By Cady Schulman / firstname.lastname@example.org
It was 24 years ago that Lisa Simpson explained why her substitute teacher’s cowboy costume was factually incorrect. She was right until her third point, when she remarked that her teacher was Jewish.
“And, for the record, there were a few Jewish cowboys, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Bergstrom replied.
Two stereotypes about the Old West that have survived through the decades are the idea that cowboys were tough and adventurous and the belief that there weren’t many Jews. In fact, the West was where unmarried Jewish men headed in the 1800s when they couldn’t find good jobs in New York or Chicago. Because few Jewish women were out West, Jewish men tended to marry gentiles, including Native Americans.
“Several things happened because of that,” said Jim Dunham, a special projects director and historian at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville. “Because of the influence of the community or their wives, even if they kept dietary laws, they tended not to build synagogues, and they tended not to have too much of an impact publicly. They were very quietly practicing their religion.”
That’s why historians have left out Jewish men when writing about the Old West, Dunham said. “They tend to get lost in the shuffle.”
Back in the 1800s, Jewish people commonly worked in merchandising, clothing manufacturing, banking and other small businesses. Ethnic groups tended to live together far more than they do in today’s United States.
“People don’t simply go to the Polish community to live or the Jewish neighborhood to live,” Dunham said. “In the 1850s in any major U.S. city, when you gravitated from the Old World, it was because you wanted a new life. A lot of people left poverty. They left sickness. What they did, of course, was they joined relatives, and they tended to move into the neighborhood. It was a natural thing that all the people who were Irish tended to be in the same neighborhood. The Polish were in the same neighborhood.”
But plenty of Jewish men left their mark in the West, to the extent that the Western States Jewish History Association has proclaimed the period of 1849 to 1899 in the Wild West to be the third golden age of Jewish history, after the time of King Solomon and the 13th century in Muslim-ruled Spain.
“It was a time when we were free to do the best we could, using our intelligence, creativity, hard work ethic and Jewish Values,” according to the association’s online Jewish Museum of the American West. “During this period we found ourselves in a totally free, capitalistic society.”
The museum website says Jews flourished as merchants at all levels and became sheriffs, marshals, mayors, legislators and even an American Indian chief.
One of the most famous Jewish Westerners is Levi Strauss, who created denim jeans. Strauss traveled to California with canvas during the 1849 gold rush. He planned to turn the material into tents for miners, but when he arrived, he discovered that the miners didn’t need tents — they needed pants.
“Their pants were getting ripped,” Dunham said. “Back in those days, most pairs of pants were made out of wool or some kind of homespun cotton. They were down on their hands and knees, and they were ripping holes in their knees.”
So Strauss dyed his canvas indigo and turned it into trousers with reinforced knees, creating the first jeans.
“They called them Levi’s,” Dunham said. “He literally brought a whole new industry that had never existed before. It’s a great story.”
Because miners were the first to wear Levi’s pants, it took a while for the jeans to spread to cowboys, who viewed miners as beneath them, Dunham said. But around the start of the 20th century, cowboys and wranglers realized that the toughest pants they could wear were Levi’s dyed canvas pants.
“Now any time you go to a rodeo or function where there are horses, all the cowboys are wearing blue jeans,” Dunham said. “It was the inventive, creative Jewish businessman who came up with the idea first.”
There’s also a Jewish connection to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In 1877, Wyatt Earp — the Pima County, Ariz., deputy sheriff and Tombstone city deputy town marshal, best known to history for that famous shootout — married Josephine Marcus, the daughter of a Jewish baker in San Francisco. Marcus met Earp while traveling around the West as a dancer.
The Earps were married for close to 50 years, Dunham said, and Earp, despite his Methodist and Presbyterian heritage, was buried in the Jewish Hills of Eternity cemetery in Colman, Calif., where his wife’s family had a plot.
“He doesn’t come from a Jewish ethnic background, (but) if you want to see Wyatt Earp’s grave, you have to go to a Jewish cemetery outside San Francisco,” Dunham said.
An earlier Jewish pioneer was Joseph Simon, who immigrated to the United States in 1740 at the age of 28. One of the first fur trappers, Simon traded glass beads for cloth, steel knives and iron pots. He then traveled the Susquehanna River to trade those household items to Native Americans for fur.
“He was part of the first trappers and first traders that went out west and established the West,” Dunham said. “He was an interesting guy. He learned how to trade with the Indians.”
For more on Jewish people in the West, read the book “Jews of the American West,” edited by Moses Rischin and John Livingston.