fly about [California] with golden wings asking to be plucked and eaten, should stay at home.”

As Abrahamsohn discovered, pluck did not guarantee success. Luck also played a role, and Adolph Sutro, for one, had it. On his arrival, he used his Jewish connections to find work as a firewatcher, an important job in the blaze-prone city. Once he had accumulated enough capital, he opened his own shop and sold provisions, ranging from boots and cloth to lager. He parlayed this into three profitable tobacco shops, and in 1856, married a young woman named Leah, with whom he had six children. Three years later, Sutro was overcome with excitement when word came that silver, and possibly more gold, had been discovered in the Comstock Lode in Nevada.

A self-taught engineer who had studied mining in Prussia, Sutro hatched an ambitious plan to bore an enormous tunnel through Mt.. Davidson in western Nevada, near Virginia City. Although he stood to make a fortune if the project succeeded—it would provide safe and easy access to significant deposits of silver deep underground—the idea struck observers as so far-fetched that the young Jewish businessman quickly earned a reputation as a fraud and a dreamer. The Gold Hill News called his idea “one of the most infamous and barefaced swindles ever put forth in Nevada.”

But Sutro was no fool: After a devastating 1869 fire in the Yellow Jacket Mine took at least 35 lives, he finally won widespread support—including from the U.S. Congress, which passed the Sutro Tunnel Act in 1866. The project, which would take another decade to complete, cost more than six million dollars, according to an early biography of Sutro.

Sutro went on to make his fortune and became San Francisco’s largest landowner and biggest benefactor. In 1892, running on a Populist Party ticket, he was elected mayor.

By 1860, there were as many as 5,000 Jews in San Francisco, comprising nearly 10 percent of the city’s residents, according to Rosenbaum. Like Abrahamsohn, most preferred to work as tailors, mohels, teachers and merchants rather than face the dangers and uncertainties of the mines. Many scraped by while others thrived, establishing businesses that served the mining industry.
One of the most famous of these entrepreneurs was Levi Strauss, who emigrated from Bavaria to New York in 1847 at age 18. The youngest of seven children, Strauss followed his siblings from New York to Kentucky and finally to San Francisco where he ran a dry goods store. In 1872, he was approached by Jacob Davis, a Jewish tailor who needed capital to patent his sturdy rivet-secured denim pants. Strauss, cognizant of the heavy demand among miners for reliable workwear, went into business with Davis, and eventually bought him out.

Another wildly successful businessman was Isaias Hellman, also from Bavaria. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1859 at age 16, he, too, ran a dry goods store, but soon found that he could earn more money by safely storing people’s gold. “Hellman was a very important figure in the development of California and also San Francisco,” says his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkenspiel, who wrote the 2008 book Towers of Gold about Hellman. “He was head of Farmers & Merchants Bank in Los Angeles and when he moved to San Francisco in 1890 to take over Nevada Bank, which was pretty much broke, people lined up to buy shares.” Hellman eventually sold shares to Levi Strauss and to his cousins, the Lehman brothers in New York, and in 1905, he merged Nevada Bank with Wells Fargo Bank. “He was certainly the most influential Jewish financier during his lifetime,” says Dinkenspiel.

Such Jewish success stories were possible, she says, because California “was a frontier society that didn’t have any established hierarchy when Jews started coming in 1850.” As a result, they “were able to take their place in society without being discriminated against and fulfill their potential, whereas Jews in New York were trying to fit into an existing social structure.” Compared to the rest of the United States and the world, anti-Semitism was “much milder in San Francisco and the West from the very beginning,” adds Rosenbaum, although some Californians did hold the stereotypical belief that Jews held the secret to prosperity and economic success. “In fact, Jews tended to be very well regarded and were held in high esteem.”

The acceptance of Jews can also be attributed to the state’s diverse mix of Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Irish, Jews and other ethnic groups. “The California experience has to be thought of in the context of Western history,” explains Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish History at New York University. “For white people, almost regardless of who they were, opportunities abounded. Jews benefited from both being there and being white. Nativity and religion mattered little there.” Gender was also less of an impediment. “As to Jewish women, their experiences also have to be thought of in light of the West’s generally more open opportunity structure based on a paucity of women and white privilege,” adds Diner. “Jewish women, like white women in general, could take advantage of possibilities that did not prevail ‘back east.’”

Even in 1880, when the Jewish population in San Francisco swelled to nearly 16,000, making it the second largest Jewish community in America after New York, anti-Semitism was minimal. Of course, it wasn’t entirely absent. In 1854, for example, Congressman William Stow from Santa Cruz rendered a singularly harsh judgment before the state assembly: “I have no sympathy with the Jews, and would, were it in my power, enforce a regulation that would eliminate them from not only our county, but from the entire state.” He went on to propose a “Jew-tax that is so high that [Jews] would not be able to operate any more shops.” The measure was duly dismissed and forgotten.

It would be false, however, to suggest that San Francisco or California were free of racism or discrimination. Jews, along with the majority of the state’s citizens, looked down on the Chinese. In the late 1870s, “many prominent Jews—including the three leading rabbis—urged the federal government to end Chinese immigration,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s the most disheartening part of my ten years of research. In very few cases did Jews stand up for Asians.”

Even Sutro, who was known to treat his servants and employees kindly and to favor the working classes, harbored a grudge against San Francisco’s large Asian population. “The very worst emigrants from Europe,” he wrote, “are a hundred times more desirable than these Asiatics.”

As the Gold Rush wound down, it left in its wake a large, bustling metropolis of established businesses. Many of these—such as Levi Strauss & Co., Wells Fargo Bank, Sutro & Co., Crown Zellerbach and Sommer & Kaufman—were owned by Jews. It was clear, as Fred Rosenbaum says, “that the Jewish community had played a key role in transforming a crude frontier outpost into a thriving center of commerce and culture.”

By this time, Temple Emanu-El had hired a rabbi—Elkan Cohn—whose progressive attitude suited the reform-minded bent of its congregants. From 1860 through 1890, Cohn transformed the synagogue, then housed in a stately new building on Sutter Street, into a free-thinker’s paradise, at one point going so far as to ban head coverings and hold services on Sundays. Still, in spite of his efforts, the city’s Jews remained largely unaffiliated. During the same period, Temple Sherith Israel moved away from its Orthodox roots and joined the Reform movement.

Meanwhile, Jews rapidly ascended to civic leadership, says Ava Kahn, a research associate at the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, who has written and edited a number of books on the Jews of the West including Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush. “The new cities of the West made it easier for Jews to get involved,” says Kahn. “It was harder for Jews to rise to leadership positions in the established cities of the East where they were not usually among the first immigrants and there were larger mercantile populations.”

Unlike immigrants on the eastern seaboard, she adds, most western Jews arrived acculturated, fluent in English, and ready to participate in a civic society “for the common good.” So while Isaias Hellman lobbied and raised funds for the city’s trolley system, Sutro built the Sutro Baths, a complex of seven swimming pools—one fresh water and six salt water baths ranging in temperatures—as well as a museum displaying his large and varied personal collection of artifacts from his travels, a concert hall that sat 8,000, and an ice skating rink. Jews built parks and auditoriums, were major patrons of the arts, and after the 1906 earthquake, immediately stepped forward to lead efforts to rebuild the city. “They didn’t have to be asked,” says Warren Hellman. “It was their city as much as anyone’s.”

The city’s Jews chose not “to ghettoize themselves,” adds Hellman. Jews lived wherever they wanted, usually based on income, and they participated fully in politics. “As a rule, where Jews were seen as being among the generation of founders, they achieved more success and political power than where they were viewed as latecomers and interlopers,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “Frontier communities tended to be more open and tolerant; people depended upon one another,” he adds. “No surprise that San Francisco and Cincinnati both had Jewish mayors long before Jews rose to the mayoralty in the East. This even applied to women: Mary Prag née Goldsmith earned a spot on San Francisco’s Board of Education; her daughter Florence became the nation’s first Jewish congresswoman in 1925.

Ava Kahn, a California native, is always surprised when the experiences of the West Coast Jews are left out of the American Jewish story. “When I began studying American Jewish history, none of the standard narratives really made sense to me,” she says. “The Lower East Side and all that stuff just wasn’t part of my family’s experience.” A 2009 volume called Jews of the Pacific Coast that Kahn co-edited, argues that American Jewish history has been overly weighted towards immigration and assimilation, and must be “balanced by a story of Jews and Jewish communities recreating themselves as full participants in the civic life of a rapidly developing and very new society.”

Today, the Greater Bay Area continues to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing Jewish communities, according to a 2005 survey commissioned by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation. The region’s Jews may be pushing half a million, suggests the survey, making it the country’s third-largest community, behind only New York and Los Angeles. But as Jews from all over the country continue to arrive, the local Jewish character has become less distinct. “Many peculiarities of the past have disappeared,” says Rosenbaum.

But “strong echoes,” he adds, “of the nineteenth and early twentieth century can still be heard.” Among these is a focus on civic institutions, often led by the descendants of pioneer families. Other echoes include the Bay Area Jewry’s continued preoccupation with arts and culture; the fact that only a small fraction of Jewish residents belong to a synagogue; and the community’s tendency to push the envelope on social and political issues. Seen in the light of the legacy of Jews in the Gold Rush, this makes sense, says Rosenbaum. “The local community was just not that traditional. Jews were non-conformists in an area that welcomed non-conformity.” As Warren Hellman says: “San Francisco’s early Jews made a conscious decision to be part of the general community and were accepted in the political, economic and cultural webs of the city. It worked great for them and it works great today.”


4 thoughts on “Jews and the San Francisco Gold Rush

  1. Curious says:

    Conspicuously, you mention the Jewish attitude towards Asians, but not to Blacks. Why is that?

  2. An interesting and informative paper on Jewish history in California

  3. Harold Lindenthal says:

    Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, is a worthwhile read.

  4. See the Jewish Museum of the American West at and my blog at I’m the northern California editor of Western States Jewish History, a journal in its 45th year of publication. Every quarterly issue features stories on little-known Jewish pioneers in the western states.

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