Jews and the Geography of Contest in the American Frontier West

David S. Koffman

Ute Chief Ouray and Otto Mears between 1860 and 1880
Ute Chief Ouray and Otto Mears, between 1860 and 1880 / Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, photographer. Allen Tupper True and True family papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
When Francis Scott Key twinned "land" and "free" together in the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814—in the wake of the War of 1812, a war of territorial expansion, not one of political sovereignty, as was the War of Independence—he captured something of the essentially conjoined status of the ideas of freedom and land that had been and would continue to be central to the American imagination. The political fantasy that the continent was empty of property-bearing people played a key role in the very formation of the Republic, and acquiring and settling land was the foundational motivation for millions of immigrants and hundreds of millions of their descendants who currently comprise all but 0.9% of the American population. Indeed, land and its natural resources lay at the heart of the juggernaut of America's expansion, from its eighteenthcentury wars of territorial enlargement, including those with Indians and those with other colonial powers, to its extensions to new territories by homesteaders and the military in the early nineteenth, and onto the continuing succession of waves of frontier encounter well into the twentieth century. The frontier was a physical place, a geography of contest, onto which the federal government invited and enabled a massive wave of European immigrants, alongside Chinese, Mexican, and African American laborers, to settle newly acquired lands. Though great tracts of this land had been acquired as spoils from America's war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848, or purchased— from France in 1803 (Louisiana), from the United Kingdom in 1846 (Oregon), from Mexico in 1853 (portions of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona), and from Russia in 1867 (Alaska)—most of it became available to settlers through the state's efforts to contain and then assimilate American Aboriginals, and to extinguish their title to the land by treaty signings or force.

The frontier was also a process, and Jewish immigrants played an active part in it as peddlers, traders, prospectors, speculators, and entrepreneurs. Jews too linked "land" and "free," and they too participated in the great struggle against native peoples for American land, albeit with their own uniquely Jewish articulations. To the frontier of the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, they unwittingly brought medieval and early modern European expectations and limitations of what their relationships with land could be. There they vied with native people, and encountered a range of competing conceptualizations of soil, landscape, territory, space, and earth. Thousands cast their lots among the German, Irish, Scandinavian, and American-born migrants who rushed west to seize their opportunity for land. Jewish peddlers traversed the in-between places along the shifting frontier, in and on the borders of native territories and government-created Indian reserves, helping connect spaces into larger economic zones.

Land provided a site of longing and resolution for American Jews, and they most certainly wanted to belong to it, to be of it if not from it, to imagine a deep connection to it that implied an end to exile, a rootedness. They wrote about land in poems and novels, diaries, letters, and memoirs, in newspapers, local histories, and travelogues in English, German, and Yiddish, often eloquently articulating wishes and realities of its landscape, its power, its newness, its salvific potential.

Along with the economic opportunities promised by the West, those Jews who migrated to America's frontiers desired land. For them, land ownership offered some critical entitlements: an avenue for social and economic mobility, a sense of belonging in the project of establishing the nation, a place for civic inclusion and religious latitude, the experience of motility unrestricted by a powerful state, and a reversal of the predicament of landlessness Jews faced in Europe. The battle against Native Americans for supremacy over the land doubled as a battle for "ownership" of America itself, for advancing civilization and establishing the American national project; Jews took pride in their active role in this central drama of American life and fate.

Their interest in western American lands blended the fantastical and the concrete, but almost always spoke to underlying modern Jewish anxieties. Some took on-the-ground measures to own, settle, or work the land. Large-scale fantasies or attempts to expand Jewish life on American land provided an (unrealized) answer to the modern Jewish Problem. Take, for example, the Scottish Baronet Sir Alexander Cuming's suggestion to the British Crown in the 1730s that 300,000 Jews be relocated onto Cherokee lands, paid for by the Jews' own expense, as a strategy to relieve the British national debt—the Jews could essentially buy nationhood in British colonial territory. Or take the eighteenthcentury Gratz family, who purchased 321,000 acres west of the Ohio River on land ceded by the Six Nations. The Gratz's aspired to own the entire "virgin" Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River and apparently envisioned a veritable empire of villages, towns, and cities in the "Indian no-man's-land whose warring Shawnee and Delaware and Miami would be subdued and their forests cleared," according to one historian of the Jewish frontier.

There's Mordecai Manuel Noah's famous attempt to build a semi-sovereign Jewish national home on Grand Island, New York in 1825, a site to which all of the Israelites living in galut—including Native Americans—would be ingathered. Or Julius Stern's 1843 proposal, nearly a decade before the settlement of Nebraska, that a colony of Jews be established in an area west of the Mississippi River. In the very first issue of Isaac Leeser's influential newspaper, The Occident, Stern suggested that if 70,000 Jews could settle a large tract of land in one of the western territories, "where Congress disposes of the land at $1.25 per acre," they would be eligible to apply for statehood. Take the Posen-born Solomon Barth, who would become known as "the Father of Apache County," on account of his purchase from the Apache and one-time exclusive ownership of a huge swath of what is now Utah and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon.

It had even been suggested that an Alaskan Jewish fur trader named Jack Goldstone, in cahoots with the San Franciscan business giant Louis Schloss—one of the chief investors who bought out the Russian American Company, which was renamed the Alaska Commercial Company—deserved credit for convincing the United States to acquire Russian America. Or, finally, Otto Mears, the developer, "founding father," "civilizer," and "path-breaker," "breaker of the Navajo resistance" of Colorado, who convinced Chief Ouray and his Ute Indians to cede millions of acres of land for commercial settlement. Mears's effort to secure Colorado lands from the Ute, despite a bribery charge for which the federal government eventually exonerated him, was understood as a valuable contribution to closing the frontier and forging the nation. (Mears was later involved in the removal of the Ute to the present site of Uinta reservation in Utah, and the establishment of a new Indian agency there.)

These large-scale cases of individual Jews owning enormous swathes of American land share something in common with the great communal efforts of the early twentiethcentury agricultural colonization schemes, which attempted to place eastern European and Russian Jews on farmlands in America's heartland (and in the Canadian prairies). The movement embraced a vision of harmony between Jewishness and Americanization as much as it did the harmony between Jew and land, though it largely failed to transform these Jews into paragons of by then outdated Jacksonian virtue or embodiments of the Yeoman farmer ideal with his Protestant thrift and manly sweat. It was not only a scheme to circumvent restrictive immigration policy and save Jewish lives; it was a deep expression of Jewish anxiety about Jewish productivity.

All of these briefly articulated exploits on American land capture something of the widely shared idea of the great majority of late nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury Jews living in the American West, namely, of the land not merely an asset, but as a redemptive force, a potential panacea to a series of uniquely modern Jewish problems. Most pressingly for relatively poor immigrant Jews, this meant the need to gain economic traction. But profit motive merged with other deep-seated desires, namely, the enfranchisement and sense of home it brought in America, a counter to stereotypes of Jewish luftmenschen by grounding them as landmenschen, as it were, and a corrective to the myth that Jewish men lacked the brawn for the physicality of working the land.

While owning land was not the driving force behind Jewish westward migrants' material ambitions—peddling, merchandizing, and exploiting the commercial opportunities that accompanied mining, homesteading, gold-rushing, and railway building dominated Western American Jews' economic activities—the sense of ownership over the idea of American land provided a flexible screen onto which Jews could project an idea of home for themselves. This Jewish desire for American western land answered some of the most elemental anxieties of modern Jewry. Being connected to the land showed Jews' muscular ruggedness, their fitness for the expansion enterprise. In wrestling the West from native people, Jews experienced the reversal of their recent experience in Europe and Russia, where they had suffered as the colonized. Western American Jews earned for themselves a sense of home among an emerging nation, the end of exile, and an almost aboriginal sense of belonging in America.